Does Tracking Our Fitness Habits Actually Save Us Any Time?

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There are now more ways to track how you move, how much you move and what's happening when you're moving than ever before. From a watch, you can monitor your heart rate while you jog a 5-mile loop charted by your GPS and know exactly how many calories you've burned by the end of it. 

In 2015, there are over 1,000 exercise apps available for smartphones, according to a study published in the Journal of Internet Research. One in 10 Americans over the age of 18 had a fitness activity tracker as of September 2013, according to a survey conducted by Endeavor Partners

While apps and wearables have the potential to provide us with more information, being healthy and active still requires time. Apps won't help you work out less or make you magically 20 pounds lighter in two weeks, but they can provide a system that creates incentives and a structure to make you more aware of how much you're working out and what that means for your body. 

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What makes you move: One of the benefits of using a fitness wearable or app is its ability to motivate. When it comes to exercise, motivation is half the battle, and, for many, having the physical reminder of wearing a fitness tracker or logging information in an app helps get them up and moving. 

"There seems to be a psychological aspect where if you buy this object and put it on your skin every day, and then use an app in conjunction with it, all of those actions are kind of focusing in nature," editor-in-chief of ReadWrite and avid fitness app user Owen Thomas told Mic. "They focus your attention on your health." 

Thomas has tried over 30 or 40 fitness apps since he started using MyFitnessPal, before he got his first smartphone. He now uses a combination of six regularly, but he writes about technology, so it comes with the territory. For Thomas, the apps serve as data collectors, reminders and motivators. 

"Anything you do that focuses your attention on fitness and reminds you to work out is going to help you," Thomas said. "If a fitness app does it, then I really encourage you to use that." 

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that using fitness apps had the potential to "increase physical activity by influencing variables such as self-efficacy." Apps can create that outside impetus for people by serving as a tangible reminder, like they do for Thomas. 

"Exercise apps can be a vehicle for behavior change in exercise the same way that a nicotine patch can be a vehicle for behavior change in smoking," study co-author and Lander College assistant professor of psychology Leib Litman told Mic recently.

Changing your behavior is the much harder, time-intensive step. Using apps to create personal goals or set reminders for yourself can help you manage the time you do spend exercising. 

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Finding the time: The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get 150 minutes of aerobic activity at moderate intensity every week to stay healthy. However you fit in that 150 minutes is up to you. Fitness apps won't carve out the time for you, but they can help you use small windows of time to move your body instead of checking Facebook again.

If you don't have time to fit in a 30-minute or hour workout, apps like the Johnson and Johnson 7-minute workout, Sworkit or Hot5 Fitness make it easier to get in a few minutes of activity no matter how packed your schedule seems. Start by setting your alarm 10 minutes earlier and doing a quick set from one of these before getting ready for your day.

Aside from fitting in small workouts here and there, apps like Human help you find and track the movement that's already part of your day. The goal of the app is to get its users to move 30 minutes every day through any activity, whether it's walking your dog, cleaning your house or going to the gym. It connects to both smartphones and smartwatches. 

If you want to do a longer workout, but you don't have time to get to the gym, there are a number of apps that can stand in by providing full routines without the equipment. You can create your own solo yoga class at home with Yoga Studio or Yoga-pedia. Nike Training Club lets runners choose from a number of workouts that are led by an instructor. 

Whether it's fitting in shorter workouts with apps that provide them or substituting a gym instructor or personal trainer-designed routine with an app, both of these methods can help fit exercise into a busy or seemingly inflexible day. 

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Tracking the data: Outside of providing people with physical workouts, fitness apps and wearables have the ability to collect tons of information, from calorie intake to heart rate levels and sleeping patterns. 

If you've set a specific weight-loss or workouts-per-week goal, apps like MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness let you work toward that by setting up a day-by-day schedule to meet it. Since most people are using apps from a smartphone or smartwatch, you can log what you're eating and what exercise you did without much inconvenience. The nutritionist-recommended food diary, in which you write down everything you eat, look up the calorie count and calculate what else you can eat, can be eliminated with these apps. Thomas used MyFitnessPal when a nutritionist recommended he keep a food diary. 

"This I can actually do in a few seconds while I'm waiting for the bus, and I can plan out 'Oh, OK, with the calories I have left this is what I can eat for dinner,'" Thomas said. "That's a major improvement versus the diary that I'm not going to use."

Apps like MapMyRun, Nike+ and Strava can keep track of fitness goals, from wanting to run a 5k to planning for a 100-mile bike race. If you are able to see how far you're going, at what pace and for how long, you can plan future workouts to keep pushing yourself. 

Tracking workouts might help users plan out longer fitness goals or integrate calorie counts into your everyday eating habits, but all of this information is only as useful as the user of the app makes it. Thomas has been tracking his workouts for years. Even though he doesn't do much with the data from day to day, he can't stop himself from tracking the numbers. 

"I've often thought about cutting some of [the apps] out, but I think I have data fomo," Thomas said. "It's like, 'Well, what if one day an app comes along and I can export all of this data into it, and it can tell me something useful?' I think that keeps me going."