Personal Health Tracking – Part 01

We now live in a world where measuring and tracking your health is accessible to everybody, not just ‘health freaks’ or the ‘diet obsessed’, all walks of life now have the opportunity to take control of their health. In this series of posts I’m going to show you how.

For me it started off simple, ‘I want to know my heart rate’. So I got an Apple Watch, I loved it, I loved checking my heart rate, getting accurate data for work outs as well as a visual rundown of my activity for the day. Combo this with many years of consistent sleep tracking and an interest grew into borderline obsession. Now I have a vast array of affordable, personal health devices that I use on a regular basis to measure my health metrics. They say ‘what is measured, is managed’, so if you want to manage your health, you have to measure it. This post will take you through what devices I use to measure my Heart Rate and Blood Pressure as well as everything I have learnt along the way.

Heart Rate

There are a plethora of devices on the market now that measure your heart rate. Some apps can do it on your phone using a combination of the flashlight and the camera (not very accurate), many health watches measure heart rate including the Apple Watch, the Fitbit and various Android Watches, there are also dedicated heart rate monitoring devices which often get bundled with other forms of body measurement such as blood pressure or blood oxygen level. I have a few of these in my tool kit but what I am going to focus on here is the Apple Watch.

I’ve had an Apple Watch since they launched, then when the Apple Watch Series 2 came out I upgraded to the latest and greatest (the Faster CPU and Water Proof Rating really makes a huge difference). Recently Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 3, for me this wasn’t a huge hardware upgrade so I’ve decided to skip this generation and see what happens next year with the Series 4. But alongside the launch of the Series 3, Apple launched iOS 11 and watchOS 4 bringing with it what I would consider major updates to the Health Platform.

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Heart Rate App on Apple Watch Series 2 running watchOS 4.

As you can see in the image above, now when you check your heart rate on the watch you not only get a current heart rate measurement but you also get a graph of how your heart rate has varied throughout the day. By default the Apple Watch takes a heart rate measurement roughly every 5 Minutes, sometimes it will give or take a few minutes and the interval of measurement will be slightly longer or shorter. Unfortunately there is no way to alter this frequency, I wish there was as I’d set it to every minute. Apple control this frequency to keep battery life in check as the more you use the heart rate monitor the more the battery will drain, also for most people the stock measurement frequency selected by Apple is more then adequate and keeps ridiculous amounts of heart rate data from accumulating.

 

These frequent heart rate measurements can be accessed within the Apple Health App on iOS. Above you can see how the raw data is presented. Basically it gets broken down into a category for each day, 10th Oct, 11th Oct, etc. When you click on a day it will show you each individual piece of heart rate data that has been saved that day, it tells you what time the measurement was taken and what your heart rate was. Pretty neat. I find this way of viewing your data is handy if you want to go back and check your heart rate at particular times. Sometimes I am powering up a hill with a heavy trolley at work and later on want to see where my heart rate was at while exerting myself, I can quickly navigate to the day and rough time and get an accurate readout of how fast my heart was beating.

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Apple Health App Graphing Out Your Heart Rate Data.

All of this data is great but what is even cooler is how it gets graphed out on iPhone with the Apple Health App. Take a peek at the image above and you’ll see what I mean. You can break down your view into hours of the day, days of the week, days of the month, etc. It then gives you your maximum and minimum heart rate of that particular hour/day, visually displaying your heart rate range for the time period in question. This is a great way to see in a graphical sense how your heart has been functioning over a period of time. New in iOS 11 is the calculation of your ‘Resting Heart Rate’ and your ‘Average Walking Heart Rate’ as well as heart rate range while ‘Working Out’ or using the borderline meditation app called ‘Breathe’ on Apple Watch. These features have been around in 3rd Party Apps such as ‘Cardiogram‘ for a while but it often has trouble processing the large amounts of stored heart rate data and I never found it particularly useful as it was a bit cumbersome to use, now this heart rate data is processed in the background by iOS rather then when you open an app like ‘Cardiogram‘ so you can have results instantaneously and presented in a more logical way.

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Viewing an Apple Watch Workout on the iOS ‘Activity’ App.

The Apple Watch is also great for tracking workouts, be it a walk, run, swim, cycle or stint on some gym equipment. When you are running a workout on the Apple Watch it is constantly monitoring your heart rate which gives you a pretty solid overview of your training session. Above you can see an ‘Other’ Workout that I recently completed, it was a session in the gym that involved some Gymnastic Strength Training, Kettlebell Swings, Push Ups, Chin Ups, Crunches, etc. It shows my Average Heart Rate for the workout but also a graph of it’s ups and downs in the session. This data is helpful to see just how hard I was pushing myself at various times. The variability is pretty standard for the type of workout that I was doing as I started with a warm up and alternated between high intensity exercises like the Two Handed Kettlebell Swings and low intensity exercises like Myotatic Crunches.

