Fit to practice: 5 ways to track your health with technology

Fit to practice: 5 ways to track your health with technology

Use technology to hack into your habits and keep tabs on your fitness routine.
May 07, 2012
I’m a geek. A gear-head. A techie. I started as a kid with recording devices. That was a habit that would follow me as I became involved in music and later television and radio. Whenever I’m in a television or radio studio I ask to tour the control rooms and recording booths just to check out the technology. I’m also into ways computer technology can help me better treat my patients and communicate with clients. Those technologies help me be more creative, be a better veterinarian, and be a better business owner. But none of it helps me be … better. However, the last five years has seen an explosion in the consumer health electronics industry. So, today I’m using technology to hack my health.

The term “hacking” is associated with breaking into corporate and government networks, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes as a joke, and other times for malicious or criminal intent. Hackers are thought of as intelligent, creative, and maybe a little bent. Sounds like me except for the intelligent and creative part. But I do like being healthy. If I can hack into my current healthy state, I can gather valuable information to help maintain my health. That’s where these exciting emerging technologies come in. Today, it’s extremely simple—and relatively inexpensive—to hack into your health status. The results can be used to aid you in weight loss, gaining fitness, sleeping more soundly, or just plain feeling better. Here are five tools or techniques you can start using today to evaluate and better your being. If you’re a fellow geek, you may find inspiration in one (or all) of these handy hacks.

1. Hack your sleep
One of the keys to health and happiness is adequate rest. According to the CDC, about 75 million Americans, more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, reports they don’t get enough sleep. The CDC also reports about 30 million adults suffer from chronic insomnia. Lack of adequate sleep can lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. Luckily, I sleep like a baby. I know that because I use the Zeo mobile sleep manager. So does my wife. The Zeo consists of a headband and a docking station. It syncs with your smartphone via Bluetooth. It monitors your brainwaves and reports the various stages of sleep: notable light, deep, and REM. Each morning when I get up, there’s a stockpile of data on what my brain did (or didn’t) do the previous night.

The value isn’t simply in the historical data; it’s what I did leading up to sleep that helps my hacking. I make a few notes on what I did during the day or evening and see how that affected my sleep. For example, if I had a glass of red wine with dinner, I record that and assess if it affected my sleep patterns. I found that my deep sleep was lessened and I had more sleep interruptions. Based on my sleep hacking, I don’t drink red wine at dinner anymore, or at least only very rarely. The same goes for the last time I exercised (anything past 7 p.m. and I don’t sleep well), and certain foods (no more nighttime dark chocolate). The headband is super-comfy and barely noticeable. The iPhone app is nearly flawless and simple to set up. The entire system is less than $100. Also, I’ve used a Marpac SleepMate white noise machine for years. Get one and thank me later.

2. Hack your weight
If you’re trying to lose weight, you’d better measure it if you want it gone. Often. That’s where my Withings WiFi Body Scale comes in handy. This is quite simply the best scale I’ve ever owned. It’s also the only scale I’ve ever owned that has a USB port and WiFi card. What makes this weighing device incredible isn’t its accuracy (it is very accurate on a variety of floor surfaces), it’s not because it measures body fat and lean muscle mass, or even that it can track multiple family members. What I love about the scale is that it does all this effortlessly. This is how easy to track your weight with the Withings: 1. Wake up, 2. Disrobe, and 3. Stand on scale. Magically, my data is transferred to my iPhone, computer and the mystical “cloud.” I can see graphs of weight, fat percentage, and lean body mass. Did I gain weight from yesterday, last week, month, or year? It’s all there in pretty colorful graphs and charts. I also use it pre- and post-long workouts to help measure dehydration and calculate fluid intake.

Unless you love manually entering your personal data into a spreadsheet, this is the tool for you. By hacking my weight and body fat percentage, I find I’m more apt to decline the dessert if my morning data points were a little greater than desired. While the absolute fat percentages may be questionable, I‘m chasing trends, not specific values. Data is power and this scale gives you the data you need to control your weight. It retails for less than $160 and may be the last scale you purchase.

