Beyond step counts with Exist

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.

Resetting my health goals and tracking.

Good afternoon, readers. It has been a long time since my last self-portrait. I have been so thoroughly brain-focused lately as I finish up the semester that I just needed a little bit of something tangible, a note to myself that non-brain parts of me exist.

As soon as I started thinking about that, I started thinking about how much I miss enjoying the non-brain parts of me, like the sweet moment where my body stops fighting the exertion process. I miss that space right before the endorphins hit, where everything and nothing feels, just feels, all at once.

Then I realized how long it had been since I felt that all-at-once space.

I got distracted, very distracted, by toys on my quest for better health. No surprise there. I like toys and I like data and I like tracking data with toys. But between Fitbit, HealthMonth, SparkPeople, DailyMile, and RunKeeper … I’ve lost the motivation to Do amidst all the Record.

self-portrait, april 2011 So I’ve reset. I’m using two tools now: SparkPeople for physical metrics and The Ice Plant’s Five-Year Diary for everything else.

SparkPeople was the first health-tracking website I joined a few years ago. Initially I was pretty turned off by the design, which seemed cluttered and ridden with things I didn’t need like homepages and message boards. I still think it could stand a redesign, but I like that it is a one-stop shop for tracking exercise, food/water consumption, and overall health goals. I also like the book and the iPhone app. Everything about SparkPeople seems focused on being positive about being healthy, which I appreciate immensely.

So far as the other type of health, I have always kept a diary, but my diary goals have simplified over the years. I used to want to archive it all, but there are many dull moments that I do not need to preserve for posterity. (Insert self-deprecating aside about my tweets.) I do, however, see a bit of value in comparing snapshots of my mental state over a few years. If nothing else, I hope to discern cognitive patterns more easily this way.

Here comes the five-year diary, making that stylish and easy for me. And I get to use my pens. The paper isn’t the best for fountain pen ink, but it is better than average. I like – theoretically, at least, for a few years – the ability to see little moments from my past right there on the same page.

So that’s where I am right now. And you? How do you track your health goals?

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I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.