How to turn your iPhone’s Health app into an essential fitness dashboard

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A dashboard for your body: all your key stats at a glance.
The Health app can become a dashboard for your body, offering all your key stats at a glance.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Despite its heart-shaped icon, Health is an unloved app. It tends to gets relegated to a junk folder, along with other un-deletable Apple cruft, like the Stocks app.

But when you get past its garish colors and clunky user interface, Apple’s Health app turns out to be genuinely useful — if you customize the dashboard to match your personal fitness goals.

A dashboard for your body

When you are driving a car, the dashboard tells you everything you need to know: You are going too fast and you’re almost out of gas, for instance. Imagine if your body came equipped with a similar dashboard. What would it tell you?

A dashboard for your body could shed light on how your diet and workout program are going, so you could see if you’re on track for a ripped beach-bod this summer, and swiftly make the necessary corrections if you’re not. And that’s exactly what the Health app does.

Finding the fitness data that really counts for you

The Health app is packed with hundreds of different kinds of data, some more interesting than others. “Peripheral Perfusion Index” or “Peak Expiratory Flow Rate” are not something most of us would brag about around the water cooler. But there are other stats, like body weight, that are all too familiar.

For most of us, only five or six stats really matter. But what they are depends upon our individual fitness goals. That’s why Apple lets you customize your Health app dashboard, by choosing which data types are most relevant to you.

The dashboard is the first thing you see when you launch the Health app. It is filled with brightly colored charts — Apple picks some default ones to get you started. Tapping on a chart reveals the “Show on Dashboard” switch, which lets you remove it. Tapping and holding charts on the dashboard allows you to reorder them.

Delving into the Health Data tab reveals the entire database of health and fitness stats, so you can add different charts to your dashboard.

Customizing your dashboard

Your dashboard should be personalized to focus on your individuals goals, so it provides a constant reminder of what you are aiming for and how well you are doing. So what stats should you choose?

Let’s take a look at three different dashboards tailored to common fitness goals — losing weight, building muscle and marathon training — and what data should be on each of them.

Weight-loss dashboard

  • Weight: Obviously you want this.
  • Body Fat Percentage: This is difficult to measure accurately, but devices like the Withings Smart Body Analyzer can at least provide a reliable indication of whether the trend is up or down.
  • Dietary Calories: If you log what you eat using MyFitnessPal, your calories will be added to the Health App at the end of each day when you complete your entry.
  • Active Energy: The calories you burn during the day, logged when you have your iPhone in your pocket, or when you wear your Apple Watch.

In an ideal world, you’d be able to deduct your Active Energy calories from your Dietary Calories to find out if you are in calorie deficit (which you want to be for losing weight). In practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that: Calorie measurement is an imprecise science, and energy consumption and efficiency varies from one individual to another.

But viewed in combination, these four stats will provide a good guide to how your diet is going over time.

What’s missing: Using a tape measure to measure your waist and hips is an important and simple way to monitor your weight-loss progress.

Muscle-gain dashboard

  • Weight: (You’ll be wanting to see this increase this time.)
  • Lean Body Mass: This is calculated by deducting your body fat percentage from your total body weight. Providing you are not getting fatter, this should be going up too.
  • Protein, Fat & Carbohydrate: Most bodybuilding diets focus on getting the right balance of macronutrients, or “macros.” Protein is involved in building muscle, but all three are essential.
  • Workouts: This shows the duration and frequency of your workouts. Most bodybuilding programs involve between three and five one-hour sessions per week.

What’s missing: Currently, the Health app focuses on cardio rather than strength-training workouts. I’d like to see Apple adding a database of all the major weight-resistance machines and lifting moves. In the meantime, you can use third-party apps for this, such as (coughs) my app, Reps & Sets.

It is worth taking regular measurements of your chest, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, waist, hips, thighs and calves, although frustratingly, these are also not supported by the Health app at present.

Marathon-training dashboard

  • Workouts: Most marathon-training programs involve around six workouts a week, of varying duration. This chart gives a good visual indication of whether you are on track.
  • Walking + Running Distance: An experienced marathon runner will be looking to cover between 50 and 100 kilometers per week.
  • Active Energy & Dietary Calories: All that training uses a lot of energy. Runners need to make sure they eat a sufficient amount to maintain their training.
  • Heart Rate: On interval-training days, you can expect to see a higher heart rate, while it should be lower on slow, long-distance runs. Overall, the trend should be slightly downward as your heart adapts to your training and becomes more efficient.

What’s missing: Not much. Apple loves runners! It would be great if the Health app also provided a central repository for storing the GPS route map data from runs, but then, we can’t have everything.

A marathon runner's dashboard
A marathon runner’s dashboard in the Health app.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

What you measure is what you get

Dashboards can have a powerful psychological effect over time. We tend to focus on the things we measure regularly. So be sure to include stats that measure what you want to do more of, like workouts, not just things you want to cut down on, like calories and weight.

Sorting the real data from the surrogates

In statistics, a surrogate is something that is easier to measure than what you actually want to know, so you use it as a substitute for the actual data. Surrogates can be useful as a guide, but they must always be handled with care.

Take weight, for example. When most people say they want to “lose weight,” what they actually mean is they want to reduce their body fat. You could lose weight by losing muscle mass, but that would probably make you look and feel worse, not better. Weight is often used as a surrogate for body fat.

Wherever possible, you want to show on your dashboard the actual data you are interested in. Not just the surrogates.

Automatic logging produces better data

The quality of information you get out of the Health app is only as good as what you put in.

Apple’s HealthKit framework, (used by developers to feed fitness data into the Health app), makes a distinction between manually entered data versus data that has been measured using devices. And you should too.

Manually entered data is notoriously unreliable. For example, if you are logging the food you eat using MyFitnessPal, chances are good that you have missed logging the odd snack because it didn’t have a barcode you could scan and it was too much hassle to estimate and enter.

By contrast, when you have a device that automatically records data, it tends to be more reliable. Before I got a Withings bathroom scale, I rarely got around to logging my weight. Now that my scale logs it automatically, the quality of data in the Health app is much better.

Heart rate is another good example. Whenever I manually take my pulse, it increases — I guess I get stage fright. Now, thanks to my Apple Watch, my heart rate is regularly taken in the background without my knowledge, producing much lower and more representative heart-rate measurements.

So, when you are planning your body dashboard, it is worth investing in the right kit.

Is it time you gave your Health app a checkup?

The Health app is not perfect. There is still plenty that could be done to improve it. Personally, I’d like to see Apple create a Notification Center widget for it.

But even with its limitations and ugly color scheme, Health is still a flexible app that deserves more credit and attention than it gets. If you have hidden it in the junk folder on your iPhone, perhaps it’s time you dusted it off and took another look.

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  • xxFoxtail

    Maybe I’m just missing something here, but in not seeing Dietary Calories anywhere in the Health app.

    Edit: Looks like it’s called Dietary Energy

    • http://www.grahambower.com Graham Bower

      Good point. I think this depends on which version of iOS you are using. Apple sometimes changes the name of these things. Like Active Calories became Active Energy in iOS 9, (which can be measured in joules as well as Calories). I’m seeing Dietary Calories in iOS 9.2.

      • xxFoxtail

        Oh yeah, I’m on 9.3 right now so that probably explains it.