3. Hack your habits
How active are you each day? Do you walk the recommended 10,000 steps? How many calories do you burn while working? Jogging? The answers to these questions can be found through a variety of new devices. Some of the most popular devices include FitBit, BodyMedia, and the BodyBugg. Nike has just announced its entry, NikeFuelBand, and Jawbone UP has a good concept but a horrible design (and poor durability at this point, according to my friend who’s been testing it for the past few months). All of these devices tell you approximately how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned, and track it via website or app. The FitBit and BodyMedia add limited sleep assessment functionality.

The great thing about hacking your daily routine is it helps you cut that 500-calories-a-day you’ve been trying to accomplish but just somehow can’t. While the caloric expenditures are simply estimates, they’re close enough to benefit most of us trying to shed a few extra pounds. The FitBit has been around a while, it’s easy to clip onto your clothes, sturdy and durable (although don’t put it in the washer or dryer), small, and I like it. However, the Nike FuelBand fits on your wrist (think LiveStrong bracelet), seconds as a watch, and has an elegant, beautiful, and very impressive website tracking suite. The FitBit currently retails for just under $100 while the FuelBand retails from $149.

4. Hack your diet
One of the coolest hacks is one you can use every time you eat: a smartphone diet app. What, you’re not already using one? There are literally hundreds of handy diet hacks that are free to less than $10. Some of the better apps include:

  • MyNetDiary. One of the top rated and most popular iPhone diet apps since 2008. $3.99 gets you everything you need to track and create healthy diet programs for any goal (and there’s plenty of goal tracking available).
  • Livestrong Calorie Tracker. Over 4 million users and millions of pounds lost, Lance Armstrong ... need I say more? Great $2.99 app or free online.
  • MyFitnessPal is a free app that contains caloric info for over 1.1 million foods and is easy to tap and add whatever you’re eating or snacking on (at least after you wiper your fingers). Free is a pretty good price and it has a five-star iTunes App Store rating from almost 80,000 users.

5. Hack your health
From an aerobic training perspective, nothing beats a good heart rate monitor. For now, the nearly-perfect device for me is the Garmin Forerunner 910XT. This heart rate monitor, GPS, and ANT+ receiver simply does everything a multisport athlete could desire. It even automatically tracks laps in the pool as well as stroke counts. It also does a good job tracking my ocean swims. The 910XT is pretty close in accuracy, plus I get stroke counts when ocean swimming. Paired with my bike’s Quarq power meter, I can measure time, distance, speed, heart rate, cadence, and power output when cycling.

When running, I can see how far I’ve run, my current pace (or any permutation thereof), my heart rate, and how far ahead or behind I am from my target time or pace. You can easily program and follow interval workouts (the vibration alert is great for knowing when to stop or start a sprint without having to look down). That’s a lot of awesomeness in a wristwatch. Plus, the new soft chest strap (heart rate monitor) is the most comfortable one I’ve worn. When you wear one for up to 12 hours, it’d better be comfy.

My next favorite GPS watch is my almost-everyday training tool, a Garmin Forerunner 610. This is a runner’s dream device and I’ve raced many Ironman races with this watch. A little-known secret is this has been Lance Armstrong’s race watch so far in the 2012 Ironman season. Where this watch fails is it’s not waterproof, so no swimming, it has limited bike functionality, and a sketchy strap. It will more than suffice for the casual triathlete/hard-core runner that’s not a cycling geek. It also looks reasonably good as a casual watch. Of course, Nike makes a great watch as do Polar and Timex.

If you’re looking for the best value heart-rate monitor that can be used as a run watch, the $160 Garmin FR60 training set is hard to beat. A newcomer that I’m watching closely is the new Motorola MOTOACTV GPS watch and music player. This looks like a good start and I’m guessing version 2.0 may be a real contender. As far as GPS-only watches, the new $99 Timex Marathon GPS watch is a good one. You don’t get to hack your health per se—you get data on how far and fast you ran or walked. If at all possible, collect heart rate data during every workout. You need to analyze what zones you’re working in to maximize health and fitness and lose or maintain weigh.

As veterinarians, we’re data junkies for our patients. Turn your love for numbers on yourself and improve your health. Next time you see me, let’s compare REM times and training zones. How do you hack your health? What’s worked and what’s been a bust? What are your favorite devices, apps, or tips?