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MyFitnessPal Takes Its Next Step

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

Here comes the Stepocalypse.

The digital-fitness world is currently obsessed with step-counting devices like the Jawbone Up and Fitbit, and similar apps like Human and Moves. But what if counting our daily steps is a feature, not a product?

See also: MyFitnessPal Keeps Flexing Its API Muscles

That’s the bet that MyFitnessPal is making. The company, best known for its namesake food and exercise diary, is building step tracking into its core MyFitnessPal app. For now, it will work with Apple’s iPhone 5S, which has a built-in motion-tracking chip. Late-model Android phones will get the feature soon, says MyFitnessPal CEO Mike Lee, using Google’s built-in step-tracking subroutines. And MyFitnessPal will also suck in step data from wearable devices and other apps through its popular application-programming interface.

Taking The Next Step

MyFitnessPal is now tracking steps as well as calories.

I’ve been warning the industry for a while that step-tracking will not be a standalone business for much longer, and that wearable devices and apps solely focused on measuring simple movement will need to evolve. MyFitnessPal, with its more than 50 million users, is positioned to scoop up most of those users focused on simple forms of exercise. 

“Steps is like a gateway drug to self-tracking,” Lee told me. “That’s one of the values it provides to our users.”

And from there, MyFitnessPal may be able to capture more and more data about their fitness activities over time. While taking 10,000 steps a day is far better than taking zero steps, it’s not likely to make a major contribution to weight loss, which typically requires a combination of intense exercise and attention to diet.

 “What does cause that transition from walking to being really active?” Lee asks, admitting that he doesn’t know yet. Lee hopes his users’ activity patterns will reveal insights. “That’s why we’re excited about all the data we have.”

MyFitness … Friends?

MyFitnessPal also recently undertook a survey of 2,220 users to assess how they involved friends and others in their fitness efforts, and produced a study about these “Fitness Tribes.” In one of our earliest conversations about MyFitnessPal three years ago, Lee noted how users who add friends on the service lose more weight than those who diet alone. The new study confirmed that finding—and also pointed to another direction MyFitnessPal could take.

The app’s social features are “bare-bones” today, Lee said—a simple ability to follow other people and track their activity in a Facebook-like feed. A majority of users surveyed by MyFitnessPal said they preferred not to exercise alone. But it’s not easy today to find an exercise partner on MyFitnessPal.

That’s a common flaw to fitness apps, which tend to focus on scanning your Facebook friends list and contacts for other people who have the same app, but do a poor job of matchmaking based on the data they have about your exercise habits. MyFitnessPal, with its connections to a variety of exercise apps like RunKeeper and FitStar, seems like it could be our gym yenta. (Lee might consider adding gym check-ins from Foursquare or Pact to better understand not just where we go to work out, but when.)

The risk MyFitnessPal faces in adding more features is complicating its app, which I’ve long found remarkable for its speed and simplicity. It might consider the multi-app strategy that MapMyFitness and Runtastic have pursued, identifying specific functions it can break out, while tying back to the same big data store it’s accumulated. There are a lot of directions MyFitnessPal can go in—and we plan to track its moves closely.

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