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As we all try and become the best we can be, it's easy to think that technology has all the answers to working smarter rather than harder. Jessica Lacey goes in search of the golden ratio between listening to your gut, or listening to your Fitbit.
Self-optimisation is the new Peloton. A recent global survey found that even after two years of mass house arrest, we still prioritise self-improvement over travel. “Inspiration is a powerful motivator that makes people believe in themselves and the possibility of change,” explains Elizabeth Cherian, EMEA director of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence and author of the “Inspire InFocus” report. Goal-setting, habit forming and investing in one's future self have become thoroughly embedded in our aspirational landscape, and the big tech companies are right on hand to provide the metrics to track our journeys.
The newest tech launches for lifestyle tracking apps log our steps, sleep, fertility, periods, heartbeats and every breath, feeding the data back in headline stats and neat little graphs for us to pour over. But what happened to checking in with yourself and seeing how you feel? Waking up and knowing you slept deeply without requiring confirmation from Sleep Cycle or feeling elated after a good run without having Strava confirm it was a PB and notifying all your contacts? Nope, that no longer cuts it. We simply can’t get enough of evidence-based progress.
Health tracking hit the big time with the launch of the Fitbit and hitting a daily 10,000 step count. Originating from a 1965 Japanese pedometer device - The Manpo-keia, which translates to “10,000 steps meter” – this number is now the default setting in many modern fitness trackers.
“I hear people talking about ‘getting my steps in’ every day on my commute into London. It gets people moving more but just doing 10,000 steps (which translates to 5 miles in distance) isn’t enough for good cardio vascular health,” says Chris Stanton, Performance Master Trainer at Third Space London. “You need heightened intensity by quickening the walk or increasing the gradient." Do this, says Chris, and you could walk half the number of steps and get a better physical result at the end. "Also, any isolated piece of data isn’t the best thing to follow unless you look at the global picture; you need to take a 360-approach including sleep and nutrition.”
All Chris’ clients track their heart rates as a key indicator of fitness; analysing their resting beats per minute over periods of time, plus his female clients all track their monthly cycles on top of that to gain a month on month performance correlation. He attributes fitness tracking apps with making training more effective and helping fitness coaches like him form future training plans.
“Fitness tracking apps also create community, they’re definitely a positive force for good. I like MyZone that rewards your efforts and heart rate data by gamifying the process to keep you active and motivated. I’m also really into the newest wave of performance apps that are even more accurate and bespoke. They amalgamate your perspective with the hard data for a highly customised training plan.”
He’s talking about TrainerRoad – an advanced cycling app with increased adaptivity, designing your next workout based on your subjective comments and how you rated the last one. Alongside the data, it asks for your input on how ready you felt for that work out, how hard it felt and if you perceived it to be harder than the described intensity.
In the weeks leading up to a race, Chris won’t track anything though. “Pace, power - good or bad - I simply stop tracking everything before events and go purely off how my mind and body feel. It’s a tried and tested method that’s worked for me over the years and I encourage all my clients to do the same.”
Health tracking apps are now the latest way to eat too. “These apps and devices help us gain a deeper understanding of our bodies,” says Dana James, US-based Nutritionist, Functional Medicine Practitioner & Cogitative Behavioural Therapist. James is a strong advocate for the Lumen metabolism tracker which she uses to help her clients with health and weight management concerns. Only faintly reminiscent of standard issue police breathalysers, Lumen is a breath monitoring device with a CO2 sensor that detects if your body is in a fat burning state. “I like Lumen because it initiates behavioural change more than anything else. If you’re someone who finds it hard to give up chocolate late at night, this helps you see the results from what you’ve just eaten in real time rather than looking at the scales days later. It also proves that you don’t have to be on a strict carbohydrate-free diet for your body to enter a fat burning state and helps you to understand that there are other factors to burning fat other than what you eat because there’s always complexity with fat loss.”
But can’t we just feel when we’re hungry and go with that? “Absolutely not,” retorts Dana James. “The vast majority of us cannot discern between hunger and craving. We don’t eat because we are hungry, we eat because of societal, cultural, emotional reasons or simply because it’s the appropriate time in the day." This, she says, is a function of "a civilised society with the luxury of an abundance of food that we don’t have to forage for.”
This is why James encourages her clients to use Nutrisense – a continuous glucose monitor that tracks how carbohydrates impact blood sugar levels. CGM shows which carbohydrates don’t work for your body and which your body metabolises well. For some it might be rice, for others potatoes, pasta, bread or sweet potatoes. It also debunks the carbohydrate myths like bananas causing glucose spikes (they don’t) because you can see the immediate reading.
