Jeff's Guide to Personal Health Trackers
July 2014

For a few years now, I've been using technology to help myself lose weight and to be healthier.  I have used a fitbit, basis watch, Samsung gear watches, heart rate monitors, blood pressure monitors, wireless scales, and numerous apps.  At this point I have a good sense of what works, and what's a gimmick.  Now that both Apple and Google have both introduced health platforms, and the industry is buzzing over the possibilities, I thought I would share my experience to put a lot of the hype into perspective.  Based on the opinion pieces and reviews I have read, a lot of perspective is needed.  Not to worry, I'm here to help.

Keep in mind that I am writing this from the perspective of a relatively healthy individual.  A person with health complications will have different needs, potentially negating my comments below.

Jeff's Guide to Electronic Health Stuff

Let's start with the hardware, and focus on what I consider to be helpful.

Heart Rate Monitors (HRM)
There's no better way to measure your cardiovascular fitness than to use a heart rate monitor.  Also, there's no better way to count the calories you are expending at exercise.  I'd say an HRM is a must, but chest straps are a pain in the ass.  Not to worry.  I've been using the Mio Alpha wrist HRM for most of this year, and it works great.  Not perfect, mind you, but generally consistent and reliable.  Beware of devices with a HRM add-on, because they don't do as well as a dedicated HRM.

Wireless Scale
I'm a big proponent of weighing-in everyday, and I have a Withings Wireless Scale to log my weigh-ins effortlessly.  This allows me to see trends in my weight that can go missed with a more casual approach to monitoring weight.  It may sound silly, but I see this as a must have.  Yes, any scale can measure your weight, but the tracking is invaluable, and who has time to manually track each weigh-in?  With a wireless scale, you don't have to, and the results can often tie in to other apps.

Tracking steps is a great proxy for your movement and exercise for a given day.  And there's a bonus here: any pedometer will do.  Don't sweat the accuracy, it's consistency that matters, and every pedometer I've ever used has been consistent.  Right now I use my gear watch, and that works fine for me.  A fitbit is better as you can sink up your activity and incorporate that into various apps.  But I find recording steps less valuable than simply looking at your results midday and then deciding to try to walk a bit more, etc.

So that's the good stuff.  Here's stuff that's nice to have, but actually not that useful.

Sleep Trackers
I have owned two, the fitbit and the basis watch.  The latter was much more accurate in terms of when I started to sleep and when I woke up.  But in both cases, there just isn't much you can do with the information.  You know now if you don't sleep well, and the answers aren't that complicated.  You either need to dedicate more time to sleeping more, or solve the conditions which are causing you trouble such as being too hot, or having too much stress.  Measuring your sleep won't give you any additional useful advice, at least to the extent that these devices can measure your rest.  I would avoid this.

Monitoring Heart Rate Outside of Exercise
As with the sleep monitors, this information provides interesting but ultimately useless data.  What can you possibly do with the results?  If your pulse is too high, then you can find that out by checking your blood pressure.  You don't need to monitor your pulse hour by hour, or minute by minute.  It sounds great, but trust me, the information you get is worthless.

Blood Pressure Monitors
Resting heart rates and blood pressure do not change dramatically from day to day, assuming you are reasonably healthy.  I have a blood pressure monitor, and I like to track my stats, but much like before, there's nothing I can do with the information but compile it.  If you are curious about your BP, just go to a store that has a public monitor and that will give you all the information you need for a while.  No need to buy one of these.

Enough With the Hardware, Let's Talk Apps!

Actually let's not.  I could write a book with all the apps I've used.  There are so many out there, and a lot of them do the same things as the others, that in a lot of cases the app you use comes down to preference and the types of exercise that you do.

