In about a week, you're going to swear up and down to take better care of yourself. But without a realistic menu of activities in mind, you'll quickly get bored or lose hope. FastCo.Labs decided to look over some of the available tools to draw up Quantified Self fitness resolutions for 2014.
Research shows that walking 10,000 steps each day will significantly improve your health—building stamina, burning excess calories, and generally improving heart health. (Let’s also be honest: It’s a pretty straightforward form of exercise that can be done almost anywhere, at any time, and can physically get you places.) To put the "10,000 steps" figure in context, consider that the average person walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day—with 1,000 steps being roughly the equivalent of 10 minutes of brisk walking.
In terms of monitoring this progress, you’re going to need a pedometer such as the Fibit Zip. Not only will this passively track your walking data—it can actually positively influence it, too. According to a 2007 study carried out by researchers at Stanford’s School of Medicine, people who used pedometers generally added around one mile (or over 2,000 steps) of walking each day.
Of course, Fitbit isn't the only player in the quantified exercise game. Nike (named Fast Company's most innovative fitness company for 2013) has created both sensor-embedded shoes, which can measure not just running activity but also the size of jumps, and the Nike+ FuelBand, a lightweight rubber wristband which can track fitness levels. Combined, the tools don't just make data tracking a personal experience—but also link to social networking for scoring some admittedly nerdy bragging rights.
MapMyHike, meanwhile, offers a fitness tool for those who prefer their exercise in the form of a countryside ramble. Using your smartphone's built-in GPS, the app doesn't just provide information about speed, pace, elevation, and categories burned—but also where you've walked. (If you're a mountain or road cyclist, try Strava, which will track both walking/running and cycling.)
Chalk the popularity of these tools up to our love of numerical, video game-style achievements if you want, but making sure you record 10,000 steps each day—however you do it—is one of the most important quantified fitness steps you can take in 2014.
Not everyone is going to have the same ideas about where we would like our bodies to be in terms of BMI, muscle, and toning—but everyone can likely agree that they would want to be within the healthy spectrum. Tools such as the Daily Burn Tracker will start the year by asking where you want to end up, with the construction of a profile featuring height, weight, and health goals.
The app will then determine how many calories you should be consuming each day. It allows you to track three different metrics: your nutrition, your workouts, and your weight. Foods can be added easily by way of built-in barcode scanners (for the iPhone version at least), while workouts are a matter of entering which exercises you did and for how long—at which point the app calculates the number of calories burned. It can even recommend routines for you.
Barcode scanning is also behind an app like Scan Alert, which records users' dietary preferences (based on avoidance, allergies, and medical prescriptions) and then alerts them if they try to buy something incompatible on a trip to the supermarket—even recommending substitutes. That pesky gluten intolerance which makes you feel bloated and fatigued at the gym? Banished, thanks to the data conveyed by a simple barcode.
While monitoring the number of steps you take each day, or what foods you put into your body, are all fairly recognizable as data points, the question of emotional well-being is something that can easily be overlooked. However, it’s also the field of a growing number of Quantified Self apps—based on science’s increasing awareness of the role that emotional health plays in physical health.
MoodPanda, for example, is a mood tracking website and iPhone app, which asks users to regularly rate their happiness on a 0-10 scale—thereby putting into context how your emotions look in the aggregate. In a recent paper on the Quantified Self movement, the authors—from Intel Labs—discuss the plight of a young woman called Angela, who set an app to "ping" her multiple times a day.
As the authors write, "After a while, she discovered that her ‘mood score’ when she was at work was not particularly good, and on the basis of this evidence, she realized that she was not as happy as she had thought, and eventually quit the job."
Similar tools are made by HeartMath, a tech company that creates both hardware and software to promote what they call "coherence"—referring to moments when the body’s breathing patterns and heart rate falling into rhythm with each other. As Gizmodo wrote in its review, the result is "Like meditation training wheels."
The key to fitness tracking isn’t simply that you have the necessary tools, however, but that you commit to wearing them at all times. This is, after all, the only way that you’re going to get the kind of high-quality data that allows you to keep tabs on the progress you’ve made.
It’s for this reason that phone apps, while good, perhaps shouldn’t make up the major part of your quantified self New Year’s resolution plan—since while we often have our phones with us, they are more likely to be on desks or in bags than they are physically on our person.
Instead you’re better off with a wearable that attaches to yourself in the form of a watch, bracelet, or something similar. Deborah Rozman, CEO of HeartMath, also points out that—while it’s hardly the most data-driven response—we need to make sure that we are choosing devices that we are happy to wear 24 hours a day, no matter what we’re doing.
"We’re not yet at the point where wearable technology is woven into the clothes that we wear on a regular basis," Rozman says. "Until we reach the point where wearable tech is completely inconspicuous—people are working on band-aid sensors, for instance—the question of how something looks is important. As a woman, I might not what to wear a watch that’s chunky and unattractive, for example. Most people also aren’t happy wearing the equivalent of three or four watches, all doing different things. Find one or two devices you’re happy with—and stick with them."
Because, of course, once you do you’re able to put all of these resolutions together to:
As David McCandless discussed in his memorable TED Talk—and data scientists Fernanda Viegas and Martin M. Wattenberg have argued elsewhere—turning complex data sets into attractive diagrams not only makes the information more engaging, but can also be used to tease out unseen patterns and connections in situations where that relationship may be unclear.
If you’re anything like me, both of these sound useful when it comes to fitness. Unless you’re the kind of person who knows personal training like the back of their hand, it’s useful to have a tool which can spell out your progress in a way that feels a bit more quantifiable. While many of the newer QS apps feature data visualization tools in place of simple numbers, an increasing number also allow you to upload your data to other devices to play with as you choose. The possibilities are pretty limitless, dependent only on how far you’re willing to push it and the number of metrics you collect. The Basis B1 band, for instance, lets you track your pulse, sleep patterns, body temperature, and even how much you sweat. Its follow-up, the Body IQ, can do all of this—plus work out when you start running or cycling.
Regardless of your grounding in sport science, using the right data viz techniques means that before long you’ll begin to have an understanding of just what it was that you were doing—and just how your body reacted to it. When it comes to fitness, that understanding and visual evidence can be a powerful motivator for continuing on your chosen path.
Add that to the trend toward social networking—making sticking to your resolution less of a solitary activity—and you may just keep your fitness regimen going throughout 2014.
[Image: Flickr user Georgie Pauwels]