300 outings

Thoughts on Two Years of Exercise Data

This post was originally published on the Vimify Blog. Vimify aggregates and normalizes data across quantified-self devices like Fitbit, Nike+, Jawbone UP, Withings, and adds a game layer (social leaderboards, challenges, co-op missions), social interactions and rewards to make being active more fun and accessible to everyone.

Some Context

Getting my first smart phone was the kicker that got me into what’s now being called the Quantified Self movement. Like magic, I suddenly had this device that was small enough to barely notice in my pocket, yet loaded with tools – including a powerful camera and all sorts of data tracking capabilities.

It didn’t take long before the phone was there with me when I went running, and not long after that I decided to document each run with a single photo. Because I like to exercise outdoors, photos seemed like a simple way capture some of the things I stumble upon — weather and seasonal changes, events I wouldn’t have otherwise known were happening, beautiful buildings, and public art installations are some of the recurring themes.

To organize all these images, I put together a WordPress blog and started adding one post for every photo, using categories and tags to capture context like location, time of day, and the content of the image. WordPress is just one of many options available to start a project like this – Tumblr, Blogger, Flickr, and many other free platforms offer all the tools necessary to get started.

The Experiment:
One photo was taken every time exercising outdoors. Squares on the calendar show the average color of each outing’s photo.

Lessons Learned

There is a phenomenon in research with human subjects called the Hawthorne effect, whereby people being studied will adjust their behavior if they know they are being watched. Not long after I started this process, I began noticing that my decisions about when and where to run were being influenced simply by the fact that I was documenting myself. I started to feel at times like I needed to run just so I could add more photos to the blog, or deliberately change my route so that I would encounter more interesting things to take pictures of. At any rate, the act of documenting my routine was undoubtedly impacting my decisions.

Another thing I learned very quickly is that long term data tracking projects can be messy. For example, I started this experiment with the intention of tracking only runs and not any other form of exercise. That’s all well and good, but a stress fracture in my right foot just a few months after I got started forced me to change things up a bit. Because I enjoyed the process so much, I decided to allow for low-impact exercise like biking, hiking, and even walking to be included – though I save the walks for when I’m injured or just plain exhausted.

For me, the real value in this whole project hasn’t necessarily come from the data at all, but from the process of getting outdoors, exploring my surroundings, taking photographs, and then reflecting on my experiences through documentation. This is what I feel is at the heart of the Quantified Self movement – it’s the passion and enjoyment in certain aspects of our lives that makes us want to document them in the first place.

Check out the project HERE