Firstbeat is the company behind many heart rate (variability)-based features on wearables and sports watches. They also provide their own Lifestyle Assessment.

Full disclosure: I asked Firstbeat if they would be willing to let me go through this assessment, for free, so I could see its workings first-hand; they agreed and that’s how I can bring you this article here.

The reason lifestyle tracking is needed is clear:

It is not just the few hours a week one spends in training that determine if one is leading a healthy life, after all, it’s the everyday activity.

It’s not just activity, it’s also (other) stress and recovery.

For a professional look at that all, Firstbeat offers their Lifestyle Assessment; many fitness trackers and sports watches (and smartwatches) also offer features around that.

Trackers and Your Energy

Fitness trackers have provided some insight into both training and activity. More dedicated sports watches have followed suit, at least with step counters. Increasingly, they also offer sleep tracking.

Sometimes, they offer even more insight…

The Suunto 3 Fitness, the “beginner’s watch” from Suunto, for example, takes HRV (heart rate variability) measurements throughout the day. With those, it determines “Resources,”  i.e. whether one has been active or inactive, recovering or stressed.

The Garmin Vivosmart 4 will similarly deliver a “Body Battery” score. Apparently, with more constant tracking and with syncing to a history visible in its companion app.

The technology for these interpretations comes from Firstbeat, the Finnish company providing such algorithms to many a sports watch maker.

Having seen the “resources” measurement of the Suunto 3 Fitness, I found that quite interesting.

Thus, I was wondering all the more what insights Firstbeat’s own such analysis could provide (and how the Suunto 3 Fitness would stack up against that).

Photo ©Firstbeat

The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment

The professional solution to such stress and recovery measurement and its interpretation, as offered by Firstbeat, is their Lifestyle Assessment.

Normally, a health care professional for a company or for people who really want or need to get insight into the state and effects of their lifestyles offers this assessment.

To assess lifestyle, heart rate variability is measured for a full three days. In addition, to put that data into context, one also “writes” a diary of major events experienced during these days: What were the sleeping times, work times, training sessions, etc.

This data is entered online (hence my scare quotes around “writing”).

 Then, the results are interpreted by a professional and discussed with the person being looked at.

How the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment’s “Bodyguard” Device Measures

Rather than just using a smartwatch and an optical heart rate sensor or chest strap, the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment uses their “Bodyguard” HR measurement tool.

Suunto HR belt and Firstbeat Bodyguard…

This pod attaches to its electrode below the collarbone; a cable connects it to another electrode on the lower chest…

This way, the impulses of the heart beat should be recorded in rather greater quality than from a chest strap, let alone an optical heart rate monitor on one’s wrist.

Once in use, the measurement runs pretty continuously for a full three days. The only exception is when one takes the device off to take a shower and replace the adhesive electrode pads.

The device automatically starts to record when it detects a heartbeat (and pauses the recording when not.

It is, of course, a bit distracting to wear something dangling from just below one’s shoulder (and have a cable running across one’s chest), but one gets used to it relatively quickly. Somewhat…

I’ll admit, at times I found myself checking if everything was attached. And wondering how I still hadn’t ripped it off by getting my hand tangled in the cable across my chest.

After the three days, the device’s battery is run down, the recording stops, one takes it off and sends it back to the assessment provider to get the data analyzed.

Insights from the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment

By way of HRV data, the Lifestyle Assessment provides an overview – quite a lot like the Suunto 3 Fitness – of phases with activity or stress and thus (typically) decreasing resources and phases of rest and recovery (and, of course, increasing resources).

On top of each measurement/analysis page of the assessment, you get the basic data you entered and the Bodyguard measured:

Next comes an overview of the day, with the different events entered into the diary, the results from the HRV analysis, and some pointers:

Red: stress / green: recovery / dark blue: mid-to-high activity / light blue: low activity / black line: HR / light line: missing HR

Pointers here are to: 15 minutes with the greatest recovery; sports training and its effect (maintaining, peak training effect of 2.6, in this case; 15 minutes with the strongest stress reaction.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the real analysis:

This section (once for each day, once overall) indicates the balance of stress and recovery, the quality (recovery effect) of the sleep, physical activity (and its health effects – the only thing that turned out really good in my lifestyle…), and calorie burn.

