Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Wearable Tech for the Backyard Homesteader

If you are one of the estimated 50 million people who received some sort of wearable technology this Christmas, you are most likely thinking about how that gear will help you improve your fitness, lose weight or become a better athlete. While all of these are great, there's a lot for the backyard homesteader to love about this technology, as well. No, your Fitbit won't tell you when to plant your garden or water your lawn... yet, but it will provide valuable feedback on the energy you are expending doing those things. If you watch shows like Mountain Men, you will occasionally hear the narrator refer to the extraordinary number of calories the men burn each day as they go through their rigorous outdoor activities. For those of us who merely putter for a couple of hours each day in our backyards, though, it was difficult to get a feel for the level of exertion and how it related to other activities, like running or a gym workout. Sure, there was a general sense that mowing the lawn was roughly equivalent to taking a long walk, and that raking leaves was a pretty good upper body workout, but these activities were difficult to quantify in a meaningful way.

When I got my first piece of wearable technology, a simple Fitbit Flex, almost four years ago, all that began to change, and now, with my more advanced Charge 2, I can keep a reasonably accurate accounting of the calories expended doing just about any kind of outdoor task. If your response to that is, who cares? you are probably 25 and could eat a side of beef in one sitting without gaining a pound. I was there once, myself, but these days if I want to avoid having to buy new pants a size bigger every year, I need to keep track of such things. 

The least expensive devices, typically under $100, use a simple accelerometer to track body movement and translate that into "steps." This data is then uploaded to a computer, tablet or smartphone and translated into an estimate of distance traveled and calories burned. It's not an exact reading, of course, but as a general rule, I found my Flex to be fairly accurate in terms of relating my steps to the distance traveled, and the calorie count to be conservative relative to other methods of calculation. I learned that mowing my lawn was the equivalent of a two mile hike, and that 30 minutes of rigorous hedge trimming burned at least 300 calories.

Devices like the Charge 2 ($150) add features such as a heart rate monitor and an altimeter. Together with the accelerometer, these generate data used to provide an even more accurate and complete profile of physical activity, accounting for the fact that walking uphill burns more calories and that activities like moving landscape stones expend energy without a lot of body movement. The most expensive wearable tech, like the Fitbit Ionic ($299), Apple Watch ($329) and Garmin Fenix ($549) include a GPS for even more accurate distance tracking.     

Statistics show that about a third of owners stop using their fitness trackers after the first six months, and that only half of Fitbits, the market leader with almost a 75% share, registered are still actively used. While that figure may be a little misleading because I suspect many Flex users, like me, upgraded to the Charge, there is no doubt that the attrition rate is relatively high. One of the key factors noted by those who gave up the devices is that the information generated was no longer useful or interesting. After a couple months they got the general idea that a normal day's activity was worth 3,000 to 4,000 steps and that a three mile evening walk or run added to that got them to their 10,000 step goal. There was rarely anything new or novel to be learned; which I think says a good bit more about the lifestyle of the average person than it does about the usefulness of wearable tech. 

For the backyard homesteader, however, the sheer variety of different things we do and the seasonality of those activities should keep the information fresh for a very long time. Filling the bird feeders, trimming shrubs, planting seedlings; these all have an exertion value and they are all different. Before fitness trackers, we were told that an hour of "gardening" burned 275 calories, but there is a huge difference between holding a garden hose for an hour and double-digging a plot of land for an hour. My Fitbit captures that difference and that information is very valuable to me as I plan my meals and my supplemental exercise activity.     

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