Dustin’s mHealth Corner: Battle of the (wrist)Bands

In last month’s post, I wrote about wearable technology devices that pair with smartphone apps to report data on steps taken, calories burned, sleep patterns and more. These devices are becoming more popular with consumers, and manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand, while upstarts are using crowd sourced funding as a way to enter the market. It seems as if everyone wants a piece of the wearable market and it feels like a new device pops up every day. The only problem is that I don’t see any major differentiators that make one device appear better than another. “This one is purple!” “This one is red!” “Ours tracks your sleep!” “Ours tracks your running!” Could it really just come down to someone’s personal preference, their fitness goals and what they deem fashionable?

I recently read an article that recommended trying several devices to find the right wearable, and as I complete a month wearing one wristband and move on to a second month wearing another, I completely agree.  Last month Chad Cruse (@bfstcruse) and I (@BFST_D) tried the first in a long list of wearables.  We tested a well-known wristband that has been on the market for over a year and is made by one of the leaders in wearable devices. This band reports data on steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, calories consumed and sleep patterns. It has a smart coach feature that prompts the user on goals, and the band has a social network aspect that lets you track what your friends are doing. We wore this fitness band 24 hours a day for 30 days—I actually didn’t make it 30 days but more on that later­—and below we report on our first experience with wearable technology.

Are wearable devices truly wearable and sharable?

As someone who’s uncomfortable wearing jewelry, I was a bit concerned about wearing something on my wrist for 24 hours a day, but after a few days, the annoyance factor was minimal. At one point, I even panicked when I thought that I left the device at the gym. I had become so used to wearing it that I didn’t notice it on my wrist. I think there’s definitely something to be said for that as far as comfort goes, but I did manage to pull it off my wrist in my sleep, which woke me up and caused some frustration.  Once I became more comfortable wearing the device, the style factor became an issue. The initial novelty had worn off, and I felt like the band was very noticeable and sporty looking in photos, but it needed to be hidden under my shirt when I was in a business suit. While I am a bit of a fitness nerd, I don’t necessarily want to look like one at all times. This band didn’t have the smooth styling of a nice wristwatch, and it slid on as a bracelet without a clasp or a strap.

While I wasn’t crazy about the look, one thing that I liked more than I expected was the social networking component of the band’s app.  As I traveled and interacted with friends and Benefitfocus customers I often found myself among people with the same wristband as me. This allowed me to connect with them through the app and then I could see when they achieved their diet, step and workout goals. A friend of mine is a server at a popular restaurant in downtown Charleston, and I enjoyed seeing her walk 25,000 steps during her workday, compared to my average of around 5,000 steps as an office worker. I could also see if someone had a late night and only logged a couple of hours’ worth of sleep or accomplished a streak of five workouts in a row. Knowing that people could see my activity definitely made me more conscious of what I was doing. If I ate something and logged it into MyFitnessPal, all of my friends could see that “Dustin ate snacks.” I usually earned those snacks, but I can see how it would help someone on a strict diet push himself to remain accountable for the goals he set.

Speaking of pushing oneself, I wanted to push myself during this trial for two reasons: (1) to do more than Chad and (2) to really put the device to the test, but a mishap with the device around week 2.5 caused me to miss some activities such as running and kickball. I took a long weekend with friends at a house on the river. It was equipped with a rope swing and beach volleyball court. I initially removed the band to avoid disaster, but I really wanted to get credit for all of those volleyball games I was playing and found that I could by wearing it on my ankle while I played. The only problem was that every few games a dip in the river was needed to remove sand and to cool off from the heat. Now, back to that whole “comfort” thing. The band was completely unnoticeable on my ankle and one swing on the rope—along with the subsequent drop into the river that accompanied it—sent the band off to live at the bottom of the Edisto River. It was a tragic mistake, but a testament to how quickly I integrated the band into my life.

How wearing a wristband influenced behavior

So let’s dig deeper into how Chad and I integrated the band into our lifestyles.

  1. What activities did you participate in?
    • Chad: Running, hiking, swimming (without the band), basketball, football, cycling, weightlifting and yoga
    • Dustin: Cycling, weightlifting, beach volleyball, swimming (with the band… oops!), helping a friend move (there were stairs at both places!) and walking a golf course
  2. Did you change your workout habits?
    • Chad: Using the data from the wristband’s app definitely led to some behavior changes. For instance, if I only had 10,000 steps at the end of the day I would go for an additional walk or an evening run to hit the 13,000-step goal that I set for myself.
    • Dustin: I didn’t change any workout habits during the time I wore the band. I’m pretty active and with my main habits revolving around 5-6 days a week in the gym and 100-150 miles on my road bike, I really didn’t need any additional motivation to be active. The number of steps walked each day or the flights of stairs climbed were really just bonus items. It was interesting to see how much I actually walk during the day though, and I made sure I had the band on at all times to get credit for my activity.
  3. Did you eat better?
    • Chad: The wristband’s app integrates well with other calorie tracking apps and it raised awareness of my food intake. That said, it’s hard to attribute increased awareness solely to the band, as I would use the calorie tracker regardless of the way it integrates with the band’s app.
    • Dustin: I wanted to test the app’s integration with calorie trackers, so I would say that I was more focused on logging my calories. Although I didn’t actually eat differently, my results show that I probably should have.
  4. Did you sleep more?
    • Chad: Wearing the wristband made me more conscious of my sleeping habits, but I’m not confident it provided an accurate depiction of whether or not I was sleeping. There were times when I knew I was awake, but the app said I was asleep and vice versa. The act of checking the numbers made me more aware of the hours that I spent in bed, but the feedback didn’t cause me to alter my habits.
    • Dustin: I didn’t change any habits when it came to sleeping, but it was interesting to see when the app thought I was sleeping lightly versus sleeping deeply, although I’m really not sure how accurate it was. I was intrigued by the coaching feature and found it useful for increasing awareness. After a few late nights one week, the app sent me a notification saying “We noticed that you’re having some late nights this week. Based on your average wake up time you should go to bed at X time to catch up on sleep.” I ignored the recommendation, but I can see how it could benefit someone who is wearing the band and not paying attention to the data that’s accumulating.
  5. How was the overall experience? Would you wear this band post trial?
    • Chad: I found the wristband to have limited use beyond tracking distance traveled. There is no meaningful feedback on the level of exertion associated with the activities I performed, but the band did heighten awareness of my daily movement and sleep habits. While the band does not provide the level of feedback I require in my daily training, it may very well serve the needs of an individual looking to begin a walking-centric fitness program. I will not continue wearing this fitness band.
    • Dustin: Overall I think that the wristband did a good job as a pedometer, and I think that it could change habits and motivate someone who is trying to start a basic wellness or fitness program.  While it did integrate well with calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal and running and cycling apps like Strava, I still had to use these independently to log the data, so there wasn’t a lot of value in the integration. In fact, the band added a third app that I had to monitor. While this particular band has its place in the market, it’s not the right one for me, and I wouldn’t continue wearing it.

So there you have it. Month one of Dustin’s mHealth corner is complete, a solid trial took place, and only one wearable was destroyed. Next month we’ll continue with wristbands, but we’re going a bit higher in price range to test a band with real-time heart rate functionality. Matthew Middlebrooks (@middleman05) will be joining me on this adventure, so look for my next post where we compare resting heart rates and more!

Bonus: Did you know that the average man walks 7,192 steps per day while the average woman walks 5,210 steps per day? How do you stack up?

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