All round health trackers for under £100

Do you want to track your general health? Me too, so I had a look around for some fitness trackers that might do the job – but when I reached 40 prospective devices I realised this was a bigger job than expected. The boom in health wearables at the moment seems to cover both ends of the market – from basic step counters to improving fitness with a personal trainer on your wrist. Some of these look fantastic but are out of most people’s budget.

So let’s focus on what features are really useful in a health tracker. And note that I’m saying health tracker as opposed to fitness tracker, as I want to monitor physical characteristics that might have real impact on my life expectancy.

Two important measurements to keep a close track on are blood pressure and weight, and although there are a couple of wrist BP monitors available they’re more aimed at people with a medical condition rather than as a convenient wearable, so I’ll continue doing that with separate equipment for now.

The three key physical properties I want to track are:

  • inactivity
  • sleep
  • resting heart rate

Inactivity

There is more and more research highlighting that long periods of inactivity (for example at a desk or watching TV) cannot be compensated for with a few high intensity gym sessions. In one study of over 50s those with the lowest level of activity were 3 times more likely to die than those with average activity levels over an 8 year period.

For me this puts inactivity alerts as the number one feature required in a wearable health tracker. It’s no use reviewing your activity at the end of the week; I need a gentle nudge there and then to remind me if I’ve been sitting for too long.

Sleep

Another area of your life that has a definite impact on your life expectancy (and that you can control) is the amount of sleep you have each night. Most people know that too little sleep is bad for them, but too much is even worse. In a large meta-study it was found that people sleeping less than six hours a night were 12% more likely to die prematurely, however for those sleeping more than 9 hours a night there was a 30% increase.

Resting Heart Rate

The American Heart Association considers the resting heart rate as a good indicator of general fitness because a lower rate demonstrates that the heart muscle doesn’t have to strain to maintain a steady beat.

A normal resting heart rate (ideally measured before you get out of bed) is between 60 and 100 with professional athletes going down to 40 and below. Mine averages 59 (when taking my monthly blood pressure measurements) and it looks like you should be targeting the lower end of the 60-100 range, but if you’ve got a low heart rate and are having dizzy spells then best to see a doctor.

Almost all fitness trackers that include a heart rate monitor are using an optical sensor. These aren’t as accurate or responsive as chest straps that use electrical activity, especially when measuring heart rate during intense exercise, but for long term averages and morning resting rate they’re generally considered OK. Saying that, one of the products picked uses bioimpedance sensors so may be just as accurate as a chest strap, I’m not sure.

Product Comparison

With these 3 key tracking requirements, and a budget of £100 (about US$130), there were only 3 products from my long list that made the grade.

  • Jawbone Up3 (£59)
  • Sony SmartBand 2 (£79)
  • Xiaomi Mi Band Pulse (£39)

Surprisingly none of the Fitbit range met the criteria as the Alta has inactivity alerts but no HR monitor and the Charge HR is the opposite. Be careful when reviewing the Charge HR – they hint at an inactivity alert but it’s only on the app for post-review, not built into the device itself.

Product Price Temp (skin) Battery Life Display Phone alerts Water-poof Weight (g)
Jawbone Up3 £60 Y 7 days 3 LEDs N Splash 29
Sony SmartBand 2 £80 N 5 days 3 LEDs Y 3m 25
Mi Band Pulse £39 N 7 days 3 LEDs Y Splash 14

 

Jawbone Up3

https://jawbone.com/fitness-tracker/up3

Jawbone Up3

The Up3 comes in 2 styles (twist and cross) and half a dozen different colours, but more importantly it come packed full of sensors.

Unlike pretty much all other activity trackers and smart watches, the Up3 uses bioimpedance sensors to measure heart rate. The sensors measure the resistance of skin tissue to tiny electric currents. For more technical information refer to their blog post: https://jawbone.com/blog/up3-advanced-multi-sensor-technology/

It says it tracks REM sleep – not sure how, I assume using an algorithm based on heart rate and movement – I’ll investigate this more when I get my hands on one (it’s on my xmas list!).

A feature I particularly like, and possible essential, is being able to configure the inactivity reminder – you can set the duration before receiving a vibration alert using the app and also set the time window when it monitors this. Makes sense, not sure how others do it when you’re sleeping.

Until I get to try one myself, here’s some feedback from the Wareable review (3.5 stars):
•    comfortable fit, though clasp is fiddly as anything
•    sensors leave imprints on your skin – but not uncomfortable
•    app is one of the most comprehensive out there
•    charging cable is badly designed
Read full review on Wareable: http://www.wareable.com/jawbone/jawbone-up3-review

Sony SmartBand 2

http://www.sonymobile.com/global-en/products/smart-products/smartband-2/

Sony Smartband 2

Available in 4 swappable colour silicone bands the SmartBand 2 looks as stylish as you’d expect from Sony. It lacks a few sensors included in the Jawbone Up3 however it does add vibration and LED alerts for phone notifications as well as basic media controls for pausing and skipping music.

The biggest complaint appearing in several reviews is the accuracy of the step tracking – with reviewers notching up steps when the phone isn’t being worn and over 1000 steps while sleeping.

An important note is that on the Sony website it claims 5 day battery life, but that is only in stamina mode with the heart rate sensor turned off, so I’ve put the more realistic 2 day battery life in the comparison table.

