The Future of Activity Tracking: Interview with MapMyFitness

May 29, 2013

11:00 am

To better understand their audience, exercise platform MapMyFitness recently did some intensive research on their 15 million users. It amounted to a massive 12 terabytes of data on steps, calories, distance, and mileage dating back six years.

That data allowed MapMyFitness to visualize exercise across men and women’s lifetimes. Their demographics are half male and half female, with 50 percent of people overweight. About 80 percent of those users come from the United States, with most of the rest from Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

The average runner hits the pavement for a little over three miles each time. Under age 24, about 70 percent of runners are women; but the proportion of men increases with age up to 57 percent of people 55+. On average, men of every age group run longer and faster than women. The furthest runners (in terms of median distance) are actually 45 to 54 years old.

But this is just the beginning. In fact, MapMyFitness thinks data – and extracting insights from it – holds the key to the future of health tracking. Eventually, health apps might be able to say: “Do a run this morning and you’ll sleep better tonight,” or “Yoga at 3 pm will curb your afternoon craving.” MapMyFitness wants to be the universal platform that all your fitness data flows into – from devices like the Jawbone UP or Fitbit – and that health-improving insights flow out of.

Below, Tech Cocktail caught up with cofounders Kevin Callahan and Robin Thurston to learn more about the trend of fitness tracking.

Tech Cocktail: How does tracking change people’s fitness behavior? 

Kevin Callahan: That’s the question, right?

We know that people who are friends with other people who are active and fit are more likely to be active and fit. We know that people that have a point of measurement and a point of comparison will try to be more active and fit. The question is the long-term game and the long-term behavior change. We really believe if we make the experience frictionless, if we make the experience fun, people are more likely to engage and engage over a longer term.

You look at the New Year’s phenomenon, where people get all excited – they join a gym – and we see a burst of activity for the first two weeks of January. Then we see the activity trail off for the third and fourth week. . .

Robin Thurston: A lot of it is tied to life events. You see people who come onto the platform who might be getting married or they’re taking a vacation or they have a specific event or goal that they’re aiming towards. I think what will come in the future is, as more data’s in the system, platforms like ours will be able to figure out ways to motivate those people to stay on beyond when their goal was and maybe set new goals for them and help them achieve new levels of fitness through visual triggers (in terms of push notifications on the phone), and email triggers. There’s a lot of case studies where, if developed in the right way, those types of triggers can have a really big impact on people’s success rate in keeping their fitness going, and I think that’s really where the data is leading.

The first evolution in the process has to do with getting the data. There are more devices in the marketplace, platforms like ours springing up that are actually storing the data and have tremendous amounts of data. But the next wave is going to be to start to use that data to shape and be prescriptive for individuals.

The next layer is we’re going to start literally saying, “Hey, great job over the last week, Kira. Here are the workouts that you did. Here is something that you could do that will help you progress in that fitness, and here’s where you could do it in terms of the route or the gym.” There’s definitely a big data wave coming.

Callahan: For example, I’m one of the individuals in the system with about six years+ of data, and the last four years I’ve been using the Withings scale. I did a personal experiment on myself where, looking at four years of data, I could see that the holiday hump between Thanksgiving and February was a pretty wild swing for myself. So about two years ago, I resolved to run a half marathon every month starting in October.

Tech Cocktail: Where is the tracking trend headed?

Thurston: I think there’s going to be a lot more interesting devices that measure all kinds of things – stress, anxiety, all kinds of biometric heat – that are going to help people better understand what’s happening from a bio-mechanical perspective (whether it’s your stride and gait for running or your stress level at meetings). I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of data that helps from a research perspective and helps people guide their daily lives.

I think there’s going to be a ton on the medical side related to things like blood values and chemical imbalances. Obviously there’s big trends going on right now around GMO and understanding chemicals in foods. I think there’s going to be sensors and internal sensors for how much you’re ingesting to help us better understand how those things are impacting our physical day-to-day lives.

I think a lot of benchmarking is going to happen – what’s happening in age groups and how you’re doing relative to that.

Callahan: As the phone batteries become better, as the sensors on the phones become better, as the device ecosystem around the phones becomes better (whether it’s Google Glass or whether it’s a Pebble or MetaWatch) – these sensors are going to be always on and always recording. And so it really will be a data deluge. The companies . . . that excel at telling the stories behind the data are the companies that are going to succeed.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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