Polar Loop and Other Obsessions

Always on. Always moving. Am I?

I went on holiday to Spain about a month ago and was impressed by the presence and scope of sports in Barcelona. There was a whole department store dedicated to sports (Corte Ingles) – 4 large floors of everything from running gear to golf, swimming, trekking, shooting, skateboarding and more – along with numerous outlets for training shoes. Keeping fit seemed more of a way of life and, as somebody who keeps fit in order to better handle life’s challenges, I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store.

I decided to embrace the Internet of Things and picked up a Polar Loop from one of the stores. I had used a Polar heart rate monitor in the past during training sessions which gave excellent feedback to show how I was performing in training, but the Loop promised a way of tracking all the ancillary activity throughout the day – all the walking and moving that wasn’t a training session but still counted for activity towards the goal of “keeping fit.”

But you had to activate it by plugging it into your computer. As I was on holiday there was no computer so it had to wait until I got back. Once I activated it and fiddled around cutting the strap down to size I started wearing it all the time (it claims to monitor sleep too).

Initially I was obsessed with it. Synchronising with the iPhone app to see how my performance was going, to see if I had hit the target – I run a restaurant and some of my days are extremely active. But after a week or so, doubt started to creep in.

  • Do I really need to do *that* much activity to hit my goal?
  • Why doesn’t my gym session (mostly weights) seem to count for much?
  • Why do some articles recommend pairing with the heart rate monitor to *really* get the most out of it?

Having looked at the data over a period of a couple for weeks I have concluded the following:

  • If you have an active lifestyle and keep fit regularly, you don’t need it unless you *really* can’t live without the data to tell you what you already know.
  • If you are a runner, cyclist or swimmer you’ll get greater benefit from the Loop than if you are into weights (the range and type of motion in weight training doesn’t register as contribution towards movement). For feedback here you’ll need a heart rate monitor (which I recommend to help you understand your body’s performance during the training).
  • For the sedentary (e.g. an office worker) the Loop can help by reminding you not to sit in one place for too long – periodic movement is better for posture – but then so would an hourly repeat alarm on your smartphone.

Professor Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle shows we behave differently when we know we’re being watched (and/or measured).

I fully support any device or app that helps you achieve a healthier lifestyle and if you find this motivates you to get out more – be more active, go for a run, whatever – then go for it (you can even swim with the Loop as it’s waterproof). But I also have a nagging doubt that part of its efficacy relies on the obsessive behaviour present in many of us, and that mindset can be unhealthy as it induces stress. For example, if you find yourself checking the progress at the end of the day and you’re 7% short of the daily goal how will you feel? Unhappy? Not bothered? Desperate to go for a run to make up the last 7%? Lazy? Will you become more or less motivated over time? Result: Stress on some level.

We need to be cautious about how we embrace any new technology such as the Loop (or other similar product) to make sure we get out of it what we expect to – it’s about setting goals and then ensuring that the device or app can meet them. For me, Loop hinted at a grail of monitoring my day to show how active I was (and hopefully prove I was very active) and help keep better tabs on my sleep quality compared to other apps. However, the sleep monitoring was very basic and only really measured time tossing and turning versus restful (ie little movement), and on many nights it actually thought I had taken it off because I was motionless for periods of time. For the general movement, it did show that I hit the target of 100% almost every day, with some days nearer 150%, yet only managed 65% on a restful Sunday despite a training session at the gym in the morning.

Needless to say I rarely wear the Loop now and instead of becoming an always on essential in my fitness lifestyle it has been consigned to maybe wearing it at the gym if I go for a swim (having a waterproof watch helps when you’re timing your swim for Fitocracy and there’s no clock in the pool!)

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