Some people need a little help.
Recently I discovered that the best way to manipulate myself into living a healthier life was to incorporate my love of technology into my routine. A new generation of app-enabled health and fitness devices is making it easier (and cheaper) than ever to track your quantified self.
While step counters have been around for a while, the level of data and sensor sophistication that is available in the current generation makes the one you got for free in a box of Special K seem like a beeper in a world of smartphones.
A few months back I started using the Up by Jawbone. It’s a stylish band that packs an motion-sensing accelerometer to track both your movement and your sleep.
First to the stylish part. While a lot of these fitness trackers do the same thing, in order to get the most from it you have to wear it all the time. This means that, for me at least, what it looks like is important. The Up is by far the most stylish of the popular options, it comes in eight colours and could be mistaken for a piece of modern jewellery. Mine is black with a metallic end cap and could easily be something made by Teno.
Competitors such as FitBit and Nike make similar bands, but none are nearly as stylish. The Nike Fuelband is an acquired taste that makes you look like an android, the equivalent of wearing a giant Timex digital watch.
So now that we’ve established that it can be worn full-time without concern, how does it work?
The answer, not bad, but it needs improvement.
As a step and motion tracker it works pretty well, however it’s major flaw is the lack of an altimeter or GPS to track altitude or distance. The motion sensor does a great job, so long as your wrist is in motion. This is a major caveat for any parent who spends a lot of time pushing a stroller.
A few months back, I was in New York for the weekend with my family. As anyone who has visited NYC knows, if you do it right you walk a lot. We love to take long walks through Central Park, down to SoHo and even across the Brooklyn Bridge. However, as I was pushing a stroller nearly the entire time, my Up was only registering a fraction of my steps. I consciously tried to push the stroller with one hand as much as possible to allow my free hand to register the movement, but that gets tiring after a while. This issue applies to shopping carts, bikes, wheelchairs and anything else that keeps your hand stationary. For everything else it’s pretty good, as long as you are aware of the limitations. You can manually input activities such as yoga and swimming, but that goes against the mentality of having the device do most of the work for you.
The other major issue is the lack of wireless syncing. For a company whose raison d’être is wireless technology (both Jawbone’s Jambox and headsets sync via bluetooth) the idea that you have to plug your band into your phone in order to download the data and receive feedback is odd. Wireless syncing would allow the process to be automated and for feedback and advice on your progress to be more immediate and helpful. That said, the one piece of immediate feedback you can get is what I call the lazy alarm. Up calls it an Idle Alert, which will cause the band to vibrate and remind you to get up and move if you stay inactive for a set period of time (I have mine set at 45 minutes). I have developed a routine where I do 15 pushups every time the lazy alarm goes off as punishment for my sloth.
Other than the lazy alarm, getting real feedback requires you to remember to sync your band on a daily basis. The Up app (available for iOS and Android) will tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how close you are to your goal and provide useful tips. The two other major functions of the app are to track your sleep and your food. The food tracker is OK but limited, and to be honest, I stopped using it a while back as it was too labour intensive. Food items are often not in the database (particularly Canadian ones) and I would often find myself scrolling through dozens of almost identical looking entries to find the right one. The main goal with the food tracking is to correlate it with your activity to determine if you are taking in enough calories, or too many. It works pretty well in this regard with easy-to-read charts that allow you to sort by multiple variables. If weight loss is a real goal for you, I’d encourage the use of the food tracker, despite it’s limitations. For me, the goal was mainly to be more active and to track my sleep.
Which brings me to my favourite part of the Up band, the sleep tracker. I’ll admit, I was skeptical that it would work, but as someone who is a notoriously poor sleeper I thought I’d give it a try. The sleep tracker works by pushing the one button on the Up band to put it into sleep mode. Then you just go to sleep, or at least try. When you wake, push the button once more to go back to awake mode, then plug it in and see your data. Up tracks three states while you are asleep, using the motion sensor to determine whether you are awake, in light sleep or in deep sleep. The results are actually pretty decent, for when you have two kids, sleep interruptions are common and the Up tracked them pretty well every time. On nights with frequent interruptions, the data looks like a roller coaster where you can track every nightmare, tantrum and nighttime accident down to the minute. I’ve started worrying less about how much sleep I get, and more about how much deep sleep I get. Quality over quantity, so to speak. What’s great is your ability to track your sleep against your activity and diet to determine if being more active helps you sleep better (it does) or if having that late coffee worsens your nightly rest (yup).
One other neat feature is the smart sleep alarm. It works by asking you to set an awake time and provide it with an acceptable tolerance on either side, up to 30 minutes. Up will then analyze your sleep and wake you at the optimal time within your alarm window to ensure you feel as refreshed as possible. So if you set your alarm for 7 a.m., you could wake earlier or later depending on what the optimal time in your sleep cycle is. This means you need to set it with enough leeway to ensure you aren’t late for work, but the upside is that you’ll feel less groggy when you wake up. Another side benefit of this feature is that the alarm is silent, meaning that it will wake you, but not your spouse, ideal if you have different morning routines.
Overall, the Up is a decent way to start making sense of your health and adding some data into the mix leading to making smart choices. The lazy alarm and smart sleep alarm are almost worth the price alone, but if you use the device to its full potential you can really get some good feedback to begin feeling healthier. I find often just the presence of the band on my wrist reminds me to make smarter health choices. The Up has enough style and colour options to look good on any mom or dad, and is easy enough to use to not become too much of a chore. It does require a little upkeep, and I’m eagerly awaiting an updated version with wireless syncing, but in general it has been a great addition to my healthier lifestyle and has allowed me to start making some smarter choices. The stroller issue is annoying, but not a deal breaker, though I hope a solution is forthcoming. Or my kids could just stop being so lazy and do some pushups.