mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

Self-quantifying to better health

with the Apple Watch

I’ve been interested in self-quantifying for health purposes ever since I read Dan Hon’s experience in using Nike+ to recover from a Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis. I have personally found that wearables are very helpful in letting me be more mindful about my health. One has no idea how much of a slob — sitting on the chair for hours without moving — can be until the wearable tells us.

My first wearable was a Nike+ fuelband kindly gifted by my ex-bosses, and over the years I’ve worn a Fitbit One (also gifted to me on my first day of work at Medium!), a Basis, a Pebble Time and most recently, the Pebble 2.

I opted for the Pebble Time over the first Apple Watch because of the water resistance, and by the time the Apple Watch 2 was released I had decided to render myself unemployed, so I couldn’t justify paying SGD500+ for a watch I am going to dip it frequently under water.

Recently I have found myself plagued with chronic health issues. The thing with chronic health issues is, we often have no idea what is truly wrong. It is a lot of experimenting and a lot of guessing. A few years ago I have managed to nurse myself back to relatively good health by observing a strict sleep schedule and diet among other factors. This time around I have added a daily exercise routine and I did feel a lot better for a while, before slipping back into what I call the red zone (more about zones in another post).

By the time I experience frequent bouts of chronic pain and just general malaise, it means I have subjected my body to accumulated stress and abuse for a long while. The stress isn’t acute but chronic — working for a couple hours longer, sleeping later just a bit later, loading myself with unhealthy food a little more frequently, journalling less because all seems fine and dandy.

As I have written in an earlier post, it is when I feel the most well that it is the most dangerous for me, because I get deceived to think that I can tolerate just a tiny bit more.

Health for me has to be a religion — I have to be fanatic about it. I know of people who have terrible lifestyles and yet they don’t experience health issues. Being well is a lot of hard work for me. I have to be hyper-aware of long term patterns so I can start making adjustments before it is too late.

I am usually at my best health when I am obsessed about my habits, making sure I check off a list of must-dos every day and maintain a long streak. This is the habit streak for my daily swim when I felt the best last year versus when I started falling sick this year:

Left: Last year | Middle & right: The past few months.

Keeping momentum

It is all about momentum, and issues start to occur when I break my momentum. The break of momentum also symbolises that there is probably something affecting my life and/or psyche, that is why I am upkeeping my habits less. I could be less conscious about my health, and it probably coincides with bad sleep hygiene and poor eating habits.

A concerted effort

I am really tired of being sick, so I am making a few changes on top of what I’ve already been practicing:

Quit coffee

I really love my morning cup but I don’t want to artificially spike the adrenalin coursing through my body when it is already so broken. Yes, things have gotten that bad that I am depriving myself of one of the very few joys in my life.

Daily meditation

I have tried meditating on and off but I just couldn’t keep a momentum, so this time I am really trying. Why meditation, you may ask:

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well.

7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain

Up my water intake by a lot

I hardly get thirsty, so I usually drink less than 5 glasses of water a day. Yes, it could be the source of all my life problems.

Intense exercise

Swimming doesn’t get my heart pumping that much, so I am trying to brisk walk on the treadmill with the steepest incline about 3 times a week to get my heart pumping.

“…conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

Source: Spark by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman | link

The Apple Watch

I really like the idea of having a water resistant wearable that can finally track my swims, but that is still not enough to justify the hefty price tag for an unemployed person. But a couple months ago, I saw these:

Here are five patterns we’ve learned from analyzing more than 10 billion heart rate and exercise measurements from Apple Watch as part of our research to detect health conditions with wearable sensors.

Five things Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor can teach you about your health

I have paid more attention to my heart rate since my old pre-FDA approved 23andme report noted that I have a significant increased risk for Atrial Fibrillation. I have also experienced palpitations and abnormal heart activity especially during insomnia. My ECGs taken during medical check-ups do not detect abnormal heart activity, but I am interested to see patterns emerging out of longer-term monitoring.

It will be great if my heart rate activity can let me be more aware of stressors. For example, I have noticed my heart rate spiking during rush hour commuter traffic. It is something I wouldn’t have noticed if not for a live monitor on my wrist.

So, I managed to find an Apple Watch 2 that is a few weeks old for more than 30% off the retail price.

The experience so far

First of all, I really like that it now nags at me to drink water and tells me how much more I should drink:

I have used similar iPhone apps before but I found it tedious to enter my water intake on the phone vs the watch. The difference is actually subtle, but tapping on the watch feels more integrative somehow.

I like that I now have more comprehensive metrics including mindful minutes! Having swim data is also great. I look forward to analysing my data over an extended time period and to see if there’s any correlations to my migraine attacks or body ache.

One of the apps Cardiogram, was instrumental in the decision to wear the watch. Via Cardiogram, I have also signed up to participate on the UCSF study on heart health. Isn’t it exciting to be able to contribute to a health study from a remote location simply by wearing a watch? This is one of the questions in the survey:

It is interesting but not surprising that they are asking a mood question for a heart study. Will we find interesting relationships between heart rate and moods?

Last but not least, I appreciate the watch reminds me to stand and breathe. I am also excited about the health-related announcements for WatchOS 4 at WWDC.

I will be heading to UK/Portugal for the next three weeks. While the trip will break some of my habits like my daily swim, I am looking to continue some of the rest like the daily meditation. The challenge will be hydrating sufficiently while travelling without easy access to the bathroom! Hope to report back soon.

Noted in