However, James admits that there’s a distinct downside to amassing so much data, “It’s real time and you can track, track, track, so if someone has an obsession with data, it might not be the right fit for them. I put clients on CGM for just one month to understand what causes their body to spike. We ask what happens with carbs, fruit, [then] we explore it all and when we know, we can move on.”
There are quirks to these nutritional metrics though - you need to leave your first reading of the day until you’ve been up and about for at least 30 minutes because it’ll read higher if you’ve just woken up. Similarly, you must do a reading before brushing your teeth as toothpaste can read as a carbohydrate, so again, will produce a higher score. You can’t grab a coffee and run out the door to the gym, you’ve got to be willing to adjust your schedule to get accurate reads.
As a practitioner, James says she finds smart metrics to be an extremely helpful tool and 70% of her clients that use them find the data helpful. But the other 30% misinterpret the data and think they’ve don’t something wrong so don’t like the tool. “There has to be a good personality match and deep understanding of the data. You work with a professional to interpret the numbers and find the logic behind them. Nutrisense also have a very strong customer service team who help you understand the data fully.”
Health tracking data is also being used as intuitive healthcare in following the progression of degenerative diseases. A study at the University of Waterloo is using remote monitoring of health-related behaviour with wearable sensor technology for people with complex health conditions. “Information from wearables can provide insight into patterns of health-related behaviour and disease symptoms as they occur over days and weeks,” explains Karen Van Ooteghem, a researcher in Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Waterloo. “Researchers can now understand feasibility in participants’ natural environments because behaviour in the lab or clinic may not reflect what occurs in day-to-day living.”
Wearable technology is also now being linked to your health and life insurance policies. Insurance companies are keen to hop aboard the metrics trend and be part of a conglomerative healthy lifestyle journey, rather than just a ‘worst case scenario’ final destination.
Officially termed as ‘evidence-based risk determination’, wearable sensors that show stress levels, physical activity and heartrate offer up metrics to decipher mortality risk profiles of individuals and key health outcomes. Healthy lifestyles are rewarded and unhealthy behaviour like lack of exercise that could lead to obesity and diabetes, financially discouraged. Wearable devices can create more insightful profiles for policy holders and individuals who previously may have not been eligible for cover, are able to prove their viability through their attractive metrics.
Sceptics raise some very valid privacy concerns and of course, what if you lose your watch or it breaks for a time? Or you get injured? Or you’re short-term spiralling from a bad breakup? Will your life insurance policy become void from too much sofa time? Best check the small print.
Most wearable technology is worn on the wrist in watch form but jewellery, glasses, clothing, shoes and implanted devices are also launching.
The new Oura Ring Generation 3 is an ultra-sleek, unisex, titanium ring available in gold, silver or black that offers 24/7 heartrate monitoring, highly accurate sleep tracking and temperature sensors to detect female monthly cycles and any potential sickness developments.
Joule earring backings can be worn with your favourite studs to turn them into smart trackers. Likewise, the Bellabeat Ivy is designed for women who don’t want a super computer strapped to them, throwing off their well-selected clothing ensemble. A delicate rose gold bracelet with the appearance of a semi-precious stone, it’s screenless, incognito and hard to believe it has any capability whatsoever. Link it up with your smart device, however, and you'll realise it’s secretly been reading your heartrate, respiratory rate, activity levels, monthly cycle and even offers up a mindfulness score.
The danger here is that the data becomes king and, in the process of trying to climb the stats, we lose all sight of our original goal. “These tools should be used not to dictate how you’re living but to offer direction and help you better understand yourself,” adds Dana James.
This is why many sleep psychologists urge caution with sleep tracking apps because it’s an area much harder to control and is often linked to deep-rooted issues. Popular sleep apps like SleepScore encourage you to set goals for sleep, then grade you on your sleep quality so you can improve, only that may be out of your control. Analysing your sleep night after night can in fact perpetuate the obsession with sleep, so in trying to achieve a perfect sleep score, we may end up failing to sleep well at all. There are plenty of better ways to get a good night’s sleep.
There are also times to ignore the training apps, nudging you to lace up your trainers once again. “However great the fitness apps are, the body always wins,” insists Stanton. “That body-mind connection is paramount and if how you feel is at odds with the data, then the ancient intelligence of the body beats data every time.”
However hard the facts are, it’s up to us to own our experiences and remember our autonomy. We still get to define what betterment means to us and it might not be something that fits on a tiny screen.
Whether you're a fan or not of tracking health metrics, the LYMA Supplement is a great way of seeing if you can boost your readiness and scores with minimal effort. Set yourself up with a subscription here.