Having said that, I do have an app to recommend.  Digifit is a fantastic app that also has a web portal (Digifit is the company, the name of the apps vary a bit, but are available on both Apple and Android).  Why do I recommend it?  For the following reasons:

"    It can incorporate data from certain other health trackers such as my HRM watch and Withings scale.
"    It provides a great aggregation of my health data, and has a calendar to display the work outs, weigh-ins, and HRM recordings that I have done.
"    It can show you your heart rate performance during exercise, illustrating where your effort falls into various intensity bands.
"    The use of a HRM comes with a one-time fee, where with other apps a ongoing subscription is required.
"    You can post the results of a work out onto social media such as Facebook.
"    You can map your exercise using your phone's GPS.  Maps and graphs include elevation and heart rate data to really tell a story about your work-out.

If you're into calorie counting, I highly recommend MyFitnessPal, but I won't go into that now.

So that's my two cents on this health thing.  Here's a final tip.  We're going to hear a lot about sensors and tracking things we have no idea about today.  Beware.  Most of what we're going to hear is how to track things we can't do anything about.  Health data is interesting, but before you buy a shiny new gadget, ask yourself this question:  "What can I do with the data I will be collecting?"  In many cases, as evidenced in my examples above, the answer is: "nothing".  The basics you need are already out there.  It's unlikely we'll be seeing anything as useful as a HRM or pedometer any time soon.

16 Years An Arsenal Fan
May 2014

As Arsenal hoisted the FA Cup after a completely stressful 3-2 victory over Hull City after extra time, a drought of 8 years of trophies ended.  Although I jumped up and down and made my son watch as the team kissed the silverware, it wasn't until half an hour later that I could actually feel my apprehension and nervousness fade away where I was truly happy for the result.  I told my son this, and he asked sensibly how I could be that emotionally connected to the fate of a sports team.  It's hard to explain really, but for the past 16 years I have been proud to support that North London club, and have forged a bond that will endure until my passing.

It all started in late 1997 when two critical elements came to a head.  First, I had decided to take my first ever trip outside the United States.  I was to go by myself to London for a week.  I had heard from others about the joy of foreign travel, and I wanted to finally experience it for myself.  Second, I had really gotten into an early version of the EA Sports FIFA game.  In that, I mainly played as Blackburn or Newcastle for reasons I can't recall.  I wasn't a fan of any particular team though, but I was getting into the sport in such a way that I thought I needed to designate a favorite team.  And since I was going to England, why not pick a team and then actually see them play?  That's when my research began.

I had a simple criteria: pick a team in the London area, one that plays at the Premiership level, and that doesn't look likely to be relegated (in non-American soccer leagues, the bottom teams are banished to a lower level at the end of the season, replaced by teams who have won promotion from the lower leagues).  The only obvious choice was Arsenal which met all my needs and hovered near the top of the table in the early part of the season.  Perhaps I should have put more thought into it, but it worked out perfectly nonetheless.

Once in London, I took the tube to the Arsenal station and upon emerging to the outside world, I knew I had made the right choice.  To my disbelief, right across the street -- a simple two lane street mind you -- was the stadium itself.  Highbury was nestled in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  I walked along half of the outer perimeter until I found the ticket gate.  I walked right up and bought a ticket to the upcoming Coca-Cola Cup Match with Birmingham City.  In retrospect, my timing had been perfect.  It would be impossible in just a few years to just show up and buy a ticket to a game that would take place a few days later.  But that was just another sign that Arsenal was meant to be my team.

When I attended the game, I arrived way to early, so I bought a beer and proceeded to walk up to the stands.  The guards stopped me however -- no beer above the concourse.  So I had to drink it around the concession area.  The game itself would be the first of a pattern for me, an Arsenal draw after regular time.  But in extra time Arsenal scored 3 goals for an easy win.  I didn't discover until that night, when the Arsenal keeper David Seaman was interviewed on TV, that the second string team played that day and not the starters.  The Coca-Cola cup was the least valued of all the competitions Arsenal was in, so it was an opportunity for the reserves to develop.  I was a touch disappointed at that, but in the end I didn't care, Arsenal was my team now.

