'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to the own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.' - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

I, Technology

by Ethan Glover, Sun, Oct 12, 2014 - (Edited) Sun, Oct 12, 2014

 This weekend I’ve technologified myself. (I hope that word catches on.) I am now electronically tracking my activity, the food I eat, the exercises I do, my weight, my body fat percentage, my resting heart rate, my sleep, and even the temperature and CO2 levels in my bedroom. All for $31. Well… sort of.

Table of Contents

The Equipment

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I’ve been watching the new(ish) health tracking devices for some time now. I’ve even listed them on LRD. Because of its advanced heart rate tracking technology, I always thought I’d end up with the Basis. I just needed to wait a year or so for them to slim down the design and not make it look worse than a Casio G-Shock (which I proudly wore for nearly six years). But after giving my own LRD site a look over, I realized there was one that I was ignoring. One device that all the review sites ignore. Everyone seems to know about the FitBit and Jawbone, maybe even the Basis. But I’ve never heard mention of the Withings. That is, I can’t remember hearing about it, at some point I came across it and put it on my own directory site.

Looking at the device, I saw it was slim, easy to wear, and the company made two other devices, a smart scale and a smart blood pressure monitor. So I headed to Amazon to get an open package warehouse deal (along with free 2-day shipping) on the tracker (Pulse) and the scale (Body Analyzer). To my surprise, I had forgotten that I had recently sold a bunch of books to Amazon in an effort to go completely digital and that I had gift card points with Amazon already. The warehouse deal and the sold books brought the cost of these two lovely items to $31.

So that covers the Withings devices and quite frankly everything I’m tracking, but it doesn’t cover this entire exciting past few days. On Thursday, I received my most recent Quarterly package from Tim Ferris. Everything he sends every 3 months is amazingly fun to try and explore, but I want to concentrate on three of the items from the recent package.

  1. Breakaway Matcha Coldbrew – I’ve been drinking green tea in the mornings almost since the publication of Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour Chef." It can help you lose weight and it’s an awesome alternative to coffee, soda and even store bought juice. Matcha Coldbrew is a perfect mix for me because A) I don’t like hot drinks and B) this stuff is packed with caffeine and it’s helped me break away (get it? “Breakaway”?) from the Mountain Dew.
  2. Exo Protein Bars – These don’t pack as much of a protein punch as Pure Protein at my local grocery store, but they were downright delicious and made of… wait for it… crickets. The ingredient list consists of various fruits and near the top is the ominous “cricket flour” which is exactly what it sounds like. Literally ground up crickets. Still, give them a try, they’re fantastic!
  3. Dohm Sound Conditioner – This is one of those white noise machines for sleeping that I’ve always found to be more distracting than useful. The first time I turned it on I was surprised by how loud it was. I immediately turned it off, lied down and thought, “I’ll at least give it a try. After all, this is the device they use in massage parlors.” To my surprise, for the first time I can remember, I didn’t wake up with an exhausted brain like I’d been doing calculus in my sleep. For the past three nights I’ve gotten deeper sleep than I imagined is possible. (According to my Pulse, I got 4 hours last night which is a sweet spot for energy.)

With a few other items in Tim Ferris’ recent Quarterly I’ll now be learning to cook from a famous French culinary master (and I have permission to e-mail him directly with problems), and the strength of my immune system is surely to rise a few points, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Results

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There is a lot of skepticism around health tracking devices, and normally I would say rightfully so. But after thinking about some of the negative reviews I’ve seen on Amazon, I really don’t think there’s any problem. The biggest issue I see is that the “step counting” is inaccurate. All of these devices track how many steps you take during the day and encourage you to take more. I’ve seen reviews that compare two devices and over a period of one week will have a difference of 1,000 steps, usually it’s the one that shows more steps that people think is “more accurate."

First, let’s consider the fact that pedometers have never been very accurate. Even the ones that clip to your shoes will track small movements when you’re sitting down watching TV. If you only wear them when you’re walking or running, they still have a hard time counting, but generally it’s hard to notice because it’s not like anyone is literally counting steps anyways. Even though 1,000 steps may seem like a lot, being off by 143 per day isn’t, we take a lot of steps during the day. Still, accuracy across devices is meaningless. What’s important is that your device is consistent. No matter what it considers a step, you will see more if you’re actually moving, than if you’re sitting. The goal is to do more, not to have perfect statistics. That’s exactly what these devices do by giving you a conscious image of your actual daily activities.

That being said, I’m super impressed with the Withings Pulse and Analyzer. The Pulse not only isn’t ugly, but it acts as a great watch. The settings allow you to make the time the default screen (which scrolls between steps, elevation, distance, calories burned, heart rate/sleep and time) and have it displayed vertically so you can easily see.

The more impressive bit is the heart rate and sleep monitor. While it doesn’t constantly read your heart rate like the Basis does, it does allow you to take a reading by putting your finger on the back of the device (it’s easily removable from the wristband but doesn’t slide around so that it may fall out) and taking a reading from there. The sleep monitor, as mentioned, is manually turned on when you go to bed and automatically (with the setting on) turned off when you press the screen button upon awake.

