Everything for Electronics
Nuts & Volts Magazine (October 2016)

Self-Monitoring Made Easy

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

It’s never been easier or more affordable to self-monitor everything from your heart rate to your body fat composition. Take the once lowly bathroom scale. My first smart scale — a Tanita capable of calculating percentage of body fat and water — cost several hundred dollars and took forever to compute statistics. Today, Tanita — as well as FitBit, Garmin, Omron, among others — offers smart scales that not only instantly compute body composition, but communicate the results via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to a local computer or the Internet for archiving, plotting, and sharing.

The simple addition of wireless connectivity has totally transformed my experience of tracking body composition over time and adjusting my diet and exercise programs accordingly. Of course, there are the fitness bands, watches, and even old-school wireless chest strap sensors from Polar, Garmin, Fossil, FitBit, JawBone, Misfit, and others that track activity level and wirelessly communicate results to sites on the Internet for plotting and comparison.

The industry is in a bit of turmoil at the moment, with some familiar fitness band makers falling while other lesser known brands are rising. The result, for now, is great deals on the technology.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of leveraging self-monitoring technology with a goal of developing a six-pack or bettering their time in a marathon. Some of us must deal with hard realities of life, such as diabetes. Again, there are more affordable options than ever.

You can pick up a glucose monitoring kit at most local drug stores for $20-$30, including a supply of blood lancets. Modestly more expensive monitors also upload the blood glucose levels to the Internet, where they can be plotted, trigger alarms to be answered by clinicians, and to provide a record for future reference.

If you haven’t tried it, it’s worth a few finger pricks to plot your blood glucose level over the course of a day. It can be life changing to see the familiar “sugar rush” followed by the “crash” with an improper diet. For example, you can test choices such as a plain white baked potato versus a premium chocolate ice cream cone (spoiler alert — the white potato will wreak havoc on your blood sugar level, while the ice cream will have relatively little effect because the fat content of the ice cream slows the absorption of sugar).

Lately, I’ve been building prototypes of self-monitoring smart clothes based on the LilyPad Arduino, with accelerometers and other sensors sewn into my shirts, pants, and shoes. The LilyPad disc is only a bit larger than a quarter and sews neatly onto any cloth or leather surface. The problem is the battery board.

While the LilyPad can be immersed in water with no ill effect, the battery board is susceptible to moisture. The key is to remove the battery before washing. Better yet, use spot cleaning or at least hand cleaning if you have to immerse the entire garment or shoe in water.

Next time you walk into a sporting goods or drug store, take note of the range of self-monitors available. Some may surprise you, and others may give you ideas on monitors of your own design.  NV