At a time when wearable health trackers are gathering mind-boggling amounts of data about our daily habits, perhaps no health and fitness startup is sitting on a larger pile of data than MyFitnessPal, which has over 50 million users who meticulously track their exercise, calories, water intake, and other health statistics. Now MyFitnessPal is growing its data engineering and analytics teams so that it can actually do something with all that information—starting with a report, released today, that examines the social habits of users.
"We've ended up creating the largest longitudinal study of health behavior that’s ever existed," says co-founder Mike Lee. "The goal is to understand how people view health and fitness in the context of social interactions, their attitudes towards sharing, why they want to share or not share, and how that impacts success in weight loss."
For the study, MyFitnessPal drew on anonymous data from its user base, as well as a more in-depth survey of 2,220 users. The data reveals something that shouldn't be too surprising to anyone who has tried to lose weight: It's easier with friends. Some 33% of respondents said they would order a salad at a restaurant if a friend did too, and the majority of people surveyed said they prefer to work out with others (65% said it's more fun, 50% said they work out harder, 55% said that they're more likely to exercise in the first place if a friend joins in).
Overall, members of "Fitness Tribes"—that is, groups of two or more people working together on fitness goals—burned over 17 billion calories in the first quarter of 2014. That's five times more than MyFitnessPal members working out by themselves.
Lee says that MyFitnessPal would never sell its user data, but that the company is open to collaborations with researchers. "We do think there’s a lot of public good that could be derived from this data that we’re interested in exploring," he says. While MyFitnessPal doesn't have any immediate plans to put out more data-derived reports, they are coming eventually. Lee speculates that the company could look at things like whether eating breakfast makes a difference, or whether low-carb diets are more or less effective than high-carb diets. One day, when MyFitnessPal has enough data, he imagines being able to study even more complex topics, like whether nutrition and changes in diet can indicate the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis down the road.
In addition to grabbing data from wearables, MyFitnessPal is also launching a new feature for iPhone 5s users called Steps, which is exactly what it sounds like—a step-tracker built into the MyFitnessPal app. "Steps are becoming one of the core metrics behind your health. We view steps as a gateway drug to self-tracking," says Lee. Plus, he adds, the company can use step counting as "part of the dataset to learn, to understand what makes people more or less likely to be physically active."
MyFitnessPal doesn't take any personally identifiable data from users, Lee says, but he's not ruling out the possibility that in the future, users could opt into studies that might require more personal data.