Category Archives: Logging

3 weeks of step count data — what did it tell me?

This is a guest post by Tim Hanrahan, Editor-In-Chief at Gowhere Hip Hop.

step count data
The view from one of my hikes in the Bay Area.

Last week, I took a look at my step count data attending the Lollapalooza music festival earlier this month. This inspired me to go back even further in my data to my 3-week nomadic trip to San Francisco this June/July.

I set out to the Bay to attend the annual Quantifed Self Conference and had the intention to stay out there and work remotely for as long as I could be away from home. I also set a daily intention to explore new neighborhoods, tourist attractions, and the many outdoor activities the Bay has to offer, especially being it was my first visit to the area.

Naturally, I knew I would be much more active walking around San Francisco than I am currently — commuting by car or simply not leaving home to work. I wanted to see how much more active I would be in a new environment and establish a new daily routine going forward.

I was also hoping that as a result from this trip, I would be able to test an upper limit of what I can physically endure in a day. To set my ceiling, I went on two hikes and compared the data below between those days and my “normal”, primarily pedestrian work day. I’ll explain more as we go…


The Hikes

First, here is a line graph that charts my total amount of steps across the 3 weeks, using the Moves app. As one might assume, my 2 highest step counts were the 2 days I went on hikes.

step count data

The 2 hikes I went on were very different, yet equally exhausting. The first was through Muir Woods, up, then back down a mountain that lasted for over 4 hours and accumulated 9.5 miles.

step count data
My first hike (and all-time record of steps!) up the mountain trails at Muir Woods.

The next weekend, I walked an even 9 miles mainly exploring the Marin Headlands and walking from there to the Bonita Point Lighthouse. This was not nearly as steep compared to the more traditional hike I had 6 days before, but my friends and I were able to explore more land this time during a relatively equal 4+ hour period.

step count data
My second hike: covering the cliffs, viewpoints, and beaches at Marin.

For me, these hikes, and this trip in general, were my first experience at really tracking and analyzing my physical activity. I knew that to improve my daily goals I had to test my limits. In the couple of months since, the record of June 21st still stands as my ceiling. I know I can pass it one day, but this number still acts as an inspiration that I can handle and reach that Fitbit magic number of 10,000 steps a day during a normal work week.


The Non-Hike Days

Using my data above, I calculated the average amount of steps I took per day, excluding the two days I went on hikes.

Over 18 non-hike days, I averaged 7,625 steps/day.

It fell short of my 10K/day goal, but I still have my head held high.

One of the biggest factors that skewed my average down was a 4-day extended recovery from not just the hike, but the start of my trip June 17-20 that included active days at the QS conference. I stayed dormant, worked from my friend’s place, and relied on BART or my buddy’s car to get around the city when otherwise during the trip I would walk. I enjoyed unwinding, but just fell comfortable into it for 2 days too long.

Furthermore, when I’m home, I’m more able to properly excercise. As you all know when you travel, one of the hurdles sometimes is finding a gym, treadmill, or even simply the time to go out for a run, bike ride, what have you. My main form of cardio is even harder to accomplish on the road: playing basketball.

Throughout the 3 weeks, I only found one day to play basketball: July 4th, pictured below, and that was not the full court pickup games I usually play in 2-3 times a week. My friend and I just shot around in the 80 degree heat for about an hour. I immediately noticed I didn’t have the same wind or leg strength after 2 weeks of not touching a basketball.

step count data
The one day I played basketball on my trip. I was able to separately analyze the steps taken while playing basketball in the right column.



Once I got settled in San Francisco, I figured a couple of things would happen for the last couple weeks of my trip that ultimately did not:

1. I would find more time to play basketball and not drop off my cardio too much.

2. The amount of walking would compensate for my normal cardio.

I dissected the latter takeaway and concluded that overall, I wasn’t as active as I thought I was. My active days inflated my perception, but I was brought back down to earth when I felt so out of shape after just 2 weeks of not playing basketball.

In fact, one other quantified result from the trip that proved this was a 5 pound weight gain. I felt I had been more active in San Francisco, and looking at the high step counts on my most active days contributed to that sense of security. But I didn’t realize it until it was too late: I just didn’t make enough time for cardio. I figured that with all the walking I did, plus Pilates 2-3 days a week from home, it would be enough to maintain. It wasn’t, but I didn’t feel I dug myself into an insurmountable hole either.

Looking at it positively though, I found I really enjoyed hiking and just walking more in general throughout the work week. I would take breaks and seek out a new destination for work, meetings, a tourist spot, food, etc. throughout San Francisco. Those days in the city were ones that increased the 7.5K average.

Overall, my trip helped me determine that this is the routine I would like to establish, given my current, remote work situation. The goals are now to hit my 7.5K average from just walking during the work hours, and then reach 10K through nighttime exercise. On the few nights a week I play basketball, 12.5K steps total is a more challenging goal. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to really hike around flatland Chicago (my current home) but that’s where the basketball steps in.

