Why it sucks when fitness apps don’t share your workout data with Apple


Who owns your workout data?
Who owns your workout data?
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

The workout data I log with my Apple Watch belongs to me. It‘s not Apple’s — nor is it Nike’s, Strava’s or anyone else’s, for that matter. It is mine. I paid for it with my own blood, sweat and tears. (OK, it’s mostly sweat, but there were some tears along the way, too.) Over the years, I’ve logged more than 18,000 miles of running data and it is something I’m pretty proud of.

So it really bugs me when mega-corporations try to corral my activity data into their fancy walled gardens, like they think they own it. Apple used to be just as guilty of this as all the other workout rustlers. But the folks in Cupertino did a major pivot in iOS 11. They decided to actually put users in control of our workout data. Apple made it easy for apps to share workout route maps with each other via HealthKit.

The trouble is, none of the major fitness apps are playing ball, and that sucks. Luckily, some indie devs are doing the right thing.

Apple’s HealthKit was designed for sharing workouts

To understand what’s going on, and why it sucks so much, let’s start with a brief history lesson.

In 2014, Apple introduced the Health app with the launch of iOS 8. This provided a convenient single location for storing all your health data, including workouts. It was made possible by HealthKit, an API that lets third-party developers save and access health data.

The following year, with the launch of watchOS 2, Apple enabled third-party Apple Watch apps to save workouts to the Activity app, so they counted toward your Exercise ring. This was also handled behind the scenes by HealthKit.

This meant that when you logged a run using a third-party watch app like Nike+ Run Club, it would also show up in the Activity app and the Health app on your iPhone.

But Cupertino wouldn’t share the most important workout data

So far, so good. But there was one glaring omission. When you log a running, cycling or outdoor swimming workout, one of the most important things you want to log is the GPS route map, so you can see exactly where you went.

The first Apple Watch to offer GPS was the Series 2 in 2016. To accompany its launch, Cupertino introduced the ability to view workout routes in the iOS 10 Activity app.

But these precious maps were not saved to the Health app, so the data was never accessible to third-party developers. Apple coveted our GPS route maps, keeping them locked up in the Activity app, like Gollum with his ring.

Apple added route maps to the Activity app in iOS 10
Apple added route maps to the Activity app in iOS 10.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why workout data sharing matters

This data belongs to us users, not to the mega-corps whose apps we happen to use to harvest it. But there is more than just a point of principle at stake here. There is also a very practical concern, as Pebble owners this week will know all too well. If we put all our workout eggs in one basket, there is always the risk that companies holding our data will go bust, or simply decide to discontinue the service, taking all our hard-earned data with them.

Even supposing our data is safe in Apple’s hands (Cupertino seems unlikely to pull a Pebble anytime soon), I still want to be able to export my data so I can view it with tools that Cupertino can’t or won’t provide. For example, when I view a workout in Strava, I can view an awesome chart showing pace, elevation and heart rate. When I swipe along that chart, I can see the corresponding location on the map. None of that is possible using the Activity app.

Viewing a workout on Strava gives me way more insights than I get from Apple
Viewing a workout on Strava gives me way more insights than I get from Apple.

iOS 11 seemed like the answer to my prayers

Finally, in iOS 11, Apple added support for sharing workout routes with third-party developers via HealthKit. This meant that your workout maps were displayed in the Health app as well as the Activity app. Theoretically, you could use any watch app you like to log your workout. Then you could use a completely different app to view your workouts on your iPhone.

So, for example, while the Strava app is excellent for analyzing workout data, I think the company’s Apple Watch app is quirky and weird, and I hate using it. But thanks to iOS 11, I should be able to use Apple’s excellent built-in Workout app to log my run, and than view the map in Strava afterward. Theoretically.

… but things didn’t work out

The trouble is, in practice that is not the case. Hardly any third-party developers have added support for this feature, even though Apple announced it seven months ago at WWDC 2017.

