Tracking personal calorie burn in real time.

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 7 2007 7:22 AM

In Which I Bug Myself

Tracking my calorie burn in real time.

Bodybugg. Click image to expand.
The bodybugg

This week, I discovered how many calories I burn climbing stairs, riding trains, sleeping, and having sex. The data come courtesy of a plastic device called the bodybugg, which is currently strapped to the underside of my right arm, like an oversized ladybug about to nuzzle the armpit. The bodybugg is designed to measure the number of calories burned minute by minute over the course of a day, in order to help people lose weight (or gain—it's apparently popular with bodybuilders).

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

Bodybugg is part of a new wave of personal monitoring gadgets that promise to track various aspects of our health, fitness, or risk of disease. Nike + iPod, for instance, uses sensors in sneakers to track a runner's time, distance, and calories burned. An experimental alarm clock works with a headband that monitors sleep stages, promising to wake you up in a lighter phase so you feel less groggy. A specialty shirt, currently in clinical trials in Europe, is packed with sensors that monitor heart rate and breathing. A toilet now on the market in Japan tests urine streams for glucose, gathering data that could be used to monitor diabetes. These gadgets threaten to serve up more data than we know what to do with, not to mention make us ever more self-absorbed. But they also dangle the hope of better understanding and better health. What's it like to spy on one's own body 24/7? I decided to find out. I chose the bodybugg because it's commercially available, doesn't require the continuous wearing of sneakers, and does not involve renovating my bathroom.

Advertisement

When the bodybugg arrived, a guy named Rich set up my online account and walked me through questionnaires that swerved from the personal to the medical—does "steak for breakfast sound good to me"? Am I "tired in the morning even after 7-8 hours of sleep"? Do I have high blood pressure or food allergies or pancreatitis? Rich explained that he would keep an eye on my data, describing himself as a cross between "a trainer and a stalker." The bodybugg has four different kinds of sensors, he said, to track arm motion, heat flux, temperature, and galvanic skin response. When data are uploaded from the device to the company site, an algorithm crunches input from all four sensors and generates a graph of calories burned.

My bugg didn't look particularly sleek. When I hung up with Rich and strapped it on, it made a feverish whirring sound, vibrated for a moment, and fell silent.

10:40 p.m.: With no particular plans, I fidgeted, clicked on e-mail, opened and closed the fridge.

10:47 p.m.: I decided to see what that living room loop amounted to. I logged in to the site, connected a cable from computer to bugg, clicked a couple more times, and presto—1,632 calories burned!

Not really. Since I'd missed most of the day, the program extrapolated, assuming I'd been fidgeting, checking e-mail and opening and closing the fridge continuously since early morning. Still, running my cursor over the past seven minutes, I saw I'd averaged a little more than a calorie per minute: 1.6 calories a minute walking around and 1.3 calories a minute deleting junk mail. 

In the morning, I discovered that sleep burned off another 600 calories. I could pinpoint a spike just before midnight when I'd brushed my teeth (2 calories a minute). Then the graph dipped where I got into bed, and I could see the moment I nodded off: a further dip to 0.9 calories a minute. For the rest of the night, I oscillated between 0.8 calories a minute and 1.1 calories a minute, maybe cycling through various sleep stages or dreams.

The company's Web site has an option to log food intake, which allows dieters to compare input with output. But after fussing with the drop-down menus—scrolling through protein-fortified yogurts, presumably for the body builders, and finding nothing much like the sandwich I planned to eat for lunch—I decided to estimate calories on my own.

In any case, it was time to put the bugg through some paces. At the gym, I looked skeptically at the Nautilus machine readout, which told me I was burning between nine and 10 calories a minute. That estimate was based broadly on my age, weight, and rate of strides at a given resistance level. It seemed a little high. My friend Matthea insisted we do extra push-ups, to see if they were really worth it for the future.