Biofeedback For The Win!: Getting Feedback That Counts
You do so much to take care of your health. You exercise, eat right, and get plenty of sleep. At least most of the time. But how do you know if you are improving? Do you wait to see the results on the bathroom scale? Maybe you just look in the mirror to see how you are fitting in your clothes. Using the wrong indicators can be worst than no feedback at all.
Your body is the most complex system ever created yet we have no easy way to measure our biological changes. Our computers have indicators for memory and CPU usage. Our cars have a dash full of gauges and indicators. But the body has nothing to tell you if what you just ate is helping or hurting you. With all you do to improve your health you need a better way to know if you are improving or regressing.
Today that all changes. Leading-edge biotechnology companies are designing new innovative wearable devices that are changing the way we interact with our bodies. From the very simple movement trackers to sophisticated glucose meters, and everything in between. You can now wake up to usable data on how you slept, whether you recovered enough from your last workout, even find out how your key nutritional levels are tracking in response to your diet and supplement practice.
I have been an avid follower and practitioner of biofeedback for several years. Every year they get better. New companies are entering the market and existing tech firms are expanding their capabilities. I can only imagine how much information we will have at our fingertips in the next few years.
If you are like me there is nothing more frustrating than following a new diet or exercise program with complete discipline and dedication only to find slow or no results. I’m sure this is the reason most people either give up or switch to something new. After years of bouncing from one program to the next, I jumped on the biohacking bandwagon to add a little high-tech to my game plan. In this article, I will review the biofeedback we can harness with today’s wearable devices. I will also review a few non-wearable testing services that provide valuable feedback. In a later article, I will review a wide range of wearable devices and testing services to help you chose what is best for your lifestyle practice.
So you may be wondering what biofeedback you can measure with today’s modern technology. The list is long and growing. It seems every year there are more tech firms starting up or expanding on existing tech. Each company has their own methods and devices, but they all work basically the same. Here is a look at the information your body can communicate to you with wearable devices.
Step Count: This is probably the oldest form of biofeedback. Mechanical pedometers have been around for decades. They work on a simple mechanism that clicks a counter every time you take a step. Modern pedometers are digital but work on the same premise; movement. But now they incorporate the use of accelerometer technology that can detect if you are moving forward or moving while sitting still. Since most wearable pedometers are watches, it is important to tell the difference between a body walking motion vs. moving your arm around.
Counting steps provides an indication of your level of activity. Using a watch or wrist wearable device you can keep track of how active you are by observing your total steps at the end of the day. It has been determined that a healthy daily step count is 10,000. Anything above 6,000 is considered the minimum for maintaining a healthy body, based on several notable functional medical doctors and researchers.
Heart Rate: Your heart rate is the most accurate measure of how much work your body is doing or how much stress it is ensuring. Staying healthy, living a long life, and avoiding chronic illness requires a healthy heart. Depending on your age, everyone has an ideal heart rate when at rest and while active. For most people a resting heart rate of 70bpm is ideal. However, age and general fitness can result in higher or lower levels.
For heart rates during physical activity, your ideal rate depends on your age. According to Phil Maffetone, the celebrated trainer of some of the fittest Iron Man Triathlon champions, your ideal maximum active heart rate is 180 minus your age. So for a 50-year-old engaged in physical exercise of any kind, they should keep their heart rate at or below 130. There are exceptions for short-duration training, such as a short high-intensity training session or sprints. But these should be short in total duration and only practiced 1-2 times a week.
Heart rate monitoring is done with a wearable watch or chest strap. Most modern sports watches include heart rate monitoring. You can monitor your heart rate during specific activities, like a daily run or a competitive event. You can also get general daily feedback at any time for devices that monitor heart rate continuously. Using your heart rate as an indicator of your exercise intensity can help keep you in the ideal aerobic zone and avoid unnecessary stress.
Heart Rate Variability: HRV is a fairly new measurement to the biofeedback arena. It is also a little harder to understand and interpret. In short, HRV is a measure of your heart health. The higher the number, the better your health. HRV measures the tug-o-war between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Basically, it is measuring your resilience to stress and strain. As an example, you may go out and run a 5K event. In the end, your body needs to recover. The higher your HRV the faster your body will recover.
Wearable devices such as sport watches increasingly include HRV as one of their key measures. If you are looking to see how you are improving, one way to measure heart health is to observe the difference between your resting heart rate (RHR) and your HRV. You want your RHR low and your HRV high.
Sleep: While sleep is not exactly a biometric you normally think about with wearable devices, sleep should be an important part of your day. If you are not getting at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night you are missing out on all the benefits sleep provides to your physical and mental health. There is a lot going on in your body while you are busy counting sheep.
