October 25, 2013

Living with my Basis

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When I first started my diet/nutritional program, a friend suggested that I get myself a new fitness toy, as a way to motivate myself.  I was looking around at the usual suspects from Nike, Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin…etc.  But nothing I saw really appealed to me.  Having a GPS would be real nice, but that severely limited my choices.  Yes, I wanted a heart rate monitor, but didn't want to strap anything to my chest while I ran.  There didn't seem to be a single solution which combined a GPS with a wrist-based HRM.

Then someone posted a story about Soylent on my Facebook timeline.  While the story was interesting (I would never want to replace eating with drinking Soylent) what really caught my eye was a little gadget called Basis B1.  The thought of wearing something 24 hours a day and then analyzing how your body behaves suddenly seemed intriguing.  After doing some research online and reading a few reviews, I suddenly wanted one.  Since Basis themselves were kinda back ordered and wouldn't have shipped directly to Hong Kong anyway, I found someone on eBay who would.  The premium I paid was justifiable in my mind, so I bid on it, won, and patiently waited for the seller shipped it from the US via USPS…

There was a public holiday during my waiting period, and I took a few days off to spend it with my family back in Taipei.  After returning to HK, I eagerly checked my mailbox at work and finally found the package after some three weeks' of waiting…

So began my adventures in self-quantifying.  I wore my Basis on my left wrist 24 hours a day, and the only time I took it off was when I weighed myself first thing in the morning, and when I took my showers.  I would now be able to peek into some aspects of my bodily functions and look at my life patterns, if there were any.

Lots of people have criticized the Basis B1 for its "flaws", and there are certainly a couple of tasks where it doesn't do so well.  I think it has to do with expectations.  I never expected a device at this price point that does everything perfectly, and I read enough reviews before buying to know its limitations.  So let me address my own experiences and why it doesn't bother me so much.

As a pedometer - some reviews out there have pitted the Basis B1 against a number of other devices and found it fairly accurate.  My own experience shows that the step count is generally pretty accurate, and the count mostly increases in time with my own steps.  I tested it by standing still and shaking my arm to see if the count increased… Sideway swings generally were not counted, by swinging my arm forward and backward did.  Random shakes of the wrist also did not increase the count.

One way the accelerometer in the device could sometimes be fooled is when you sit inside a fast-moving vehicle and it brakes hard, producing a jerky motion.  Do that a couple of times and your Basis would count a few steps.  Otherwise I haven't seen my step count increase while being in a car, bus or the subway.  Another time when it may not count all your steps is when you choose to walk up the stairs two steps at a time.

Having said that, I'm pretty happy and willing to accept a 5-10% margin of error.

As a heart rate monitor - the Basis B1 uses an optical sensor similar to the device they clip on your finger at hospitals.  It looks at blood flow through your capillaries.  It isn't the quickest and most responsive - i.e. if your heart rate jumps suddenly it may not register that right way.  There have been times when I started to exercise and the device took a minute or two to register the increase in heart rate.  That being said, I'm not too bothered by it as one of the biggest things I am looking to get out of this device is looking at trends and patterns during the day.  If the device missed out on a few seconds or even a minute, it's not going to have a huge impact when looking at things on a 24-hour basis.

It's well-known that the Basis B1 isn't the best device to wear during your workout.  That's not what the device was meant for.  If you're looking to have the most accurate data of your heart rate and what not, go and buy a Garmin or Mio.  However, since I don't do any real strenuous exercise - I jog very slowly on the advice of my nutritionist - I don't have a problem with this.  Just make sure the B1 is tight on your wrist, and I've had very little problem seeing my heart rate progress from "normal" levels even up to around 140 bpm or more.  I only check my heart rate once in 5-10 minutes, anyway…

The one downside to the device is that the display is a little too simplistic.  Other than the time and date, - and a bar indicating your daily progress towards the goal of 10,000 steps - only heart rate, step count and calories burned are shown.  For the rest of the data you must sync the device with your PC and look at it online.  By the way, the app that works with your iPhone is completely useless.  It doesn't show anything meaningful and I can't even get the Bluetooth sync to work most of the time.

The website shows a lot more.  There is a section where you can look at your data in detail for any 24-hour period (down to the average data for any given minute of the day), or as a pattern over a 2-week period (aggregated to hourly blocks). This was the part I was most interested in.

Take October 9.  I was sound asleep until about 5:40 a.m.  Then I got up and did a light jog for an hour, resulting in a massive amount of steps as well as boosting my HR from 60ish to 130ish.  Then HR came down and settled between 60 to 70 during the day when I'm relatively stable at the desk.  That evening I had a humongous dinner at the Krug Room, with a ton of Champagne and wine.  That helped push my HR to the 80 to 90 range even while sitting down, which is a good 20 bpm higher.

This raises an interesting point for me to argue with my nutritionist.  I've always known that my heart rate goes up after I drink alcohol, but now I can tell how much faster.  According to an article I read recently, raising your HR by 10 bpm would help you burn 0.7 more calories per minute.  Let's assume the relationship is not quite linear and that raising HR by 20 bpm burns 1 calorie more.

I drank roughly 1 bottle of wine that evening, which would have been on the order of say, 650 to 700 extra calories (since the last glass was a very sweet dessert wine).  But as a result, my HR was raised by 20 bpm for the next 4 hours while at dinner, and continued at the elevated levels even during my sleep. So I would have burned 1 extra calorie for a period of some 10-11 hours, or 600 to 660 calories!  In short, drinking a bottle of wine would have resulted in almost no extra calories!!!

I will never feel guilty about wine and calories again.

Looking at the HR pattern chart, it's clear that my HR was at an elevated level on nights when I drank at dinner, and continued even into my sleep.  HR may drop somewhat as I sleep more, but it's still higher than my resting HR on nights when I don't drink.

My calories pattern chart tells me that Basis clearly doesn't believe that a higher HR without exercise burns more calories.

Steps pattern during the day.

I always suspected that my body temperature goes up during sleep, even though I'm resting and not active.  Well Basis confirmed that my skin temperature is definitely higher during the hours of my sleep.

Finally, there are "habits" that one can choose to follow, and there is a daily measurement of whether you've hit that goal for the day.  I chose Morning Lap and Evening Lap to make sure I walk enough steps before noon and after 5 p.m. on days when I don't run.  I also picked Don't Be A Sitter, which sounds like a good idea since the goal is to make sure you don't sit still for more than an hour.  You have to get up constantly so that idle time does not exceed more than an hour.

Unfortunately these habits are sometimes hard to hit, as there are no reminders, nor any convenient way to see how far you are away from hitting that goal.  I've been frustrated on numerous days when I found that I sat for periods of 1 hour and 3 or 5 minutes.  I guess you just have to remind yourself constantly to get your fat ass off the chair…

All in all, though… I was pretty happy with my purchase.  I learned a little more about myself, and I now have a reasonably accurate HR monitor without having to strap one to my chest.  On certain days I found myself consciously walking around to block to get in some extra steps to hit my daily goal.

For a whole month, I left my small collection of mechanical watches neglected at home - my chronographs and my el cheapo perpetual calendar… and had this plastic toy on my wrist.  I even dared to wear it to a watchmaking class… much to the chagrin of my host, no doubt.  One whole month of wearing it nearly 24 hours, and seeing the indentations on my wrist during the little time each day that I have it off.

But I finally took it off this week, as a new replacement toy came into my possession.  And the thing that displaced my Basis?  This "little" thing from The Chinese Timekeeper

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