Beyond just using Fitbit – here’s how to get more out of the activity tracker

Ernesto Ramirez at the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam 2015 (photo: Magnus Nilsson)

So you’ve got yourself an activity tracker, just to try it out. It shows you numbers and stacks, but what can you learn – over time? Ernesto Ramirez has tips and tricks for using Fitbit in any way possible.

Ernesto Ramirez is one of the people behind the Quantified Self movement and he is a researcher by hearth and profession. He’s been using the tracking device Fitbit since 2011. Under the topic of “having fun with your Fitbit” he gave the participants at the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam some interesting tips on how to improve your Fitbit experience.

Why is this interesting? Fitbit is one of the commonly most known devices for tracking health and activity, and my guess is that a lot of users – like myself – acknowledges that Fitbit tracks a lot of figures in a seemingly accurate way, but don’t know what to make out of that data. Apart from looking at it.

After all, the amount of steps taken in a day is a somewhat limiting figure.

Making sense of Fitbit data

If you want to make more sense (or just more) out of your Fitbit device you have several options, depending on how keen, advanced or obsessed you are.

These are some of the options that Ernesto Ramirez mentioned:

  1. Export data. Fitbit introduced free export as late as this year. It allows a 30-day export, i.e. you can export your data from this day and a month back in time. Why can’t you download all your own data? Your guess is as good as mine. (And if you want to, you can use a service called Fitbit Data Export.)
  2. Using the IFTTT service. If This Then That is an online service that imitates how computer programming works, in everyday words (like “If i post on Twitter publish it as an update on Facebook”.) A good source for IFTTT usage with Fitbit is ifttt.com/fitbit.

So, what is interesting to measure with Fitbit?

You decide what is interesting to measure. But knowing what is interesting to you can sometimes be challenging. Simply because you don’t know what to ask for. The IFTTT service is perfect for exploring the oportunities, and finding out what suits you.

There are already IFTTT receips to…

  • Turn on the lights when you wake up.
  • Export your sleep data to a Google spreadsheet
  • Receive a weekly summary of your activities in your inbox
  • If you weigh yourself with your Withings scale, you can update your weight on Fitbit as well

Ernesto’s own favourite recipe is “get an insulting phone call if your daily step goal is not achieved by 10:30 pm”. But you can easily adjust IFTTT recipes to your own needs.

Have a look at the recipes available, and decide if there’s something in there for you – or if you can come up with other combinations that’s more suitable for you.

If you’re in any way comfortable with handling a bit of code yourself, the best way to access your Fitbit data is by using their API at dev.fitbit.com. It’s free and you can get minute-by-minute data into… yeah, whatever you want to do with your data.

Visualization of Fitbit data

If you want to get something interesting out of your tracking, you need to visualize what you track. That is the key to understanding data. Here’s some tools that you can use:

Using Fitbit with other apps

There are a number of reasons why you want to use Fitbit with other apps. Fitbit is a great way to collect data, but you might have specific needs or a wish to combine Fitbit measurement with your favourite tracking app. For instance, can you use Fitbit with Apple’s Health Kit? Ernesto Ramirez says that Fitbit “don’t want to play nice with Apple”, so this option isn’t available at the moment. However, there are multiple apps that provide sync services for as little as $0.99 to $2.99.

The best way to dig deeper into Fitbit and all its possibilities is to keep an eye on the Reddit page on Fitbit.

Using Fitbit in research

If you want to use Fitbit in research, there’s a handy tool called Fitabase that lets you invite participants to sign up and track their data with Fitbit, without the hassle of dealing with data collecting and privacy issue. Fitabase uses the Fitbit API and your participants log on to their Fitbit account, so neither you or Fitabase have access to people’s private information.

This option is only available to researchers.

You can even stream data from Fitbit, but Ernesto thinks that you might need to apply for a permit to get access to this option.

So, now what with using Fitbit?

Naturally, there’s more to Fitbit and what you can do with Fitbit data outside the Fitbit environment, but this can perhaps be a starting point. Please comment this post if you have any suggestions or experiences.

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