How to Use Wearable Tech Like a NASA Researcher
What you wear can have an effect on your overall outlook and even help you achieve your goals. Bright colors can cheer you up, red boosts confidence, rocking your best business attire will help you think more quickly on your feet, and good athletic wear will get your body moving. But what if the things you wear could actually arm you with the information you need to be healthier and happier? If you’re one of the millions of people with wearable technology devices such as a Fitbit, Jawbone, or an Apple Watch, you may be steps away from improving more than just your exercise habits. The key is not just the data we receive about our health and habits from our devices, but how we use it to understand the ways that changes in our health and habits affect the other areas of our life.
Shae Porche Williams, a registered nurse living in Southeast Louisiana, has been an avid Fit Bit user since 2012.
“I?ve been through multiple versions (of the device.) I have changed my habits in an effort to reach my step goal. I walk more per day and more frequently throughout the day. I set the notifications so that if I haven?t met my hourly goal, it alerts me and I can get to it!”
She’s not just in better shape, she also says that she feels better. “I?m MUCH happier when I exercise. My mood has improved greatly and walking/jogging has shown to be a great stress reliever.”
Early reports about usage of fitness tracker devices indicated that many users got bored or tired of using their devices after a relatively short period of time. As the technology for these devices improves, they’re not only becoming more aesthetically pleasing, but are also able to provide more detailed information that can help us in our everyday lives. Wearable technology is moving beyond watches and jewelry.
The clothes you choose to wear will not only say a lot about you, they will know a lot about you and your environment, too. Your underwear can tell you if you’re hydrating properly if it’s by Skiin, which was launched in 2017. The product line also boasts the ability to monitor body fat, heart rate, and other stats. Or if you need help navigating the distant terrains of a new neighborhood, you can put on a pair of Spinali Designs jeans, which sync up with GPS to send a gentle vibration to your right or left side, telling you which direction to turn next.
Jocelyn Dunn is a NASA researcher who spent 8 months living in the HI SEAS Mars colony simulation in 2014. Wearable technology plays a significant role in how she monitors the health and habits of astronauts.
“HI-SEAS provides a research environment that is analogous to Mars (volcanic terrain, off-grid energy systems, confined living conditions, communication delay, shelf-stable foods, etc.) Crews live and work at HI-SEAS for long durations, typically 8 months, and this provides a space for beta-testing new technologies, such as wearables for health monitoring. It is an ideal environment for testing if technologies can survive the wear and tear of daily use for a long duration, to get feedback for improving user interface designs, and to collect data for analyzing the biopsychosocial responses of the participants. “
How is this technology similar to the devices we use at home as civilians?
“It varies,” says Dunn. “Some researchers, including myself, have used commercially available devices, such as Jawbone and Fitbit wristbands and Hexoskin biometric shirts. Others, such as researchers at Michigan State, have devices called Sociometric Badges, that are technically available for purchase, but they are definitely not widely used. Similarly, some of the survey instruments are well-validated in the scientific literature and others are being validated and improved through the usage at HI-SEAS missions.”
The research at NASA combined a variety of data from astronauts in these kinds of environments, which can be stressful and high-stakes.
“Frankly, astronauts have very little motivation to report honestly about health deficits, since their job requires optimal health. Also, self-awareness is not always reliable, especially in the case of a slowly-building, chronic stress, such as living in isolation and confinement for a 3-year Mars mission. In tandem, I have collected biological samples (hair and urine) that I analyze at Bindley Bioscience Center, Purdue University, wearable device data from Fitbit and Jawbone devices for measuring behavioral patterns (sleep, activity, heart rate), and then through several survey instruments, asking participants directly to self-report on their own perceptions of their health and stress states. Of course, there is significant individual variation, some participants have high correlation between self-reporting and biobehavioral results. “
Daniele, a health and human services worker in New Orleans, Louisiana, says that when she had to go on hiatus from regular exercise, her wearable technology helped her become more aware of changes to her health.
“I … discovered how the absence of exercise affects my physical health. I took about 6 months off from running (due to injury) and saw that my resting heart rate climbed significantly in that time. I recently started running again and one of my goals is to get my resting heart rate back to where it was.”
Resting heart rate is a helpful indicator of our mental and physical well-being. “The most consistent and significant finding of this research has shown that first of the morning resting heart rate is the best predictor of stress levels over time,” Dunn adds. “And it makes sense, if you wake up with your heart racing, then you might be a bit stressed.”
You may not be running your own lab tests or maintaining complex spreadsheets detailing everything about your day, but perhaps by keeping a brief journal of changes to your health and habits, including the data you receive about sleep, heart rate, and exercise from your wearable devices, you can pin point the habits that have a positive or negative effect on your overall well-being, and gradually make changes accordingly. Dunn suggests a good place to start:
“Track your heart rate when you wake up every morning (while still lying down in supine position), then over time, you will build your own database of how your health and stress is changing over time.”
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