My experiences with an activity tracker

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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On December 15th, I got a new watch. The watch I chose (Garmin Forerunner 225) includes an activity tracker, something I didn’t necessarily need but thought would be interesting to experiment with and learn more about. Now that I’m almost a month in, I’d like to share my initial experiences.

As for the watch as a running device, I’ll offer a review once I use it a little more.

This post is focusing on the activity tracker features and, for the most part, not specifically about this device but my feelings on how these features in any fitness tracker may be useful and how they may not.

Heart rate monitor

The heart rate monitor in this device is interesting. It’s wrist based and works by shining a green light on your skin and measuring changes in how much light reflects off your skin (green light reflects off red blood cells better than other colors, hence the color choice).

Unfortunately, this specific device doesn’t automatically record heart rate except while running so I can’t automatically track my resting heart rate but at least it gives a convenient way to manually check my resting heart rate.

Of course, we know that our resting heart rate goes down as we gain fitness and when we’re well rested but spikes when we’re overtrained. This information can be useful. I haven’t been checking my resting heart rate much but I can see the potential usefulness of this.

Activity tracker/step counter

It’s important to note the pros and cons of wrist based activity trackers as compared to old fashioned pedometers.

The pros are that you don’t have to have something attached to your belt and they are on your wrist where you can easily check on your progress throughout the day.

The cons are that, being on your wrist instead of your hip, accuracy won’t be quite as good. I can definitely see times when my steps aren’t being counted. I see other times where I’m not walking and my step count is increasing due to something else I’m doing. In general, though, I do think the recorded step count is a pretty good proxy for how active you have been throughout the day.

So what’s the benefit of the step counter? Personally, I’ve found it to just be something fun to play around with. It’s fun to do a long run and see 20,000+ steps before noon. It has made it clear to me how little activity I do in the winter outside of running. Unfortunately, it hasn’t necessarily changed my habits but that’s on me, not the device.

I can see the benefit, though, if a person would use the step counter as motivation to hit a target. Anything to encourage more activity will result in a healthier lifestyle. Just because I don’t use it that way doesn’t mean it isn’t a benefit for those who do use it that way.

Move alerts

The Forerunner 225 comes with a "Move alerts" function. This basically buzzes or beeps at you and tells you to move if you’ve been sitting for an hour without a walking break. It then will not reset itself until you’ve walked for 2 minutes.

Conceptually, this seems like a great idea. We now know that sitting for long times is bad for our health and frequent short walking breaks like the 2 minutes needed to reset the move alert are all it takes to negate the negative effects of sitting.

In practice, it didn’t work for me. I ended up turning move alerts off. Partly because I didn’t want it buzzing me during meetings and partly because I couldn’t get it to reset just by walking around the house without basically walking laps. I just found it to be an annoyance more than a useful tool.

Again, though, this is on me. It could be very useful for people who use it to motivate themselves to get up and move around every hour.

Sleep monitor

This is something I was very curious about. The sleep monitor works basically by monitoring your movement throughout the night. It then tells you how much deep sleep (with very little movement) you had, how much light sleep (with a little more movement) you had and how much awake time (with a relatively high level of movement) you had throughout a night.

I found it surprising how much I move around overnight. Apparently I’m not getting as much deep sleep as I thought I was. This was an educational experience for me. It’s also interesting to see when I am sleeping deeply and when I’m not.

I suspect I might be able to use this information to help improve my sleep quality if I can find some correlation between my quality of sleep and things going on in the house. It would also be interesting to do things like adjust the thermostat and see how my sleep is affected.

While I have done very little with this information at this time, it’s actually where I’m most expecting to gain some benefit. Basically because I’m expecting to actually act on the data.

Conclusion

As usual, the tool is just a tool. It’s all about how you are going to use it. Personally, it seems like a fun toy for me for the most part. If I can convince myself to change some habits due to what this is telling me, maybe I’ll change my mind.

However, if you’re committed to change your habits based on what an activity tracker is telling you, I can definitely see where it can be useful.

Sure, you can change your habits without the use of an activity tracker. However, I’m a numbers guy. I know how it works for people like myself. If you will use the numbers to hold yourself accountable, then it could be very useful. The numbers may not be perfect but, in a general sense, they don’t lie. If your device records 10,000 steps yesterday and only 8,000 today, it’s a pretty sure bet you were a fair bit less active today. If you’ll act upon that information, then it can be a good motivator to improve your health.

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