Despite the proliferation of devices which enable us to gather objective data about ourselves, in both sporting and workplace contexts, we still need to ‘listen’ to our bodies. I was reminded of this when the battery for my bike’s power meter ran out. Usually, I would send the device off for service as soon as possible. However, due to pandemic related postal uncertainties, I decided to delay. Without any numbers to provide feedback about my work-rate, I paid attention to the sensations from my legs and breathing. I let my body be the guide, and I was surprised to notice that I was enjoying cycling more than usual.
Are we too reliant on data?
I’m a passionate proponent of the use of science and technology in both sport and corporate wellbeing; whether that is a power meter on a bike or a wearable device in a workplace setting. However, as various forms of measurement technology have become more widely available, I’ve observed that many people, in both sport and business, have begun to spend too much time worrying about wearable data, and not enough time noticing how they are feeling. While ‘objective’ data from devices is undoubtedly useful, I still think there is a place for self-perception in our measurement toolkit. Interestingly, data from a sporting context indicates that self-report measures, using our perception, can be as, if not more effective than many objective, technological approaches.
In 2015, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a systematic review which analysed 56 original studies. These studies concurrently measured subjective and objective parameters of acute (short term) and chronic (medium to long-term) training loads. The review suggests that subjective self-report measures frequently surpass commonly used objective measures:
“Subjective measures reflected acute and chronic training loads with superior sensitivity and consistency than objective measures”.
Saw, et al., 2015
While I certainly don’t think we should be throwing away our devices, this study reinforces the value of paying attention to the way we feel, as well as our device data.
The blessing and the curse
Measurement devices can be a blessing when used appropriately, but a curse, mainly if we rely too much on them. Humans do not operate like machines, and we don’t always respond in a predictable way to the information we receive. For example, as I’ve written about previously, getting faulty feedback from a wearable device about our sleep may negatively influence our perception of fatigue and performance, even if nothing has changed ‘objectively’.
Also, we often over-estimate the maturity of scientific understanding concerning how we can measure what is going on with humans. For example, scientists are still searching for precise measures of pathological (disease-causing) stress, and even continue to debate exactly how to define what stress is. In this earlier article, I wrote about the allostatic load model, which describes how ‘load’ becomes ‘overload’.
However, it’s still not yet been possible to establish the precise ‘tipping point’, when stress shifts from beneficial to harmful (2).
The best of both worlds
In my view, self-perception and objective measures are not mutually exclusive. Providing technology and data are valid and reliable; wearable devices can calibrate our perception. In a sporting context, this could involve using a power meter on a bike, to understand better what our perception of effort means, in terms of the work we can do on the road. In a broader life or workplace context, we might begin to use an accurate sleep tracking wearable device, to stop us deceiving ourselves about how much sleep we are getting during the working week.
However, I encourage you to combine these objective measures with your experience. If you use a heart rate monitor, power meter or another device for physical training, perhaps leave them at home for a couple of sessions, or cover the screens, and see how you get on. If you regularly use a sleep tracker, take a moment to pay attention to how alert and rested you feel when you wake up, before you look at the night’s data. Once you’ve done this, reflect on the consistency between what the devices say and how you feel. Any discrepancies may give you some ideas for an area of your wellbeing and performance that you could look into, more deeply.
Our perception of how we are feeling may be subjective, but it represents the integration of a vast array of signals, synthesised to give us an indication of what is going on. This information is incredibly valuable, and in some cases, may even be more reliable than ‘objective’ technology-based measures, if we only took the time to listen.
1) Saw, A. E., Luana, C.M., Gastin, P.B. (2015) Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
2) Sher, L.D., Geddie, H., Olivier, L., Cairns, M., Truter, N., Beselaar, L., Essop, M.F. (2020) Chronic stress and endothelial dysfunction: mechanisms, experimental challenges, and the way ahead. American Journal of Physiology. 319 (2) p.488-506