All the Uses of Wearables as Microexploration Tools

Wearables, especially for fitness, have risen tremendously in popularity – and often been criticized as trendy products that never deliver on their promise.

Well, they do not make you fit and healthy all by themselves – but they can help with health and fitness.

And more!

Along and beyond the use of wearables for fitness, I find them interesting tools for my #microexploration aims – to look closer at ourselves, the places we find ourselves, and the connections, to learn more about it all, and thus to #GetAtHome in our bodies and this our world.

Promises and Troubles

Of course there are problems with wearables – and misunderstandings.

10,000 Steps to… What?

That step counter?

It promises better fitness.

It ends up driving some people into odd gymnastics to still get those 10,000 daily steps. Or it just ends up in a drawer somewhere.

GPS Sports Data for… What?

That GPS sports watch?

I have often seen people chase after reviews to find *the* perfect device that would record their running course exactly, down to the centimeter. And if it doesn’t have a feature, doesn’t get the desired – nay, demanded! – update, has any error in the GPS track, it’s loudly declared to be unusable!

It’s only too easy, in these times of social media pushing the silliest and most extreme of opinions ever-upwards, to find such bizarre views and angry comments.

The Sensible View

Overhead view on a run
Overhead view on a run

For most people, wearables are probably just what they are: Little tools to track, motivate, help with training and health.

Watches and fitness bands appeal through their promise, of course.

Most people, I trust, still don’t hold their wearables responsible if they don’t get fitter or faster without doing something themselves (even if angry comments may give that impression).

#GetAtHome Devices

To me, fitness / health / sports wearables, GPS watches, all these devices, are even more, if only we take a closer look at them and their offerings and learn more from it all:

They remind us of connections, give insight into links, which we often overlook.

Of course, they will serve a better purpose if we also (try to) use them to their full potential. This is a big part of the reason why I report on their performance and give advice on how to use them at

At the very least, however, they can help us remember and learn more about ourselves and our place(s) in the world.

This certainly has been where my fascination with them came from.

Step 1: Heart Rate.

This Beating Heart of Mine.

My first interest was, probably like many people’s, just a bit of a geeky fascination with watches (and data).

Heart rate display on Suunto 7
Heart rate display on Suunto 7

I took up running, and I wanted to know something about what I was doing. In the process, I stumbled upon a heart rate watch.

This turned out interesting, with a side of concern, because my heart rate showed some oddities. It would regularly get very high, and not only when I was standing under high voltage power lines.

(Those early sports watches got heart rate readings from unencoded chest straps, and those straps’ signal got disturbed by power lines.)

It would turn out to be nothing, but it was motivation to get myself checked by a sports medicine professional and to pay more attention.

#GetAtHome Lesson 1: You live – and should train – by your heart rate (and you should know when not to)

Step 2: Lessons in Inner Data

Let yourself be guided – or guide yourself

In the process, I learned more about myself.

By now, long after, the lessons have been disparate, but both good:

Data as Control…

With sports watches, I have learned to guide training by heart rate (and more recently, power).

The effects of a lack of sleep, stress and recovery state – physiological and psychological factors in me as a body – have all become more familiar.

With more fitness and experience, I have also learned to know and listen to myself better.

… Without Getting Controlled by Data

This had the interesting effect of making a sports watch not always needed.

When I just want to move for fun, I don’t need exact heart rate data from a chest strap, I can just go, have fun, and know what I’m doing.

I still like to have the data of such runs recorded, not least for a bit of training planning – but because of that mix of learnings, the ability to let a watch track me with its display turned off has become a favorite feature.

#GetAtHome Lesson 2: Learn to listen to yourself

Step 3: Add Speed

Far and Fast… or Low and Slow

Suunto 7 activity summary: duration and distance
Suunto 7 activity summary: duration and distance

Next up in the development of sports watches – and my continuing use of them – came the addition of foot pods for speed and distance tracking.

I still wonder how much of the criticism of this technology came from people who suddenly had to face data telling them that they were going less far, less fast, than they had previously thought.

Whether you were (or are) disappointed or guided by that data, there is more information.

What a Distance actually Means

It was a first step into realizing more about one’s place in the world.

What 5k, 10k or a marathon really meant became much clearer when a run wasn’t only guided by time, as in “Today, I’m running for 45 minutes.”

The marathon distance was particularly informative for me, as I live 40 km from Vienna. It always seemed too far away to possibly run there…

Even, later, the distances expanded to ultramarathons – but those came with the next step in technology.

#GetAtHome Lesson 3: Learn how far the places in your surroundings are truly away, by a human measure

Step 4: GPS

You Are *HERE

Next up, GPS technology moved onto the wrist – and with that came a host of possibilities for getting out into the world and putting oneself on the map.

Tracks on a Map

With the tracking that GPS-enabled watches provide, it became possible and ever more easy to see one’s trails, after a workout or other outdoors pursuit.

ProTrek Smart watchface showing regions visited
ProTrek Smart watchface showing regions visited

It made it easier to visualize places visited (and run) around the world – especially as air travel became cheaper and, with that, more common.

It also made it more obvious how many places in the immediate surroundings are never visited; how much we only take certain paths, feel familiar with our surroundings, but haven’t seen most of them.

Go This Way!

GPS sports/outdoors watches added navigation capabilities and made it convenient and safer to explore new places.

There are more opportunities to sit down at map software and see where other people had gone, to map out routes to try out oneself, to plan routes in advance.

Suunto 7 heatmap view while navigating along a route
Suunto 7 heatmap view while navigating along a route

There are better options for following those routes on the ground, to move and explore, with fewer chances of getting lost.

And then, one can again look back and revisit the tracks.

All that became not only possible, but even easy.

#GetAtHome Lesson 4: Get to know where (you want to go, where you are going, and where you went.)

Feedback on sleep on Garmin Enduro
Feedback on sleep on Garmin Enduro

Step 5: Sleep, HRV

Watch you while you sleep, Interpreting the Inter-Beat

To provide more help, wearables’ functions have been expanded to “observe” sleep and try to tell recovery/resources and stress from their user’s heart rate.


Measuring movement during the night and heart rate, more and more wearables provide interpretations of sleep.

We finally learned that it’s not only exercise and new personal bests that matter, it’s also a good night’s sleep.

If you are the athletic type, call it active recovery. If not, just enjoy (and once again, as with daily steps, don’t obsess).

Heart Rate Variability

Body Battery Details on Garmin Connect (where the sports / outdoor watches really show their character as wearables)
Body Battery Details on Garmin Connect (where the sports / outdoor watches really show their character as wearables)

Close to all the current wearables can measure heart rate through optical sensors, and many (if not most) of them measure heart rate variability.

This is the variation in inter-beat-intervals, the time between two heart beats. It says something about recovery and stress.

So, from that, we have come to wearables looking inside and interpreting stress levels, bodily resources (“body battery”), recovery state.

For one, those should relate to sleep. Unsurprisingly, your “resources”/”body battery” level should rise during a good night’s sleep.

They are also connected to whatever happens during the day, of course. Stressful situations, restful periods, etc.

By themselves, these measures are playthings. Compared with personal feeling and linked to the events of the night or day, they can help us understand what is good or bad for us.

#GetAtHome Lesson 5: The look inside your body can tell you still more – if you let it and learn to use it well.

I could add still more.

We are potentially seeing the rise of continuous glucose monitors that we can use to learn what foods are better or worse for us and to improve our athletic performance, as well.

There are wearables for core body temperature.

With everything, we can learn more – but it’s on us to look closer, learn more, get at home.

One response

  1. As always, an excellent read Gerald.
    BTW – still loving my Suunto 7 🙂

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