Maximizing the Oura ring activity score

First, let me say that maximizing my Oura ring activity score is, in and of itself, of no value whatsoever—except to the extent that it reflects and reinforces my efforts to get an appropriate level of physical activity.

Happily, I find that getting an appropriate amount of activity generally results in a higher score. So it works at that level, with perhaps a few mismatches between what I think is appropriate and what the Oura software thinks is appropriate, the main one being their idea of what counts as a recovery day.

Periodization of training—getting a mix of training days and recovery days—is a great idea. In fact, the lack of periodization is one of the limitations with Google Fit, whose model is to have a daily activity goal which is a little aggressive—a goal that motivates you to to get out and walk just a little more than you otherwise might. The problem is that a goal that’s even a little bit aggressive is going to be excessive for your recovery days, while still being much less than you probably want for your training days.

This is where the Oura ring software is a big step up from Google Fit. It strongly encourages both training days and recovery days. Unfortunately, its idea of a recovery day seems a bit too strict for me:

For Oura, an easy day means keeping the amount of medium intensity level activity below 200 MET minutes (200-300 kcal/day), and high intensity activity below 100 MET minutes (100-150 kcal/day).

In practice this can mean doing lots of low intensity activities, getting healthy amounts of medium intensity activity (30-60 min), but only a small amount of high intensity activity (below 10 min).

Now, that’s all well and good, except that ordinary walking is a medium intensity activity, and (except when the weather is crappy) it’s a very rare day indeed that I don’t end up walking more than an hour—meaning that I basically never get a recovery day in Oura ring terms.

The result is that whenever the weather is nice my activity score starts dropping, because I’m not getting what my ring thinks is appropriate recovery. Then, when there’s a couple of days of crappy weather and I sit around the house all day, my score will climb (as my recovery time value improves). Then, as soon as the weather gets nice again and I can get out and be active, my activity score can shoot up into the high 90s:

However, I can only get five days of such high levels. Since I need to have at least two recovery days per week, a string of more than five nice days means my recovery suffers once again, turning into lower activity scores.

I haven’t fully characterized the behavior so far, but it seems like the software may well be doing just what the quoted text above says: Getting between 30 and 60 minutes of medium activity makes a day a recovery day, with a hard end to any “recovery” at 61 minutes.

If true, that would probably be the place to make a fix. That is, I’m not trying to suggest that I have any data to show that an average person could walk more than 60 minutes and still recover as well, nor do I have any good metric for identifying some subset of people who can walk more and recover well. But I am pretty sure that the 1 h 3 min of medium activity that I got the day before yesterday is not so much more than the 60 I got yesterday that the former should count as a training day rather than a recovery day.

Oura ring warned me

For a week now, the forecast has been that yesterday would be the first really nice day of the season, and I had decided a week ago that I’d go for a long run.

I tried to set everything up for good readiness, with a medium run back on Monday (so it wouldn’t be too long between runs), and then ordinary amounts of walking on Tuesday through Friday.

However, it wasn’t to be. I felt weak and sluggish right from the start, and found that even just maintaining a slow pace required that I ramp up my heart rate as the run went along:

(All that stuff in the yellow is too high, which is basically the whole run. I kept it almost in the green for the first mile, but after that it was way too high the whole time. The tiny bit where it spiked up into the red at the end was when I was sprinting to the button to get a walk signal.)

I have to say that my Oura ring warned me that my readiness was only so-so yesterday:

The main negative contributors, from the Oura ring’s perspective, were a mediocre night’s sleep, and a slightly elevated resting heart rate—and in particular, a resting heart rate that took most of the night even to settle down to that slightly elevated level (the “recovery index” part):

Last night my sleep was much better:

But it didn’t lead to a much higher readiness today, because yesterday’s run, even though it was a pretty feeble effort, was enough to mean that today I should at least somewhat take it easy:

As it happens, I was pretty happy to do that. I got a reasonable amount of movement today, while nevertheless taking it pretty easy. Included in the day’s movement was the first bit of barefoot walking of the season. I also spent just a few minutes punching the heavy bag, mainly to get some photos for an Esperanto blog post on one aspect of my summer training plans.

Sleeping with my Oura ring: Body temperature

As a big ol’ data geek, I’m by default interested in any metrics that I can get, especially ones related to me.

One of the metrics tracked by the Oura ring is body temperature, which is a metric don’t normally pay much attention to unless I think I might be sick, and I haven’t wanted to get sick just to explore this feature of the Oura ring. But a couple of days ago I did something much better: I got my shingles vaccination.

