Make Your Fitness Tracker Work For You, Not Against You
Like many of you, I received a wearable fitness tracker for the holidays. (Mine didn't arrive under the tree. The newly released Microsoft Band came straight to my office for testing in November.) At first I was reluctant to try it -- I couldn't handle one more piece of technology sucking me in and away from human contact. But spurred on by an assignment for work, I set aside my reluctance and gave it a shot.
The minute I locked eyes with Microsoft's sleek touchscreen (at 11mm by 33mm, the interface is small and slim), I was entranced. The band picked up my pulse and tapped into my lifeline, instantly churning out details I never thought I cared about. Suddenly, I knew my heart rate was 72 beats per minute. Was I stressed? Funny, I felt relaxed. My footsteps goal was 5,000 (a default setting), which as a New Yorker I knew I could meet in a morning. Being the competitive person I am, I quickly set out to double that goal, which sent me on occasional afternoon walks in my Brooklyn neighborhood (something I'd never done before without purpose).
I even signed up for my second-ever half marathon -- another excuse to get more steps in this winter, up my calorie burn and use the band's sharp GPS tracker (the signal is strong, fast and just as accurate as its clunkier sports watch predecessors, at half the size).
Following my sleep patterns gave me another challenge to win. Whenever the band reported less than 90% efficiency, I knew the next night I had to go to bed earlier. By January, two months into wearing the band, I'd learned some important things. First, this device, and many like it, is not waterproof. (Long story short, there was a shower incident and I had to request a replacement.) Second, I have an addictive personality. I got so used to counting my steps and recording my daily distance that I would often refuse to leave my desk until my band was fully charged. I didn't want to throw away a single step, even if I had to pee really bad.
Sleep also wasn't the same without my band. I needed to know the exact numbers the second I woke up to make sure I was sleeping well. It didn't matter if I woke up feeling rested. I found myself measuring my success each day based on this all-knowing super watch. Somehow, learning more intel about myself had made me feel less in touch with myself.
I began to trust the band more than my gut. It was easy to believe the band was right, too. When you get used to living a certain way, you might tend to overlook some behavioral patterns (like going to bed early, but actually falling asleep late thanks to a blue-light bedmate). The band became my mirror and I could no longer ignore my numerical reflection.
Still, the data confused me because, truthfully, it didn't always match how I felt. Confounded by this notion, I reached out to some experts to get a better understanding of what was going on.
"A lot of these devices are very useful to help you tune into your body in different ways, but the danger is if you use these devices all the time, then it can become, 'I can't do this without this device,''' said Terry Chiplin, owner and camp director of Active at Altitude, a Colorado facility for endurance athletes. Well, that sounded familiar. Another concern Chiplin brought up that I hadn't considered was that the device doesn't factor in when to push yourself versus when to cut yourself some slack.
"If you're following a training program, and you're supposed to run at a certain pace that day but are having trouble getting up to speed, your watch won't acknowledge that you're tired -- maybe you didn't fuel right, don't feel well or are stressed -- and should slow down," he said. "It's really important to listen to your body and be in touch with it." Maybe Microsoft could add a "how I feel" tool, complete with emoticons to help the band know when you're PMSing and feeling bloated. Just a thought!
Not everyone is equipped to understand all of this new data being sent to them via their wrist. For example, one morning when my band revealed I had experienced only one hour and 53 minutes of restful sleep in a 6½-hour sleep cycle, I felt cheated. Why didn't I get six-plus hours of "restful sleep"? But then my sleep score of 91% efficiency said otherwise - apparently I did have an almost fully restful night. Another evening, however, I experienced two solid hours of "restful sleep" in a 7½-hour cycle and only achieved 83% efficiency in sleep. Wouldn't more restful sleep improve my sleep score? What does this all mean? I'm so confused.
I went back to Microsoft for more information, and found out this: "restful" sleep is one of the several stages of sleep you go through in a night -- and the one that's most important to your body and mind's recovery. The exact amount each person needs varies, just like total sleep does. Sleep efficiency is a stat that divides the amount of time you're asleep (at any stage) by the amount of time you spend in bed. Anything above 90 percent is considered "very good," according to the company. Knowing all this didn't necessarily make me feel better, though, I was still feeling overwhelmed by data.
