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
  • tracks played
  • Twitter: tweets, mentions
  • Spotify, Deezer, iTunes, and more: via

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.

Sleep is more important than food

I am definitely feeling this one right now, especially with that HealthMonth sleep rule kicking my butt. (via MLx)

Getting enough sleep for HealthMonth.

Yesterday I felt pretty positive about my television-limiting rule for HealthMonth. Today I discovered that my next rule might crush my game entirely.

For months, I have been going to bed earlier than I ever have in the interest of getting enough sleep each night. My new job, which is rapidly becoming just “my job” in terms of referring to it, requires that I wake up by six-thirty every morning. I am a night-owl, so this has been a struggle for me, but I have been successful.

Until about two in the afternoon, when I get home and need to be wide-awake and starting in on my homework. Either I crash out for an hour or so, or I end up blearily stumbling through pages of reading, taking vague notes, and then re-reading frantically as the assignment looms.

My Fitbit was confusing me. It reported 94-97% sleep efficiency each night, with averages of seven hours per night. So I started going to bed earlier, figuring that the issue was not enough sleep instead of quality of sleep. Exhaustion persisted.

Yesterday, I decided to change the sensitivity on Fitbit’s sleep tracker from “normal” to “sensitive”. What resulted was this:

screenshot of Fitbit sleep data

When I saw this, my heart sank. Even though I went to bed before midnight – which was especially difficult when I had barely seen FunkyPlaid all day and wanted to spend time with him – my longest block of sleep was just over an hour long. An hour! Not even a proper nap.

Granted, I had three things working against me last night:

  1. I exercised right before bed. I noticed that I wasn’t going to make my quota of 10k steps/day without taking a brisk walk around the block, and I had meant to do that earlier in the day, but … see aforementioned exhaustion.
  2. I allowed myself to get worked up about a computer issue right before bed. Our printer stopped working for FunkyPlaid, and I need to troubleshoot it. Last night’s mindset – cranky due to a headache, stressed due to homework – was not the right one to be in for troubleshooting. I tried anyway.
  3. I started stressing about homework right before bed. Just … no.
So, okay, maybe last night I stacked the deck against myself. Maybe it is not as dire as it feels right now. But my HealthMonth rule is to get at least seven hours of sleep at least six days a week, and I have no idea how I am going to do that unless I start going to bed at nine o’clock.

to bed and to rise

Every night, Torgi the cat puts me to bed by chirping and nudging me until I stop doing whatever I am doing. Every morning, he head-butts me into consciousness because it is time for his breakfast.

Zen, in contrast, cannot be bothered. Her whims are her own, not to be shared with silly humans.

Right now Torgi is purring loudly while attempting to wedge himself in between me and my iPhone. He is winning.

RSSless: days 4 and 5

FunkyPlaid and I were at the store until late last night, so I didn’t post my non-progress on the RSS fast.  No matter; absolutely nothing has changed.  I spend my time writing, reading, and puzzle-solving instead, and my stress levels are markedly down.  Now I am absolutely convinced that I need to ditch my RSS reader permanently, and only read a handful of feeds on a start page like iGoogle or Netvibes.

We ran lots of errands today, relishing in our pre-cohabitation domesticity, wringing out the moments of our only day off together.  Right now I am sipping pomegranate wine and eating dark-chocolate-covered pistachios while chatting with some old friends online as FunkyPlaid’s WoW character busies herself with the usual smiting of evil.  Yawns escape my protesting lips; FunkyPlaid leaves for a trade show in Vegas tomorrow, so I won’t see him for a week, and I don’t want to fall asleep yet.  But who defeats sleep?

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I acknowledge that I live and work on stolen Cowlitz, Clackamas, Atfalati, and Kalapuya land.
I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.