Shawn Parr

Quantified Self

So it turns out there is a whole movement, with a name and everything, for something I just happened to be doing. The Quantified Self movement is about measuring and tracking aspects of your daily life, especially concerning your health/fitness. I ended up doing this as part of my desire to get in better shape so that I could stop taking medication for hypertension. I've had this prescription for a few years now and throughout this time my doctor has been telling me I need to lose weight.

Unfortunately that alone wasn't really enough of a drive to get me in better shape and lose weight. For that I needed an origin story, one with thrills and adventure. Well, not really, but there was a moment when I realized that being horribly out of shape may lead to my death, and in a much more direct fashion than heart disease, diabetes, etc.

Mountainous Mayhem

During the week of Thanksgiving 2010 my family and I took a vacation to a cabin in the Ozarks. It was beautiful. We had discussed doing some hiking while there, but as is typical of a family adventure with kids we didn't really get to do it. One afternoon while the kids were tired and, in one case literally, sick, I decided to venture out to a trail on my own to see how I could do.

I found going out on the trail to be fun and relaxing, and I got to see some interesting landscapes (Pictures on Flickr). However I wasn't paying enough attention to two things: 

  1. I was going downhill the whole way out
  2. It was later in the day than I thought it was

It was when I nearly reached my destination that I realized it would be dark by the time I got back to the car. I immediately turned around and headed back. Back up a mountain. As it took a lot longer to go up than down (a fact that is obvious) darkness quickly descended upon me. Luckily I'm not completely stupid and had brought a backpack with some flashlights, extra clothes, and water. I ended up with a flashlight mounted to my head hiking up the mountain in 20' increments. I was so exhausted that by half way back I literally had to stop every 20 feet to rest. In the woods, on a mountain, in the dark. I was certain a bear was going to show up and eat me (SPOILER ALERT: I'm typing this so it didn't happen), or maybe a cougar, or who knows what else.

Suffice it to say, I felt pretty horrible when I got back to the cabin. On a side note my family didn't seem concerned at all that I had left several hours previously to walk down a mountain, that it had been dark out for a couple of hours, and that they hadn't heard from me. Apparently I'm quite well insured.

Getting things together

In order to avoid such situations in the future, I decided to get serious about getting in shape. Since I was interested in hiking (except for the almost eaten by bears part) I started out hiking some trails that are nearby. That worked for a while, and my favorite trail starts with a huge down hill into a valley, and ends with having to climb back up to get to the car. There is no better motivation to climb a hill and get exercise than the fact you will have to live in the woods if you don't. This was during January - May of 2012.

In June I decided to buy a Kayak. With the Louisiana heat and humidity hiking wasn't happening, and I thought getting out on the water may not be as nasty. I also wanted to get a bit more upper body workout happening. I learned a couple things:

  1. Being on the water is only slightly better
  2. Kayaking works your core a lot more than your upper body

But the kayaking thing has worked out well, and I've even done distances up to 7 miles, which is quite far in a body of water with no current.

Then in December I bought a bicycle. This was to compliment the kayaking with more lower body activity.

I also decided to start eating better. My goal wasn't to diet, but to actually change my lifestyle. My first step was no longer drinking soda day-to-day as of November 2011. I still order soda at restaurants when I know they don't have bottled water. Our tap water here is bad, really bad, like I now have a water cooler in my house bad. Secondly I aspired to eat less. Part of this goal was to not remove anything from my diet. I have started eating healthier things also, more fruits and veggies, etc. But I also still have pizza and jambalaya, just less of it.

At one point my doctor weighed me at 280 pounds. At that time we didn't have a scale in the house, but I would have to change that if I seriously wanted to get into better shape. But I wanted to really track things, and just getting a scale would be a lot of manual labor for me to do that, so I did a bit of research and landed on the Withings Scale.

And that was the genesis of my decent into self quantification.


The Withings Wifi Scale fit into my life perfectly. You set it up with a free account on their website, then connect it to your wireless network. When you weigh in the scale sends your weight and fat/lean measurements to the site. From there you can get charts and statistics on the site, an iOS app, or now an Android app as well. It uses the bioelectrical impedance analysis method to determine the fat vs lean mass on your body. This works by having two hidden electrical plates in the top of the scale. When you stand on the scale in bare feet it sends a small electrical current through your body to measure the impedance. This isn't as accurate as other systems, and is highly dependent on how hydrated you are, however I'm mostly interested in trends so it works well enough for me.

I was now able to determine how much I weighed, and whether I was losing, gaining, or staying the same weight over time. I got great charts with it, and was able to set goals. And all I had to do was stand on the scale for a few seconds each morning. Awesome.

Blood Pressure

While researching the scale, I found that Withings also had a blood pressure monitor that was pretty well regarded. Since one of my goals was to get off the blood pressure meds I thought getting one and tracking my blood pressure would be a great idea. Plus it uses the same apps and shows the data right beside the data from my scale.

The monitor works pretty well. One thing to consider is that it does require being plugged into an iOS device with a 30 pin connector, and I have no idea if it works with a lightening adapter for newer devices.

