You don’t need to have a degree in medical science to track many parameters that affect your personal well-being and use that information for your betterment. A variety of devices are available to consumers for monitoring, uploading, tracking, analyzing, and reporting parameters that can affect you. Measure and track yourself to achieve a number of fitness and wellness objectives.
Please seek help from a doctor or other health professional for medical advice. The information presented here and elsewhere on this website is based on the author’s research and personal experience and is not intended to be used to diagnose or treat any disease, illness or medical condition.
To track anything, the one common essential is a record of the data in a form convenient for analysis. Unless you have a whole lot of time for crunching numbers and drawing graphs, you’ll want the record to be on a computer, either your own or a Web server, and you’ll want software to be available to do the crunching and the drawing.
But for now, let’s just look at those parameters that are most accessible for self-tracking. We’ll mention where tracking can be automatic, but will address tools for gathering and analyzing data in a later post.
Track Body and Mind
Body and mind measurements take a snapshot at a particular point in time to ask the question, “How are you doing now?” Some values, such as heart rate, can change moment-to-moment, while others vary more slowly through the day. For most of these, devices are available that can automatically upload data to a Web server for easy tracking.
Weight and Body Fat
Though you can measure body mass (weight) with a common bathroom scale, quantifiers prefer one capable of automatically uploading the data to an online database for tracking. Scales from Withings and Fitbit are popular.
Some scales, including those just mentioned, combine body fat measurement along with weight. They pass a small current through your body from one bare foot to the other to get a measure of your body’s electrical resistance (you might see the technical term “impedance”), then use that value to determine the percentage of your total body weight that is fat. This inexpensive body impedance analysis provides a more accurate tracking of body fat than does body mass index (BMI), which is simply a ratio of weight to height. (Drink a glass of water: your body fat percentage goes down while BMI goes up!)
Check your pulse, count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply by two to get your heart rate. You don’t need anything more than a watch with a second hand (or second digits) to determine your heart rate. But heart rate varies with activity, health and stress, and it isn’t often convenient to stop, take a measurement, pull out your smartphone and enter the number in your online database. Strapped around the chest and wirelessly linked to a watch or smartphone for data upload, products from Garmin, Polar and others will do that for you.
But your heart beat holds more data than rate. Like all clocks, your heart jitters; the time from one beat to the next varies just a bit, beat to beat. Heart rate variability (HRV) — a measure of heart jitter during a short episode — is not constant but depends on level of activity, time of day, and factors independent of activity, such as stress and overall health. Devices that measure HRV are moving from the clinic to the gym, and athletes are learning to use them to improve their training. Polar offers HRV analysis capability to the retail market, while Zone Five Software, HeartMath, and others have software for analyzing heart data collected from other devices.
You don’t need to go to the doctor’s office to measure your blood pressure. Indeed, the American Heart Association recommends home monitoring to those with hypertension or who are at risk of developing it. The Mayo Clinic website offers tips for device selection and use.
Like blood pressure, people monitor their blood glucose level on a daily basis to manage a health issue. Many devices are available. Though you may not have a form of diabetes, blood sugar has an impact on your well-being, and some self-quantifiers are tracking it to understand its affects. You’ll find inexpensive devices from One Touch, Accu-Chek or other manufacturers at your corner drugstore.
How are you feeling now? Happy? Sad? Pensive? Stressed? Relaxed? There’s an emoticon for that. Software such as MoodPanda make it easy to log how you’re feeling at the moment. But caution: Unlike most other attributes listed here, measurement doesn’t produce a number, and interpretation of the “data” can be difficult. Nevertheless, tracking how you feel can provide insight, if it’s approached carefully.
Track What You Do
Unlike “in-the-moment” body and mind parameters, measuring the effect of what you do on your well-being requires tracking activity — or rest from activity — over a period of time.
Pedometers, which count steps, have been around for a while, but thanks to very low cost accelerometer chips, lightweight devices are becoming available that automatically detect a range of motions and upload their info to an online database. Add a Global Positioning System (GPS) chip and a satellite will help you track the distance and altitude climb of your run. Add other sensors to detect heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration and correlate that with your motion to get a complete picture of your workout. Many popular devices are on the market: FitBit, Garmin, Jawbone, Nike, BodyMedia, Basis and others.
Sleepers (that’s most of us) can measure aspects of their sleep to get information they can use to improve the quality of their sleep. Activity monitors can track how long it takes you to fall asleep, how long you sleep, and how much of your sleep time is restless. Though sleep researchers would have you sleep in a lab with a number of wires connected to your body, you don’t need — and probably wouldn’t use — the comprehensive bioelectric data available through polysomnography. But easy-to-use retail devices are becoming available for use at home. Devices such as Zeo, Sleeptracker, and Wakemate break data down into time spent in light, deep and, in some cases, REM sleep stages, and are quite adequate for self-trackers.
Tracking what you eat, drink, or smoke takes time and attention but the effort depends greatly on the detail. You’re going to have to enter something into your computer or smartphone, but what? Diabetics and others who must watch their diet carefully for health reasons have learned to get it down to what’s essential. Food is counted as exchangeable servings of carbohydrate, protein, or fat with equivalent calorie and blood sugar impact. Realize that counting calories alone isn’t enough to see how what you consume affects you. The key is to identify what’s important about your diet and track that with enough detail to achieve your tracking purpose.
What Will The Numbers Tell Me?
Each of the above would need to be explored in detail before any serious diving in. But with this overview, your next question may be about what you can do with the data. You’re not going to be interested very long in measuring yourself just to look at the numbers; you’ll want to use the data to solve a problem or improve some aspect of your life. In our next post, we’ll explore what the data may tell.