Key points from the Wareable review (3 stars):

  • old school fitness band design
  • smart alarm can wake you during light sleep once you’ve set certain parameters
  • uses 2 apps – one for settings and on the spot readings, then the Lifelog app for activity graphs, milestones, etc
  • battery life could be better

Read full review on Wareable: http://www.wareable.com/sony/smartband-2-review

Xiaomi Mi Band Pulse

http://xiaomi-mi.co.uk/xiaomi-mi-band/xiaomi-mi-band-pulse-black/

Mi Band

Not to be confused with Mio Global (who invented the optical heart rate sensor) the Mi Band Pulse is the budget option but retains most of the features offered by premium brands.

The heart rate monitor checks your pulse every 10 minutes, or on demand, and takes up to 30 seconds to take a reading so isn’t designed for fitness tracking at the gym, but should work fine for checking your resting heart rate first thing in the morning.

The Mi Fit app is also suitably budget, however it is compatible (with limited functionality) with both Google Fit and Apple Health.

The main reason I didn’t choose the Mi Band Pulse is the inactivity alert. Although it has one, it’s not configurable, so only reminds you have sitting still for an hour – I’d like to set mine to 30 minutes.

Key points from the Wareable review (3 stars):

  • basic design
  • breaks your walking and running into blocks of active time
  • sleep tracking is hit and miss
  • notifications for up to three apps

Read full review on Wareable: http://www.wareable.com/xiaomi/xiaomi-mi-band-pulse-1s-review

References

http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/2024.aspx?CategoryID=52
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/All-About-Heart-Rate-Pulse_UCM_438850_Article.jsp#
http://www.nhs.uk/news/2010/05May/Pages/lifespan-link-to-sleeping-habits.aspx

Reducing Fat Percentage – diet v exercise

I’m slowly reading Ray Kurzweil’s live forever guide Transcend and trying to take action to address any points where I’m outside of his optimal ranges. My key ones are cholesterol and fat percentage which are no doubt related.

None of my friends would regard me as fat or even slightly overweight (they put me in the “lucky you can eat whatever you want” category) – but my body fat percentage is nearly 20%. Ray recommends 10-17% for men and 18-26% for women with the optimal figure at lower end of these ranges. I’m going to aim for middle of my range – 14% –  better to set something achievable and then improve on it rather than fail and get disheartened.

My initial thinking was to go on a lower fat diet as this should help with cholesterol levels too. If I take in less fat then my fat percentage would slowly reduce. It seemed logical. But it took me a little while to ask the basic question – if I reduce my fat percentage, what does that fat convert into? And the only real answer to that is energy – energy that needs to be burned with extra exercise.

How does the body process fat?

How Stuff Works has a nice introduction to how the body creates, stores and uses fat:
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/cellular-microscopic/fat-cell.htm

Just having a lower fat diet isn’t going to dilute my existing fat – it has to get turned into something else and apart from bones which don’t grow very fast, or clogging up my arteries, that fat will only get used up when the body demands more energy to operate its muscles. I could just burn up the fat but as I’d prefer not to be skinny I’m going to try to maintain my current weight so need to grow those muscles too.

Having said that, it takes about 25% of the energy in glucose to convert it into fat – that’s 10x more energy than storing ingested fat so it’s definitely better to be on a lower fat diet rather than just counting calories.

How long will it take?

Given a weight of about 74 kg that means I started off carrying 14.3 kg of pure fat. To have a fat percentage of 14% that needs to go down to 10.4 kg – i.e. to lose 3.9 kg. An average male eats around 2kg of food per day but just stopping eating for 2 days won’t shift that fat 🙁

Here’s a chart showing my progress to date. I started my low fat diet just before Christmas – not great timing as can be seen in peak fat percentage in the middle of the festive holiday week.

fat percentage diet 3 months

However the good news is that using an Excel trendline I can see I’ve been making steady progress over the last 3 months – that’s on a lower fat diet and 30 minutes of walking a day when I’m not running or at the gym. At that rate I should hit my target percentage in approximately 8 months (total) – not quick but for a body & life changing effect (and only limited self control!) that sounds reasonable.

After my recent revelation that fat can’t just convert into thin air, I’m going to step up my exercise too, so will report back in a couple of months time to see if the rate of fat loss has improved at all.

Daily weight fluctuations… or “I sh!t a pound”!

I’m currently monitoring my weight, and more importantly my fat percentage, to see how quickly a low fat diet has an effect – blog post on that to come later.

As part of weighing myself every week I wondered how much variation there was in the figures and therefore could I really tell if I’d had a good or bad week?

So as a little mini-experiment I weighed myself every hour or so throughout one day to see how much the measurements fluctuated – and here’s the graphs.

daily weight fluctation

daily fat percentage fluctations

You can see that my weight rises throughout the day with spikes after lunch and dinner, and conversely my fat percentage drops throughout the day – with corresponding troughs after meals.

Which seems to make sense to me – eating a good meal doesn’t immediately convert it into fat and so the fat percentage is temporarily lowered – but you’re back where you started the next morning.

Results

Through-out the day, although it was random variations, my weight varied plus or minus 0.5kg (+/- 0.4% fat). And I guess this amount of variation should be no surprise as even a small glass of water weighs 0.1kg.

So for anybody watching their weight anything less than this shouldn’t be considered a success – as Peter Kay famously said in his stand-up routine on Slimming World – “I shit a pound!

Scales Accuracy

I also did a micro-experiment within the mini experiment as I wanted to see how much the fluctuations were due to the accuracy of the bathroom scales (OMRON BF508 Body Composition Monitor).

Taking 3 measurements immediately after each other, and without moving the scales in case floor position has an effect, they showed a variation of +/- 0.1kg (+/- 0.2% fat) which seems as good as you’re going to get for a consumer product.