(I’ve been trying to get my shingles vaccination for months now, since they changed the recommended age from 60 to 50 and my insurance company started covering it for young folks like me. But with all the younger boomers thinking the same thing, the vaccine became scarce. Jackie and I finally tracked down shots last week.)

My immune system viewed the shot as something of a stern challenge, and sure enough my body temperature became elevated. In the graph below observe the last three data points, which show a spike to 0.7℉ above my baseline, followed by a 0.6℉ elevation the second night. Last night was only 0.3℉ above the baseline and back down in the normal range. (Near the middle you can see another spike to 0.7℉ above baseline followed by a negative deviation of a similar amount. That excursion was, I think, related to life stress.)

Graph of body temp, ending with a sharp spike gradually returning toward normal
My average nighttime body temperature deviation from baseline for February 10 to March 16 2019.

Observing that I was under some stress, the ring has been advising me to take it easy for the past couple of days. Knowing that the stress in question was a healthy one, I didn’t take the warning too seriously. The weather was nice the day after the shot, so I went out for a run, despite my ring’s advice.

Despite disregarding that particular day’s advice, I’ve actually been paying rather close attention to the ring’s indications as to my readiness. For example yesterday, when my body temperature and other factors suggested that I was still not recovered, I did take it easy—and I have been rewarded with an excellent night’s sleep and a moderately high readiness score for today:

Sleep panel from Oura ring dashboard.

Perhaps today will be a good day for a long walk. By the middle of the week we’ll have some more excellent running weather, and hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Adulting my to-read pile

For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.

I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”

Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”

I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.

Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.

In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.

But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)

By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.

It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.

Weird (horrifying) study of human movement

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times linked to a new study on age-related declines in human movement. It’s an odd study, but not because of the result (which shows that children start moving less at age 6), because that seems entirely predictable to me, despite the general understanding previously having been that the decline started in adolescence.

Rather, what makes the study seem odd to me is the weird blind spot the researchers seem to have about when and how organisms (including humans) choose to move.

In the study itself the researchers make clear that they had considered the obvious presumption—that kids start moving less when they start going to school: “The overt explanation for this earlier decline could be the increased sitting times due to school.”

The  blind spot I’m talking about is presented in the next sentence, where they immediately qualified that:

However, time-specific analysis of [physical activity] has revealed that in addition to the increased [sedentary behavior] during school hours, there was also a distinct decline on weekends, out-of-school days, and during lunchtime.

Schwarzfischer P, Gruszfeld D, Stolarczyk A, et al. Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior From 6 to 11 Years.Pediatrics. 2019;143(1):e20180994

What’s weird and horrifying is that they make that statement seemingly without it occurring to them that forcing children to sit still for hours on 5/7ths of the days of the week might affect their behavior on the other 2/7ths of the days.

Right off the top of my head I can think of four obvious reasons that would be true:

  1. The required behavior in school normalizes the behavior of extended sitting.
  2. Even a few weeks of enforced extended sitting will result in the kids becoming deconditioned aerobically, making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  3. Extended periods spent in any static posture—especially the static posture of sitting—will begin the process of reducing their range of motion (they’ll pretty quickly lose the ability to squat, for example), again making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  4. The addition of “physical education” to the kids’ daily schedule sets the pattern of replacing movement with exercise—a time-bound, regimented activity which attempts to pack the health benefits of a week’s worth of movement into just a few hours. (I’ve written about this before.)

Just one instance of this blind spot is bad enough, but it shows up again in in a key reference. The researchers say that it is accepted that physical activity declines with age: “A natural and biologically determined decline of total [physical activity] throughout the life span seems likely.” They support that assertion with a couple of references, one of which looks specifically at movement in non-human animals.

Unfortunately that study (Ingram, D. K. Age-related decline in physical activity: generalization to nonhumans. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 9, pp. 1623-1629, 2000, which is sadly behind a pay-wall.) has exactly the same blind spot: All the animals studied were captive animals. That study looked at how animal movement varies when an animal is moved from its “home cage” to some other cage. I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised the behavior of those captive animals closely resembles the behavior of children moved from home to school and back again.

I would be very interested in studies that included some free-range animals. (Which isn’t something I can do, but which seems at least possible now that accelerometers  are cheap.)

Of course school isn’t the only factor that inhibits children from moving more. The restrictions on self-directed play so well documented by Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow no doubt feed in as well.