The Withings software allowed for taking a reading, or taking three readings with a delay and giving you an average. This is how I typically measure as my concern over what my numbers will be can make the first reading artificially high. On the graph it will show up to two measurements, one for morning and one for evening. If more measurements are taken it shows an average of all the measurements during that period.

Activity Tracking

After my adventure in the Ozarks I thought it would be a good idea to start using GPS tracking when I went for a hike. That way I would have a much better idea of how far out I was, how far back I needed to go, and in which direction if I couldn't otherwise tell. This led me to a number of different apps, however the one I used most was Gaia GPS. I used Gaia for hiking and for kayaking and it worked well for mapping and telling me my distance and speed. However it didn't tell me much about myself. How many calories might I be burning, etc.

When I began biking I discovered Cyclemeter. It gave me GPS tracking, although not with offline maps which keeps Gaia as my go-to in hiking situations, and it also gave me more stats including calculated calorie burn. In addition it can work with other sensor systems like cadence/speed sensors, heart rate monitors, etc, to track more information about how you ride. The calorie estimates are far from perfect, especially since I don't have any of those sensors, but it still gave me an idea of how effective my workouts were. Plus it could track more than just biking, and I now have it setup to track walking and kayaking also.

In the future it would be nice to get some of those other sensors. Especially the speed/cadence sensors, however those aren't a huge priority for me at the moment.

Calorie Tracking

While getting some exercise helped, I knew I wouldn't get too far without changing how I eat so I started using an app called Calorific. The brilliant thing about Calorific is that you don't have to be anal about how many calories are in what. You tell it the types of food you are eating, and about how much and it comes up with an approximate calorie count and a color code system of how healthy those foods are in a nice pie chart. It was very effective for me. The core concept behind Calorific is that tracking your meals is more important than tracking them perfectly. Just tracking your meals helps you be better about what you eat, even if your tracking is far from perfect.

After early success I ran into some setbacks and found that I had stopped losing weight over the summer of 2012. I also was having energy issues and often found myself suddenly napping. I needed to figure out what was going on and early research made me believe I was burning too many calories compared to what I was eating. I decide to get more serious with my calorie tracking and find out not only how much I had going in, but get more exact about how much I was burning.

There are no lack of products designed to help with this, and I found many out there with different pros and cons. Ultimately I decided to get a BodyMedia Fit Link armband which are well reviewed and appeared to be pretty accurate. The Link version also uses Bluetooth to connect to my phone to show me stats throughout the day, and a recent update allows me to fully upload my data with my phone. It also measures your sleep quality if you wear it to bed. But the real deciding factor for me was that it integrated with my Withings services. Withings released a new app that not only showed the data from their devices, but allow you to tie into a number of additional devices/services and see all the data side by side. The BodyMedia products integrate including both calorie burn, calorie intake, and sleep quality. It was too good to pass up.

One complaint about the BodyMedia is that like Withings all the data is managed via their site, but unlike Withings it isn't free. BodyMedia gives you three months with your device, than a monthly charge kicks in to keep access to your account and data. That isn't horrible, but food tracking is part of the service, and their database is woefully lacking and inaccurate for a paid service in my opinion. The only other potential issue with the BodyMedia Fit is that it isn't great at detecting activity level while biking. There is a workaround where you can put the armband on your calf which does work well, but I usually can't be bothered, especially if I'm wearing a long sleeve shirt. I think the calorie count is pretty close still, but it detects little or moderate activity when it should detect moderate or intense activity. Although if it does register slightly less calories burned than in reality that ultimately can be good for my goals.

Now throughout the day I have a continuous measurement of how many calories I've burned, how much moderate/intense activity I've performed, and how many calories I've consumed (wehn I keep up with my data entry). It also tracks the nutrition of the food and gives you warnings about sodium and cholesterol intake. Food tracking via BodyMedia is not as easy and convenient at with Calorfic, but it can be much more accurate. It does take a bit more work though, but it is nice that you can add new foods and enter recipes to aid in the tracking.

Since using the BodyMedia I've actually increased my eating, and it has helped me start losing weight again. Plus I no longer crash in the afternoons or wake up from unexpected naps. I'm still getting my calories all dialed in, but so far it has been very helpful. Turns out if you short yourself over 2000 calories a day your body panics and shuts down, or at least in my case it did.

Putting it all together

So now I have the ability to track my weight, blood pressure, activity, sleep quality, and calories. Plus I can do all that with only 3 apps. But if I want an overview of the most important aspects I just have to use the Withings app to see my weight, blood pressure, sleep quality, and 'calories burned' all side by side. If I need more details on calorie balance I can use the BodyMedia app. To measure my workouts I can use Cyclemeter.

It is all well and good to play with gadgets, but there is a goal here. My goal in January was to get to 200 pounds by the end of the year, down from my first scale measurement at 265 in mid-Janurary. I'm currently at 225, so while I'm not sure I'll 100% make it, I've come close enough to be satisfied. Unfortunately I've lost all the easy weight, and from now on I have to work even harder. Next year I think my goal will be 200. And whether I make it or not, I'll have plenty of data to try to figure out why.