What is noticeable is the focus being put on the balance between stress and recovery, activity and sleep (and sleep quality). Much of the focus in tracking, otherwise, is just on training hours or steps or some other measures of activity alone.

Wearable Lessons from the Lifestyle Assessment

The way it works and gets analyzed shows something of the ways such tracking can provide insights, but usually (when done with wearables) misses some essential elements:

Historical Trends Matter

First of all, the tracking /analysis results are not only shown in the moment, but recorded over time so that it is possible to see trends.

In the case of my three days used here, my sleep was not great to start with except the night before I started the measurement, for example.

Interestingly, the Suunto 3 Fitness showed a good night’s sleep (and resources). The Firstbeat Bodyguard, although I only started the recording in the morning, also caught my high “resources” gained in that night.

From there, it all went down, however…

The Suunto 3 Fitness showed quite similar trends over that time. This, at least, was very interesting to see. After all, using only an oHR sensor to measure heart rate variability, this watch could easily be quite a bit worse at that tracking.

Trend of “body resources” from the Lifestyle Assessment’s report versus screens from the Suunto 3 Fitness, combined into a timeline. (The gap is where I updated the watch and forgot to take a photo first.)

The comparison of the Lifestyle Assessment’s results versus the Suunto 3 Fitness’ screens only shows all the more how much a history is missing. And that’s not all.

Trends are Fine, but What’s the Context?

Secondly, a record of “wearable” tracking is all well and good. And yet, it remains useless (except for the warning provided by a trend downward as I had it) unless there is any indication of possible reasons for the trends.

The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assesssment asks one to at least enter sleeping times and work times. It also offers the possibility to enter other noteworthy things…

At the very least, this not only makes it obvious that my sleeping times are too short, it also showed when my sleep was rather disturbed. And there, I did not mark the time I had a quarrel with my wife while wanting to go to bed already…

A little interesting tidbit provided by that was how my teaching job and the train commute there and back were not the worst of choices.

Commutes (by car) are among the most stressful of things according to surveys; a teaching job is often considered a very stressful situation… However, this analysis showed that my teaching time included a phase of recovery, as did the time on trains. (The latter is, admittedly, easy to understand given how sleep-inducing train travel can be. On too little sleep overall, especially.)

The Professional-Personal Touch

The final piece of the value puzzle of such an assessment is the big difference between the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment and some wearable tracking: The data is analyzed by a professional.

Even the most perfect record of tracking results in an app, even if it could automatically be linked to some indication of what was happening at the time(s) when stress or recovery occurred, would not provide much value if it were never looked at.

With the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assesssment, the end is not after the three days, when the tracking is done and the Bodyguard device is sent back.

The end is the report of the results and their discussion. Having someone else point out the findings, inquire how one felt during that time and whether the insights gained fit with one’s personal thoughts, all shows how apps still miss out.

The interpretation given by apps, if there even is any, is still very limited and general. And of course, it lacks a personal touch, the feeling – which can be for better or worse (or both at the same time) – of someone else being involved.

Improvement Wanted?

Not least, what is done in the personal interaction and not so common with wearables and apps, is something simple: To ask if one wants to improve, to change something, in the first place.

All too often, wearables and sports tech are bought with the intention to improve. Then, however, life comes in between. But at least, one has bought the fitness tracker, the sports watch. Or for that matter, the gym membership. And that counts for something… to those minds of ours still made for a world in which any unnecessary expenditure of energy was a dangerous thing.

Really, though, it is certainly not fitness trackers that matter for a healthy lifestyle. Nor the data gathered, if not looked at. It is the lifestyle itself that ultimately matters…