Data in everyday life: Step-by-step

Barb ClearyIf you’re keeping track of exercise in your daily life, your electronic tracker is loaded with data—but seeing trends and patterns requires charting. See the visual information generated from this data.

While oft-repeated advice about regular exercise often falls on deaf ears, technology and its gimmicks may save the day.

One of the most frequent complaints about exercise is that it’s boring. Repetitive motion, same-old weights, yesterday’s jogging path: If you’re looking for an excuse, it’s not hard to find one.

But a relatively new wave of electronic trackers that record number of steps taken, heart rate, sets of stairs, sleep patterns, miles walked, and other data can change all that. These devices give information that may in fact offer stimulation and variety to the daily activities that reflect movement.

You may not realize it, but every step you take generates data. If there’s enough data, you can pursue genuine analysis of your exercise habits—a habit that may actually lead to health improvement.

A database of the output of your monitor can generate the charts that facilitate this analysis. This chart indicates steps per week taken over a four-month period:

Looking back, one may wonder why the drop in number during the week of August 15, and again in October. Annotation reminds you that you were driving several days during the week in August, headed for a vacation destination (when your steps dropped below the mean for several more weeks); in October, you left your monitor home for a few days. The visual reflection of your walking may inspire you to try to reach another 90,000 step week at some point, after all.

Since the system has actually changed, it may be helpful to change the chart to reflect the ‘process.’ For example, the chart below shows a shift that occurred.

Another frequently recorded metric is the number of sets of stairs climbed (often with “rewards,” such as the Mt. Everest designation after climbing a commensurate number of steps). The same opportunity for annotation helps with the analysis of this data:

A vacation in a beach-front cabana during a summer break that began July 5 gave few opportunities for steps during the last weeks of August, so one doesn’t need to feel guilty about below-average data here. What appears as an out-of-control situation is a result of special-cause variation, explained by the limited number of stairs available during this time. Now as far as the October drop—maybe we need to look again at motivation, since there is no annotation to justify it … or maybe this is just natural variation.

Charting weight, exercise, and even caloric intake offers a quick approach to one’s analysis of factors that influence habits that may influence health. It underscores the fact, too, that data is all around us, waiting to be analyzed and interpreted.