I find it astonishing that Nike+ Run Club, which is developed in partnership with Apple and preinstalled in the joint-branded Nike+ Apple Watch, still does not share its workout routes with Apple. This creates an oddly disconnected user experience, especially for Apple, which prides itself on delivering seamlessly integrated solutions.

Ironically, Nike’s biggest rival, Adidas, is one of the few developers so far to actually implement HealthKit’s workout route-sharing feature in its app, Runtastic. Strava promises it is “working on this in early 2018,” but there is no sign of the feature yet.

Saving route maps to HealthKit is only half the battle. Third-party fitness apps also should give their users the option to read workouts from HealthKit. However, none of the running apps I have tested currently do this. Not even Runtastic. So, although Apple no longer hogs all our data, it remains impossible to find a new home for it.

Apple added support for GPS workout routes to the Health app in iOS 11
Apple added support for GPS workout routes to the Health app in iOS 11.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why are third-party developers not playing ball?

So what’s up? Why are third-party developers being such laggards when it comes to implementing HealthKit workout sharing?

It could simply be that it’s taking them a while to do it because it’s pretty tricky. As an app developer, I know HealthKit proves very finicky about how you write data to it. Plus, syncing data in this way creates the risk of duplicates. And dupes can be fiendishly hard to manage in a good way.

I’d love to believe that this is the reason. It’s just taking them time, but as we speak developers are toiling away, preparing to usher in a new golden age of workout sharing. But I don’t believe it. HealthKit can be tricky, but it is not that tricky. Not seven-months-to-implement tricky.

Another explanation might be security. Workout routes are highly sensitive information, as the media storm over Strava’s heat maps highlighting military bases last week demonstrated. But in reality, anonymized heat maps like Strava’s are nothing new. Nike+ has offered one for years. Plus, Apple designed HealthKit from the ground-up with user privacy in mind, putting you in complete control of which apps can see what. And if you are concerned about your route data being used in the Strava heatmap, you can opt-out on the Strava website. Go to Settings > Privacy > Strava Metro & Heatmap and make sure the box there is unchecked.

I think the real reason that third-party apps are still not sharing our workout data is simply because they don’t want to. They want to lock us into their own platforms by hoarding our data, and they see no reason why they should invest in implementing a feature that will make it easier for us to switch to a competitor.

Indie app developers to the rescue

While the big names appear to be facing off against Apple in a battle to control our workout data, the good news is that smaller indie app developers are swooping in to fill the vacuum — and providing some excellent solutions.

One that I’ve been particularly impressed by is HealthFit by Stéphane Lizeray. Think of it like a couples counselor for fitness apps, getting the warring parties around the table to work out their differences.

The idea behind the app is simple. When you launch the app, it asks you to grant it permission to access your workout data in HealthKit. Then is shows all your workouts in a feed view that is so clear and well-presented, in my view it looks better than Apple’s own Health and Activity apps. Then you have the option to export this data, including GPS route maps into other formats. There is an automatic integration with Strava (which is especially handy while Strava is still getting its act together), and you can download each workout as a FIT file. This format was originally developed by Garmin, and is supported by most of the major fitness websites, including MapMyRun and Runkeeper.

HealthFit is like a couples counsellor for fitness apps
HealthFit is like a couples counselor for fitness apps.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

It’s time for big fitness apps to catch up

Indie apps like HealthFit provide a great workaround to the problem, but what I would really like to see is the big boys getting their acts together on this, so workout sharing becomes easier and more seamless.

Companies like Nike invest a fortune in polishing their brands, so we will buy their apparel. The whole purpose of offering services like Nike+ Run Club is surely to build a relationship with the consumer that increases brand loyalty.

That’s why I think it is in brands’ best interest to play nice with our data. If they want us to love them, they should treat us with respect. And that means recognizing that we own our workout data, and we should be free to do whatever we like with it. And that includes exporting it via HealthKit if we choose.