Periodically, or manually, the device syncs to an online account and nicely graphs your steps, sleep (including light sleep, deep sleep, and times woken up) and other such things which we’ll get into in a moment.

I was most impressed by the Withings Analyzer, this is more than just a scale, it’s a full analysis of your body and the room you’re in. It looks fantastically shiny and I almost feel bad standing on it, but it’s wider than the average scale and I feel like I’m standing on a full platform when I do. I don’t have to get my feet in the right position and almost balance like I did with the old dial scale.

Stand on the analyzer and it immediately comes up with a weight, but as you stand longer it bounces between possible highs and lows for a few seconds before blinking with the final most accurate measurement, along with your name (because it knows your profile, it can measure up to 8 people). Keep standing and it will eventually give you your body fat percentage based on your known height. Keep standing still and it will show you your current heart rate. (A resting heart rate should generally go down as you get healthier.) But wait! That’s not all! Keep standing and it will even display the current temperature in the room and the CO2 levels. The Withings site recommends that you place the scale in the bedroom and use this information to help ensure a good sleep.

Now, as the Withings app and website is tracking and graphing all of these things, the site itself doesn’t feature a food tracking diary like the FitBit does. But that’s OK, because the site syncs data with MyFitnessPal. This app allows me to log the food I eat and the exercise I do. Withings and MyFitnessPal cross communicate syncing calories lost and gained seamlessly. Both apps have access to all of each other’s information and both create one seamless profile. There’s even a MyFitnessPal widget on my Withings profile!

I’ve already mentioned the wonderful items I received in my TimTim Box (he would get it), but I think it’s worth mentioning how helpful this stuff is. The tea maintains my energy through the day without the need for diabetic amounts of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. The Dohm helps me get a good night’s sleep which is kind of rare for me (3 nights in a row!). The protein bars are a great way to get enough protein which is always important in losing weight.

When I got out of the military, I gained over 60lbs, almost 70. With Tim Ferris’ “4-Hour Body” and “4-Hour Chef” I was able to lose 40lbs in 2 months, but over the course of the last year I gained 10 more. His diet is fantastic, but it’s meant as a way to lose, not as a way to keep it off. This is a fact for most diets. People tend to bounce back.

I find being able to track myself quite fun and something that can easily turn into a consistent habit. When I go to the grocery store, or when I’m considering my options on what I want to eat, I currently think, “I don’t want to put THAT on my food diary!” It’s like a second check on power. (Will power that is.) When I wake up and tell my Pulse to stop tracking my sleep, my mind is already on health, which honestly is a good thing to be thinking about in the mornings. I know that MyFitnessPal is going to be bugging me if I don’t get at least 30 minutes of exercise, so I’m much more likely to go for a walk and after logging that in the cardiovascular section, I realize that I’ve got to fill the strength portion.

Final Words

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I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of living and dying by technology. Nor the idea of a (technically) $100 watch nagging them all the time. You might say, “I don’t have time to do the things it wants me to.” (It’ll help you get better sleep so that you may wake up earlier.) You might say, “This thing is tracking my personal info!” (Sure I guess, is having your weight on a private account that no one will ever see really a big deal? What happens if in the nearly impossible off chance that you get hacked? Nothing.) You might say, “Those things are a distraction, they take up too much of your time.” (I woke up early, wrote this and soon I’ll be working on HTML/CSS, daily habits aren’t all time consuming. Remember, these devices work almost 100% automatically.)

I’m not trying to sell you on anything, I’m merely expressing my excitement for all this technology (and food items) that kind of fell in my lap recently. I’ve played with different Android apps that track your sleep and I’ve kept food diaries, but nothing has ever been that impressive. These apps usually do a good job of tracking, but they’re not very good habit formers. Mostly because they’re not very well built, but partially because they don’t have goals, badges, reminders, physical devices that comfortably live on your wrist (unless you use the included belt clip), etc., etc.

I see the use of health tracking. I can’t wait to see more devices like the Cue and services like WellnessFX that take things a step further. With the onslaught of Obamacare, the free market is surely to work around poorly incentivized hospitals. Taking care of your health personally will become a necessity as lines in the ER grow. (Maybe this is why Canadians are healthier than Americans.) Personally, I can’t wait until I receive my first week of Soylent which should be arriving at my door… well… maybe by next year.

Actual Cons to Withings Devices

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I said I lot of great things about the Withings Pulse and I do love the thing. I see no problem with the step counter because I don’t have unrealistic expectations for it. That being said, there are a couple of small issues with it and the Analyzer, but nothing to worry one bit about.

  1. The Display – The display on the Pulse looks amazing… inside. Unfortunately, sun glare can make the thing impossible to read. This isn’t a big deal because if I really need the time, my phone like most others can auto-adjust to the sun.
  2. The Set Up – Setting up the Analyzer and Pulse both was pretty frustrating. They work through Bluetooth and with a smart phone. When I was going through the steps for set up, both devices had to update, this cancelled the setup process and after each device had restarted, it confused my phone. So I had to restart the process multiple times to get everything finally synced up. However, there haven’t been any further problems.

Note: I am not associated with any of the above mentioned companies, although I wish I were, and Amazon Associates is not available in my state.

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