With the internet up in full force, I followed Arsenal closely.  I never saw them play on TV, but I knew about each result the day it occurred.  The year I picked them as my team, they won the double by winning the Premiership and the FA Cup, a not unprecedented but yet still historic achievement.  My bond with the team had been forged.

There was a lot about the European perspective to sports that I really appreciated over the American model.  First was the aforementioned relegation of teams that did not perform well that year.  Can you imagine if the Chicago Cubs were banished to Triple A ball?  That happens in European soccer.  In addition, The top 3-4 teams won entry into European club competitions.  And then there were the two domestic cup matches the teams could play for.  In other words, it was not a winner take all system, there were at least 3 trophies a team could take home in a given year.  And league games mattered -- there were no playoffs.  Finally, the clubs in Europe operated in a much more free market style, with no draft to pick players.  Teams had to find their own talent, our buy players under contract from other teams.  Every difference to American sports was exciting and fresh, and best of all, made a lot of sense.

In 2004 I got married and took my honeymoon in Great Britain.  We saw two soccer matches that September, one for Glasgow Celtic and another at Highbury.  What a contrast!  At Glasgow we were literally in the highest row of the stadium, looking out to the city as the stands across from us were only half the height.  The atmosphere was that of men drunk before the game ever began.  The stadium itself was located in what looked like project housing.  Suffice to say, we will never go back there again.  But Arsenal was better in every way.  We had seats not far from the field, and sat a corner from the away fans who chanted at us while we chanted back.  Opponents could walk through the streets around the stadium, surrounded by the home red, singing songs about their team, but with no fear of their safety.  Arsenal fans can be downers sometimes in their attitude, but they have a class their Glasgow counterparts desperately need.

As per my tradition, the day of the game I went into the club shop to buy a jersey.  The room was packed, and by the time I reached the front, I found myself beside a nice old lady who was buying Arsenal floormats for her car.  I turned to her and said, "too bad they aren't Manchester United mats so you could step on them."  She faced me and said in a straight voice, "If they were Manchester United mats, I couldn't tell you what I would do to them."  It was clear she meant it too.

When Arsenal moved to their new stadium in 2006, I had to see them.  So, between jobs, I flew out to London for the weekend.  The same tube station got me there, and I was pleased to find out that the walk to the new location only took 10 minutes.  Their new home looked great, and it even had padded seats.  Per tradition, my team drew with Everton 1-1.  I sat behind the goal, literally next to the walk way where security roamed up and down.  Fans from the other team sat an arm reach away, and at one point the guy next to me, whom I did not know, actually reached over me to taunt those fans.  What an experience!

Over these years I came to learn what a class act Arsenal was.  They ran a successful business model, not going out to buy players beyond their means but brining in young talent and developing it.  The manager, the same one for my entire tenure as a fan, was known as the Professor for his cerebral approach to the game.  They had fantastic membership plan that offered some pretty cool stuff and I was proud to have my Arsenal membership cards for the four years I belonged (membership was really about getting tickets, so after the first four years, the bonus materials were pretty understated, so I grudgingly stopped being a member).  If you were a UK resident, you could even buy a share of the club that was otherwise privately owned.

For the first 8 years of my fandom, Arsenal won 7 major trophies and 4 minor ones -- not to mention their one year of being undefeated in league play.  For the past 8 years, Arsenal has not fared as well.  The move to the new stadium has shackled the team as much as it helped it, and the club's insistence on being a stable business model has been both admirable and constraining in an era of rich foreign ownerships buying their silverware through expensive players.  Yet, despite this lull, I have remained a fan, with my 3 jerseys hanging in my office regardless of how the team performed.

I have a bond with Arsenal that transcends any other sports team I call my favorite.  My time as a fan has interweaved with too many of my great life moments for me to ever turn away from them.  My son has even been adorned in an Arsenal onesie!  So despite how irrational my reaction was to the game against Hull City in the FA Cup final, no matter how right my son was to wonder why I would have such a connection to a silly sports team, I have that and always will. 

Go gunners!!!


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