Beyond step counts with Exist

Beyond Step Counts with Exist
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I’ve tracked data on my daily life since I was seven years old, fiddling with the tiny gold-tone lock on my first daily diary. Later, when I discovered the “quantified self” movement, some larger lock in my brain would release: I didn’t only want data, I wanted meaning.

I’ve been searching for this meaning by tracking fitness (daily step counts and workouts), as well as the following:

  • Sleep (hours and quality)
  • Vitals (weight and heart rate)
  • Food (calories and nutrients)
  • Mood
  • Productivity
  • Media (books read, music listened to, films watched, etc.)

But tracking alone is not meaningful. In fact, it can be the opposite. Those of us with fitness trackers often have a goal of taking 10,000 steps a day, and we are rewarded with brightly-colored graphics when we’ve met that goal. But what about getting 10,000 steps a day while sleeping fewer hours than we need each night? And how do sugar and caffeine consumption impact activity, sleep, productivity, mood, or all four?

Not long ago, I discovered an app called Exist which promised a way to pull all of the data I tracked together to find meaningful correlations. I was skeptical, but game. And Exist turned out to be a marvelous way for me to stop focusing on hitting a step count each day and start thinking about my physical and mental health in a more comprehensive way.

I could get side-tracked by all the weird correlations that Exist has uncovered — like how I get fewer steps when I listen to Blood Orange — but instead I will share the ones that are most important to me right now: how sleep impacts other important aspects of my life.

On the dashboard, I get an overview of my sleep over the past seven days. The white checkmarks indicate that I met my sleep goal for that day, a goal that Exist determines for me based on past averages and trends. Ah, sleeping in on Saturdays!

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Trends are all well and good, but the correlations are where Exist gets interesting. This one is an obvious one: my mood is higher when I get more sleep.

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Aha, and sugar intake … well, that’s also obvious.

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I get more work done when I sleep less. Yeah, well.

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The confidence on this correlation isn’t very high, but I’m still curious about an earlier bedtime impacting my step count.

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Exist’s new “Optimize” feature suggests that my mood might improve if I try to get more than seven and a half hours of sleep.

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These are just a few of the insights that Exist has provided me for the data I track. Here is where I blow your mind: look at the full list of services that Exist integrates with (see their FAQs for more info):

  • Jawbone UP: steps, sleep, weight, workouts, food, water
  • Fitbit: steps, sleep, weight, workouts, food, water
  • Misfit: steps, sleep, workouts
  • Moves: steps, location
  • Apple Health: steps, sleep, workouts, heart rate, food, water
  • Google Fit: steps, workouts, weight
  • Withings: steps, sleep, weight
  • Runkeeper: steps, weight, workouts
  • Strava: workouts
  • Mood: mood rating and note (this is built-in to Exist, not an external service—you can use our daily email service or our mobile apps to rate your mood each day)
  • RescueTime: time spent productively, neutral time, distracting time
  • Todoist: tasks completed
  • GitHub: commits
  • Google, iCloud, iCal Calendars: events, time spent in events
  • Dark Sky: weather conditions (requires Swarm, Moves, or Exist for Android to get location)
  • Swarm: check-ins, location
  • Instagram: posts, comments, likes
  • last.fm: tracks played
  • Twitter: tweets, mentions
  • Spotify, Deezer, iTunes, and more: via last.fm

That’s enough of me blathering on about it. Sign up now for a free 30-day trial of Exist, plus another month free! If this isn’t your bag but you know someone with a fitness tracker who is motivated by more than step counts, share this post with them.

birthday gift

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After most of a year of debating the exact method in which I would get in shape I was no closer to choosing one, let alone sticking with it. I had sampled a few different options and discarded most of them as impractical, prohibitively expensive, or both. All I could decide on was the fact that I hate the popular usage of “regime” for “regimen”.

Last summer, after a friend mentioned Jillian Michaels’ “30-Day Shred” workout DVD, I read some reviews, mostly favorable, and decided to buy it. I managed to stumble my way through the first level a few times, following the modified exercises for beginners, and thought it wasn’t bad. Then my illness interrupted my routine, as was the case for much of 2009, and the DVD and hand-weights went untouched for the rest of the year.

While I skipped the jumping-jacks, time marched on. I felt lumpier and weaker than ever. During our Portland vacation, I went on a 5-mile hike with moderate elevation and thought I was going to die. A friend and I talked about running, but I did not see myself as a runner. My trainers were ancient, purchased long ago on deep discount during another fit of athleticism while I still had my bicycle. I tried a few times to go running but winded myself almost immediately and, dejected, walked around the block a few times before returning home.

I could not tell you why Monday the 28th was any different. Perhaps I was finally fed up with hearing myself make excuses and then feel sorry for myself. Perhaps I was simply too tired of spending so much time thinking about it. Whatever the case, I got home from work, ate a banana, read email for a few minutes, and then I went into the living room and flailed awkwardly for a while. Calories were burned. Epithets were hurled. Push-ups, even “modified for beginners”, were barely pushed up.

Heady with my sweat-soaked achievement, I decided that the next day I would go running. The Couch to 5k program had intrigued me when I first heard about it, so much so that I promised myself I would do it if I ever got back in shape. But I was tired of waiting for that, and the program is for beginning runners. So I downloaded the nifty C25k iPhone app and set my alarm for 6:00 the next morning.

Surprising myself, I didn’t hit snooze. I staggered out of bed, ate a bowl of cereal, and stared at RSS feeds for about twenty minutes. Then I donned my sad old trainers and what passes for “exercise clothing” in my closet and went running. Well, heavy walking with brief flurries of jogging. And I have done so six times now. The second week was less painful, thanks to new trainers, but was far from easy. Good thing I am stubborn, and also newly addicted to endorphins.

For someone who doesn’t see herself as a runner, it is strange to be excited about running. I am far less excited about flailing with Jillian Michaels, but I am doing that on the off-days for lower-impact cardio and strength training. And I still can’t do more than a few push-ups, but changing that is my next fitness goal.

The last week of C25k begins on my birthday. All I want is to wake up on my birthday and run 5k. Wish me luck!

slate and stove

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Today’s blockbuster prompt is from Davmoo: “Please write 100 words on …your favorite childhood memory.”

The wood stove in our living room was surrounded by pieces of slate. Old radiators kept the corners of the other rooms warm, but the wood stove, the old general, boomed forth waves of heat well into winter nights. Cats curled up to it as close as they dared. My parents each tended the fire in such an unassuming way while working on their other projects, another grownup ability that I found quietly glamorous. During nights spent around the stove, I would write and draw on the slate pieces with chalk while the three of us listened to albums of classical music. To this day, whenever I hear Satie’s Gymnopédies, I feel safe.

[Want to help me bust through my writer’s block this month? Read about this exercise!]

grateful for health

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This morning, I succumbed to the summer cold that’s traipsing around, so it might seem strange to write about being grateful for my health. The fact remains that my health is better than it has been in years, and all because I traced the source of most of my nagging problems to ingesting gluten.  (This is why, for those of you who are starting to read my journal now, I am on a gluten-free diet; it is not a fad diet, but a diet required by an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine called Celiac Disease. Read up on this before lecturing me about how diets are bad for me.)

Despite making such a huge breakthrough recently, I have much more work to go on my health. I need to find a daily exercise regimen that I will stick to, unlike going to the gym or jogging.  I might return to tai chi chuan, as that had the double benefit of improving my fitness as well as my state of mind.

(This entry is part of one month of gratitude.)