So it would be great if there were studies of movement in free-range kids as well.

The final weird and horrifying thing isn’t anything new, but is something I hadn’t really been aware of before: The assumption that an age-related reduction in movement is “natural and biologically determined,” has led directly to public policies that normalize it:

This decline is also represented in recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO): preschool-aged children should accumulate a minimum of 180 minutes per day of total [physical activity], children and adolescents (4–17 years old) at least 60 minutes per day, and adults only a minimum of 30 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

To which I say, “Argh!”

I probably wouldn’t be so struck by this if I weren’t already tracking my own movement. (Cheap accelerometers again.)

For some time now I’ve been working to a goal of 105 minutes of movement per day, and over the last few weeks I’ve come pretty close, averaging just over 102 minutes of movement per day, according to Google Fit. (This number, based primarily on steps, somewhat underestimates my movement. In particular it gives me almost no credit for the time I spend teaching taiji, because although there’s plenty of movement, there’s not much stepping.)

The WHO recommendations make me strongly motivated to upgrade my goal for movement to 180 minutes per day.

Why should kids under 6 get all the fun?

(The image at the top is topical only in that it is is a photo from our afternoon walk yesterday.)

Oura-ringing out the old year

For a couple of years now, I’ve been having some trouble sleeping. It’s not a constant problem, but it has become more frequent than the rare thing it used to be.

I think the problem is just a string of one-off instances of stress. During this period I had one older relative begin having cognitive difficulties and have to move to a facility that could provide additional care, my cat got sick and eventually died, had some personality clashes related to volunteer work I’m doing grow into a problem that eventually involved lawyers, and had another older relative began showing signs of cognitive difficulties.

Each of these resulted in a pattern where I’d fall asleep just fine, but then wake up in the middle of the night and start ruminating about the issue of the day and be unable to fall back to sleep for an hour or three.

In the past when I had problems of this sort they tended to be short-lived. I’d stress out about something for a night or two or three, but the issue would be resolved soon enough and I go back to sleeping fine.

Here the issues have stacked up, new ones following the old ones.  Further, some of them don’t go away. They linger on.

As I say, I think that’s what’s happening here. Ordinary life stresses have simply come at me a little too hard and a little too fast, with the result that my sleep has been impacted.

However, maybe that’s not all that’s going on. Maybe there’s more to it. I know there are some other issues. For example, if I don’t keep my carb intake down my nasal congestion returns, and that dramatically interferes with my sleep.

Given that I’m not sure what all might be wrong, I thought it might make sense to investigate further—gather some data, and see if I couldn’t find some patterns in my sleep problems. To that end, I bought an Oura ring, a tracking device along the lines of an Apple watch or a Fitbit, but with its focus specifically on gathering and analyzing data about sleep.

I’ve only had it for a week so far, and I’m really just getting started at looking for trends in the data. For example, three nights ago I slept poorly (awake for almost 2.5 hours of the almost 9 hours I was in bed).

One possible reason was a too-large meal too late in the day. (It was the Winfield Village holiday party.) One piece of data that suggests that possibility is that my body temperature was elevated by 0.3℃ during the night—perhaps because of increased metabolic activity digesting all that food.

Interestingly, I got more deep sleep than I had all week up to now, perhaps because I went for a long run the day before. (Deep sleep is where you get the physical recovery from things like heavy weight-lifting sessions and long runs. Maybe the first few nights had less deep sleep simply because I didn’t need more than that, because I hadn’t had the hard workouts that require deep sleep for recovery.)

Here’s the next night, where I spent less time awake and almost as much time in deep sleep:

My body temperature was still up, though, even without the big meal. We had turned the thermostat down one more degree, but that’s about as low as we want it, so last night I rearranged the covers, removing the down comforter, going with just the wool blanket. I don’t know if that was a key change, but I slept very well last night:

Not only were my quantities of total sleep and deep sleep good, some of the other metrics were good as well. My temperature deviation was -0.3℃, which suggests that maybe I’ve got the covers and thermostat thing balanced just about right. My resting heart rate was down to 47, which suggests that I’ve recovered completely from the long run I took three days ago.

My hope is that by paying attention to this sort of thing, I can gradually eliminate these sorts of problems affecting my sleep. Of course that will leave me with the stress-related problems, but I think I know how to handle those—fixing the ones that can be fixed, accepting the ones that can’t be fixed, and engaging in appropriate self-care to help myself handle the stress better. And, of course, get enough sleep.