One little note that is worth mentioning, sometimes during workouts I will notice sluggish responses from the Apple Watch in terms of my heart rate read out. For example, I’ve just finished a sprint leg of my morning run and dropped my pace back to a jog, I check my watch and it says 74bpm, what? I feel my neck and I can feel my pulse and it is pumping fast, at least 120bpm, why isn’t my Apple Watch detecting that? I’m not sure, but I have found that if you leave it for a minute and then bring your wrist back up to check the heart rate again it sort of starts the reading fresh and will then yield an accurate heart rate measurement, in this instance it was like 134bpm. My only explanation is that it’s a connection issue between the Apple Watch Heart Rate Sensor and my wrist, I have experimented with various levels of tension on the wrist strap which doesn’t really change the result. Usually when I pull the watch further up my arm so that it isn’t dead on my wrist it works flawlessly. But when I wear it normally, bang on my wrist, this issue of an incorrect heart rate readout shows up from time to time. Not all the time, just some of the time, which is slightly annoying but totally manageable.

When I first got the Apple Watch my motivation for buying one was a mix between wanting a good heart rate monitor and a desire to have the newest technology. I quickly found that it was pretty much a bonus item, I mainly used it to check the time/date and I could totally function without it. People asked ‘Do I Need An Apple Watch?’ and my answer was no, it’s nice to have but not essential. Nowadays my value for having regular heart rate measurements has grown in importance, I’ve gotten used to having that data, I think it’s beneficial to look at from time to time and I would consider the Apple Watch an essential part of my toolkit.

Blood Pressure

My next venture into the wide world of health tracking was blood pressure. Whenever you visit your GP they generally take a blood pressure reading, if you’re in health trouble and rushed into hospital your blood pressure is a vital sign that the doctors use to help determine what is wrong with you. The sheer weight of importance given to this vital sign is paramount, it makes total sense to track it on a regular basis. With regular measurements you can detect changes early, act early and prevent problems before they become catastrophes. Even if you are young and healthy it’s still helpful to have regular measurements of your blood pressure over time, then if something were to happen you have some facts to assist with the problem solving. Is your blood pressure high, low or in a normal range? Do you know what your regular blood pressure is? If not, I think it’s about time you find out.

When I began researching Blood Pressure Monitors one consistent thing kept coming up, that was the brand Omron. Most GP Offices have an Omron Machine for every consulting room, if you ask your doctor what BP Monitor they recommend they usually say get an Omron, it’s an industry standard. So while I did look at some other brands I stuck with the tried and true Omron Blood Pressure Monitor. They come in many different flavours and can vary in price quite a bit depending on the extra bells and whistles of a particular model. I wanted something up to date and reasonably tech savvy, having it integrate with my phone was important to ensure a fluid tracking experience. The model that I settled on was the Omron MIT5 Connect (HEM-7280T-E).

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Omron MIT5 Connect (HEM-7280T-E).

This is a great Blood Pressure Monitor. I have used it consistently for over a year and never had any problems. I stumbled across this particular model by the way of reading many reviews online, the more I read the more I felt like this was for me. It was Omron which has the industry backing behind it, it featured Bluetooth for wireless connection to your phone, it supported multiple users and it was portable. I’d never purchased a BP Monitor before and one particular point of friction was that it didn’t ship with a mains power supply, I thought this would be a deal breaker but it seemed to be consistent across the board with many models that I looked at. I thought I would setup the BP Monitor in one place and just leave it there for it’s entire life, I was wrong. I often find myself taking it to the kitchen to do readings, packing it up and storing it in my bedroom, there have even been times that I’ve taken it to family gatherings and done group readings where one by one I have taken everyones blood pressure and got them to log it in their phone. You definitely don’t need mains power, I have run mine off 4 AA Batteries for over a year now and it’s still going strong, portability is key. Below is what you will get in the box alongside an instruction manual:

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What’s In The Box of the¬†Omron MIT5 Connect (HEM-7280T-E).

As you can see you get the Blood Pressure Monitor Unit, an Armband with attached air tube and a little carry case to package it all up for storage and travel. I find it works best if you coil up the air tube, place it on the armband and then fold it up till it is roughly the size of the case, I then place it at the bottom of the case with the BP Monitor Unit on top, zip it up and you are good to go.

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The Armband plugs into the Air Socket on the BP Monitor Unit.