"Real-time data does help us gain deep perspective into an athlete's performance, but it's not user-friendly data for those who are unfamiliar with how to use it," said Francis Diano, a physical therapist, triathlon coach, running coach and injury consultant for NY SportsMed's Athlete Performance Center in Manhattan. In other words, unless you're working with someone who has a Ph.D. in sports watch data, it's hard to know what to do with such knowledge.
That's something Zulfi Alam, the general manager of personal devices at Microsoft, says the company wants to change: "We're also working on ways to help people interpret all of this information, by crunching the data into insights and recommendations. For example, in the near future, the band will be able to tell you how the number of meetings in a day impacts your sleep, or suggest where to fit a workout into your busy schedule."
For now, even elite athletes who are more attuned to the lingo don't always find the info useful. Triathlete Gwen Jorgensen, who won the 2014 ITU World Championship, relies on her Garmin and SRM to provide feedback, but she doesn't let herself linger on the stats. Instead the Asics athlete counts on her coach, Jamie Turner, to process the data and modify her training plans accordingly. "It's more important to focus on technique instead of the outcomes," said Jorgensen, who never wore a GPS watch before working with Turner. "I rarely look at the watch. On easy days, I don't care what my pace is. I just go more on feel."
This same strategy applies to many world-class athletes, including Olympic rower Sara Hendershot. She also uses a Garmin for training, but when it comes to reaching her race pace, she refuses to look down at her wrist. "Having a number in front of me seems to limit my output," she said. "I like to use it to push myself, but I don't let it hold me back."
Elite runner Sara Hall, who recently had a winning streak of four straight half marathons, couldn't agree more with Jorgensen and Hendershot. She set a personal best of 1:10:46 while finishing fourth at the USATF Half Marathon Championships in Houston in January without the help of her watch. "I didn't wear one during that race because I just wanted to compete and be in the moment," she said. "I was going for the win and not thinking about pace."
A sports watch plays a crucial role in Hall's training -- her coach, who lives in another state, uses it to track her progress -- but she admits to practicing a lot of self-control. "I try to make the watch serve me rather become a slave to it," said Hall, who will make her marathon debut with her Olympian husband, Ryan Hall, at the Los Angeles Marathon on March 15.
Know the score
We can't all afford a coach to help analyze activity data. So how do you keep something like a fitness tracker working for you rather than against you? First off, you need to become aware when wearing the tracker becomes less about "I want to" and more about "I have to," said sports psychologist Doug Jowdy, Ph.D., who counsels topnotch athletes, including eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Anton Ohno.
"When people don't know how to use these watches correctly, they can easily become overly dependent. From a psychological standpoint, being data-driven can defeat the whole purpose of what exercise should be. It should be a time for relaxation, ease, bliss, euphoria, a spiritual connection, a form of meditation, fun and passion," Jowdy said.
If you tend to be compulsive-oriented and type A (me! me! me!), you might get too wrapped up in the numbers and objectivity, obsessing over things like, "I ran this far" or "I burned this many calories" or "I went this fast." This stuff is all important for pros, but maybe not so much for the recreational runner. And even the pros, as we've seen, aren't that hung up on it. Still, we obsess. "As a culture and a society," Jowdy said, "we tend to go to extremes."
I still wear my Microsoft Band. It's been successful for me in many ways -- most important, getting me moving more throughout the day. Knowing how easy it is for me to worry about my own scoreboard, I decide to take a cue from Jorgensen, Hendershot and Hall and try not to look at the numbers so often. I check in every once in a while to confirm how I feel (rather than let it dictate how I should feel), which has helped me reconnect with my body and feel more empowered.
"If a person is clear about why they are exercising, running, training and how this device can be used to facilitate that, then it can be very useful," Jowdy said. "For the person that's not motivated to walk, for example, a fitness tracker can give encouraging feedback."
Once I became more active this winter, I made sure I was doing it for myself and not for the results, which can set standards and expectations that change your goals. I try to take it one day at a time, making the band work for me and not the other way around.