Up next: Streamlining my data tracking and creating even better graphs to visualize my activity. I had to manually input data and create the graph above, when I could have been doing this automatically with this all-new DIY Tracker on It’s a free download, with optional personalized coaching, to start to track your own version of either my experiment above or something like weight tracking or measuring your blood glucose levels.

If you enjoyed my story here, you can use this tool and start your own story too. Check it out and let us know what you think: @QuantSelfLafont.


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HRV, Simple Games & Imagination

After feedback from Bob and Gwern on the learning post I have started collecting heart rate variability (HRV) while playing Dual-N-Back game that Gwern recommended. Dual-N-Back is much more intense than the simple category recognition game I have been measuring. I will share the results there when I gave a good amount of data. Out of curiousity I kept playing the simple game from the first post and continued recording the results.

What I have seen with continued plays of that first simple game has surprised me. According to the principles in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow I would expect a stress response from my HRV reading in the beginning, a relaxed (high) HRV when I was in Flow then for the reading to taper off as I become bored with the task. I’m not finding that. Here is the graph:


What has happened is after the first sessions of learning how to use the category game (session 1 through 6) my HRV became relaxed and has stayed there. In fact the “up-down-up-down” you see on the graph is an expression of the fact I do two or three sessions a day and sometimes I get into a groove in different sessions. The graph if you average the sessions across the day eliminates this and is clearer on how stable my HRV has been once I familiarized myself with the game:


So this particular category game engages my attention enough to get me into a relaxed state that yields consistently higher HRV. I am a bit thoughtful during the task and at times my mind wanders because I am bored. And the numbers show that I am averaging a much higher HRV overall after having become familiar with the task.

What I see in the different session scores is a state of attention playing out. When I am engaged and focus my HRV as reflected in the points scores is higher. Each time I play I use the same tablet at the same desk in the same sound and light environment. The task is the same, and I usually score the same amount of points. What is different is whether I have a story in my head that I should be doing something else or have been doing the task for too long. That story is completely from my imagination. So imagination drives HRV as much as anything.

The Problem of Split Attention

In a heart rate session today I was in nice focus and high coherence until I thought of a to-do that I had to take care of later in the day. There was a navigational “I have to be somewhere else” feel and at that moment my RR interbeat interval went sideways as shown below in the red circle:



What was happening? In that moment I was trying to hold two things in my attention – one my breath as it followed the up and down journey of my interbeat interval, and the second the phone call I had to make. My nervous system then dropped the variability of my heart rate.

After recognizing the moment of split attention I returned my attention to my breath and the variability returned. In this case thought clearly triggered a change in variability, and releasing the thought returned the variability to its start point.

What was happening? A hypothesis is that I overwhelmed my conscious processing capacity of 126 bits per second as described by Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. Flow is a very fashionable framework and I think it is useful. Three things are necessary for Flow when undertaking a task – clear goals, clear feedback and a perceived balance of challenge versus perceived skills.

The task I was engaged in was focussing on my heart rate for 30 minutes. I perceived that I could make the phone call, so I was not out of balance in that sense. There was no feedback change. I think what happened is that I questioned my goals – should I instead be making the phone call versus sitting measuring heart rate variability?

Maintaining the integrity of moment to moment attention somehow has to be tied into how I prioritize my actions. From where does the framework for prioritizing actions come? It may be a shortcut to maintaining a lower level of stress.

Capturing Thoughts

In an a blog post about resetting out mental inbox to zero, the author cites the statistic that researchers thing we have 50,000 thoughts go through out heads each day. In my experience I log from 5 to 25 thoughts per day when they come to my attention as negative or distracting. That means on a good day I am capturing .05% of the thoughts I am actually having.

So what is the purpose of logging thoughts? It cannot be to capture the overall population of thoughts and deal with them one by one. Simple math says we are having a thought every 1.8 seconds. The purpose of logging and meditation is positive in my experience, but the skill set I am building is absolutely not to capture and dispose of all thoughts.

What must be happening is the underlying context and connecting beliefs beneath the thoughts shifts from “these are 50,000 representations of reality that must be true” to “these are 50,000 impressions that may or may not be true.” That small shift allows an arising thought to be seen in context as one impression in a stream of impressions.

An analogy could be this. Each message in your email inbox is an electronic message that may or may not be important. Some are critical, most are irrelevant. We have learned with time to scan for the important and ignore or filter the junk. So too with thoughts. Instinctively we can shift to where thoughts have no credibility just because they are thoughts. Some will help us look both ways before crossing a street. Others such as self criticism or fear of the unknown we let pass to the junk folder.

So a Quantified Self strategy is to log thoughts that correspond with feeling, and see that in your sample set of 5 to 25 some are important and most are riddled with error. With time and practice you will not look to get your email box to zero…you will enjoy knowing that you are good at filtering the good from the bad. And knowing how to do that will bring you peace.