To take a BP Reading it is super simple. I put the Armband on correctly (details of how to fit it correctly are located in the user manual), plug in the Armband to the Air Socket on the side of the BP Monitor which is depicted above, it just slots in smoothly and easily. Then I select ‘User 1’ or ‘User 2’ which is depicted below, press the Start Button and it begins taking your reading.

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Select between User 1 and User 2.

I use ‘User 1’ for myself and ‘User 2’ for my Mum, the User Options allow a history of Blood Pressure Measurements for each individual to be stored within the machine. This is a handy option should you choose not to link it via Bluetooth to your smart phone. If you wish to take someones reading who isn’t ‘User 1’ or ‘User 2’ all you need to do is hold the Start Button rather then press it when you begin a BP Measurement and it will begin taking a reading in guest mode and the measurement won’t be stored on the machine.

But now let’s get into the exciting stuff, how to streamline the measurements from this BP Monitor into your digital record keeping world. As before with my heart rate, I use Apple Health to manage my blood pressure readings and thankfully Omron has created an app called ‘Omron Connect‘ that allows incredibly easy sync and integration from the BP Monitor via Bluetooth to the Omron Connect App which automatically writes data to Apple Health. This short video details the process of taking a blood pressure measurement and syncing it to your phone:

In Apple Health your blood pressure can be displayed visually or as individual data, both are depicted below. I don’t find the visual graph to be all that helpful in this instance but I do often scroll through the individual blood pressure data, it’s easier to read this way and you can clearly identify changes over time. The format of SYS/DIA and then a timestamp means you can just look through all the data, any outliers should stand out to your eye as you begin to notice any consistencies or changes over time.

 

As you can see above I often take multiple readings in a single session, it’s best to take three as you’ll be able to then get a nice average as blood pressure does have slight natural variances depending on your heart rate when it’s taken, even if the readings are only a minute apart. The BP Monitor will also measure your heart rate which is a nice little bonus, this heart rate data is written to Apple Health through Omron Connect alongside the blood pressure data so you don’t need to worry about it. I have done tests where I’ve let my Apple Watch measure my heart rate at the same time the BP Monitor is taking a measurement and they both sync up, sometimes there is a slight difference of 1-2 Beats Per Minute but I find overall that they are either very close or bang on in terms of heart rate measurement. This is nice for peace of mind as it allows me to verify the accuracy of both the Apple Watch and the BP Monitor.

The Omron MIT5 Connect (HEM-7280T-E) works like a dream and I don’t think I could really ask for more out of my blood pressure monitor. That was until I started getting a weird little heart indicator every now and then when I would take my blood pressure. This was puzzling, I know the BP Monitor displays an icon when your blood pressure is too high or too low but what did this icon mean? I consulted the manual and the icon means irregular heart beat detected. It only happened intermittently but still I thought it was worth consulting the doctor about. I went and saw my GP who had a listen to my heart and said it sounds normal but ordered an ECG (Electrocardiogram) just to be sure. This was a pretty simple test and I quite enjoyed the experience. The results came back with a irregular heartbeat indeed, I have a Sinus Arrhythmia and Rightward Axis. The Sinus Arrhythmia is apparently quite normal and nothing to be concerned over though the Rightward Axis did require some further investigation. The doctor ordered an Echocardiogram which was awesome, it’s like an ultrasound for your heart and you get to listen to the amplified sound of your heartbeat while the examination is happening. Very cool. The results came back all clear which I was grateful for. If I wasn’t monitoring my Blood Pressure regularly I’d have never known it was an issue and would have never had it checked out. While it wouldn’t have had any serious impact on me, for many people it could make a world of difference. I think it’s better to be in the know, give a Blood Pressure Monitor a go!

Just a quick note, this model of Blood Pressure Monitor comes with different names depending on which country it is sold. Some countries call it the ‘Omron MIT5 Connect’ and others call it the ‘Omron HEM-7280T-E’, they are both the same thing. The beauty of this is that you can order either model online, locally or overseas, with the convenience of powering it with 4x AA Batteries you don’t need to worry about 240V/110V Power or Power Plugs/Adaptors, it just works everywhere. This worked really well for me in Australia as I was able to order a unit from the UK which was half the price of purchasing it in Australia. Beneficial for your health and cost effective, win win!

Coming in Part 02

I originally intended for this to be a massive post including all facets of my personal health tracking, but it just became too big of a task. So I’ve opted to break it down into smaller components. Up next could be any of the following:

  • Blood Glucose / Ketones
  • Pulse Oximeter for Blood Oxygen Concentration
  • Sleep Tracking
  • Fasting
  • pH Levels

Which of these interest you most? Let me know in the comments below!