For starters, your resting heart rate (RHR) provides feedback on how well your body settles down from the busy and often stressful daytime activity. The lower your overnight RHR the better. Like HRV, this is a key indicator of your overall health. You can also tell your HRV as it pertains to your body’s daily strain response. Temperature change overnight is minimal for a healthy person. However, when your temperature changes by more than 2 degrees it may be an indication of illness or poor recovery from strenuous activity.
Glucose: Wearable glucose monitors have been lifesavers for diabetics in determining when they need supplemental insulin. But now anyone can benefit from the biofeedback provided by wearable glucose monitors. This simple device can provide information to a smartphone in real-time allowing you to track your body’s reaction to diet and activity. This is great for determining if you have food allergies, or if things like volume and time of day affect your glucose levels. For anyone wanting to lose weight, improve energy, or elevate athletic performance, biofeedback on your body’s glucose reactions can be a game-changer. The best part is you no longer need a doctor’s order or prescription to purchase a glucose monitor.
Not all of the biofeedback is available from wearable devices. There is also a great deal of leading-edge technology providing testable feedback. This is generally in the form of testing urine and feces, but blood testing also provides a broad spectrum of feedback. Normally blood tests are very limited to the test ordered by a doctor in the diagnostic process related to illness or injury. But blood tests can provide a great deal of information for general health maintenance. Here is a list of testable biofeedback anyone can purchase without a doctor’s order or prescription. These tests can provide insights into where your health may be headed before you show signs of major illness. They can also be used to simply improve general health and athletic performance above standard levels.
Gut Health: Your gut is one of the most critical systems in your body for determining health. A gut with too much harmful bacteria and not enough good bacteria can result in a number of chronic health issues. Your gut health is so important the gut is often referred to as your second brain due to the number of neurotransmitters and hormone production in the gut.
You can now get in-depth information on the biodiversity of your gut using a simple test kit. After ordering the kit you provide a stool sample in a return container. The lab analyses the sample and provides an in-depth report of your gut biome. Recommendations are then made for dietary changes to improve your gut health. Foods are listed in categories of Bad, Good, and Okay in moderation. You can also get recommendations for supplements to help heal any gut issues by eliminating the bad bacteria and growing new good bacteria. While the recovery process can be long, depending on your age and severity of issues, getting started is the most important thing you can do for your health.
Blood Markers: As mentioned above, your blood can tell you a lot about your general health. Deficiencies in key macro and micronutrients can degrade health over time if not corrected. Such deficiencies are not normally picked up in medical checkups and most doctor ordered blood tests are limited to what the doctor needs in the diagnosis of an illness. Such limited use of blood testing means you will not have the information you need to treat nutritional deficiencies before they show more chronic symptoms. You also miss out on information about hormone levels and other indicators of organ health.
While today anyone can order blood work from a number of lab services they are still a little pricy. You can spend upwards of $1,000 to get a full spectrum analysis. There are less expensive analyses that cover basic markers, or you can request specific markers if you have a specific health concern. Of course, this is not a replacement for seeing a medical professional if you suspect a critical illness. This is strictly for learning what you can change in your lifestyle to get a little better or to get an early indicator of potential issues.
Urine Markers: Like blood markers, you can get good insights into your micronutrient health using a simple urine test. Simply pee on a test strip first thing in the morning and the analysis information will provide feedback on a specific set of micronutrients. The intent is to help you identify nutritional deficiencies that you can treat with dietary changes and supplementation.
While the range of micronutrients tested with current kits is limited, the sciences are still advancing. It is also much less expensive than blood tests. In my opinion, this market still needs to expand its testing capabilities before it provides much value, but it is very promising, and hopefully will remain an affordable option for most biohackers out there.
Take Control Of Your Health
We have amazing medical resources available today. However, the best way to care for your health is to be your own advocate. The lifestyle choices you make each and every day play a much bigger role in the quality of your life than relying on illness or injury to force change. We live in a time when obesity and chronic illness are at historically high levels and climbing. We can no longer wait for society to change how we live and for how long. We have to take control of our own lives. No one is more capable of improving your health and wellness than you. So start listening to your body with a bit of biofeedback and live the life you were born to live.
Author and Optimize Coach
David is a writer and coach specialing in awakening human potential. David likes to think of himself as a conscious creator, student of life, Super Dad, chef, Spartan Athlete, and Optimize Performance Coach. Writing for Dr. Kusher and the CFL community is just one of his many joys.