When fitness bands are bad for health

Smartwatches with non-replaceable batteries are bad for Earth

My ordinary watch with replaceable batteries isn’t smart like my fitness band but it’s less harmful to our planet

Though most of us know that e-waste is an issue, we are probably not aware of the scale of its pollution. Even if we did, it’s hard for us in this tech-crazy era to give up our gadgets. I myself had made a resolution to stop buying any more gadgets earlier this year, but broke that pledge within a month. That’s when I realized that the only way to keep my resolution is to do a better job of convincing myself why I don’t need a particular gadget. This post is about how I persuaded myself to switch back from a smartwatch to an ordinary watch.

Anyway, I was fascinated when smartwatches first made their appearance. However, the Apple Watch and most of the first lot of smartwatches were far too expensive for me in India. So I held on till the Chinese started coming out with affordable fitness trackers that I could try out.

Sure enough, Xiaomi launched the Mi Band 2 for around ₹2000 ($29) a couple of years later. My teenage kid, who had been racking her brains to get me a birthday gift, jumped at the chance to gift me the band. Ever since that day in October 2016, my Mi Band has been tracking my daily steps, sleep, heart rate, warning me to take a break when I had been sitting too long, waking me up in the morning with an unmistakable vibration on my wrist, or just telling me the time and date. It would even vibrate if my phone was on silent, and I missed an incoming call.

But all good things come to an end, and a few months ago, a half year short of completing its third year, the Mi Band’s screen began to dim, and the letters started to crack up. It’s now hardly readable even at night.

Usually, I’m secretly thrilled when any of my gadgets fail as this gives me a good excuse to justify getting its latest and greatest version as a replacement.

However, the environmental consequences of my mindless consumerism have recently begun to worry me. It began when my barely one-year-old Bluetooth headset almost drowned during a sweaty run. That’s the first time I really understood the implications of having a gadget with a non-replaceable battery. These devices are not repairable or recyclable and are headed for the rapidly rising mountain of electronic junk. To quote this environmental site:

We generate about 40 million tons of it (e-waste) every year. This is equivalent to throwing out 800 laptops every single second.

800 laptops a second! It was after realizing the huge scale of e-waste pollution that I made my resolution to stop buying gadgets unless absolutely necessary.

Like most resolutions, mine failed miserably when push came to shove. My two-year-old Android phone (Redmi Note 4) had just stopped getting Android updates, and its battery was beginning to drain out a bit faster. All in all, my tech soul was feeling abandoned and upset. That’s when I came across an exchange offer on Flipkart that would let me get a Poco phone for a bargain price of ₹12733 ($182). The Poco is an Android phone that offers advanced specs at an affordable price and can do a lot of stuff that my previous phone couldn’t. Besides, the Poco should get Android updates at least for another year so I won’t feel so left out. But I was still feeling guilty about adding to the world’s electronic junk. A chat with a geeky friend sorted that out. He informed me there was a good chance that the Redmi Note 4 which I was exchanging, would probably be repackaged and exported to Africa, and have many more years of useful life. That assuaged my feelings of guilt, and I went ahead and ordered the Poco. The Flipkart courier initially refused the exchange although my phone was absolutely scratch-free. Seems the phone branding at the back had been rubbed off by its case. I was not to be put off by such silly misgivings, and a couple of calls later, I had the Poco in my hand.

However, deep down, I couldn’t help feel a bit bad. I knew I could have easily used the Redmi Note 4 for another couple of years as it’s not my primary phone (which would be my 3.5-year-old iPhone 6S+).

So when my fitness band failed, I knew I had to build up a strong argument this time around to convince myself that I didn’t need another fitness band. Else, I would find some excuse to justify my tech addiction and get myself a replacement band or smartwatch in no time.

I was initially thrilled to get a smartwatch. But once the novelty wore off, I found I was using my fitness band mainly as a watch. Yes, I religiously track my runs every day and have records extending back for 1235 individual runs adding up to 4140 km. But I do this via my running app that uses the motion sensor on my iPhone. That’s because I always carry my phone on a run, as I need it to connect to my headset and pump out the music to fuel my runs.

My phone’s running app does a good job of tracking and keeping records

I prefer the record-keeping of my iPhone to my band. Look at the details in my phone’s running app. It even lets me see how the last km of my morning’s 5km was run in 5.25 minutes, as against the first km which was a tortured 7.45 minutes. There’s enough in there to keep my inner geek happy.

I haven’t used the Apple watch and don’t know how dependable it is. But I do know my Mi Band missed quite a few runs despite the band always being on my hand. This happened a couple of months ago and may have been linked to its recent troubles. As you can see below, my phone has records for every day I ran between April 15–25 whereas the band missed more than half those runs. Doesn’t change the fact that it’s sad to huff and puff your way through a sweaty run, only to find no record of it.

Missing data in my fitness app

It’s fun to be able to check my heart rate on my band. My resting heart rate is usually below 60. And since 60 is on the fit side, I sort of lost interest in my heart. I don’t think I have used the function in over a year. In any case, there’s an alternative if I need it: a free iPhone app called cardiio that checks my heart rate when I place my finger on the camera lens. It can also check my heart rate by scanning my face with my iPhone’s front camera. But this result tends to vary much more than the ‘finger on the camera lens’ method so I prefer the latter. Cardiio connects to my iPhone’s health app and even lets me store records online for free.

My phone can also read my heartbeat via its camera

This function again seems more like marketing babble than anything of real value. However, if it actually works, I’d prefer my band to do it rather than my phone. Keeping the phone next to me all night makes me uncomfortable. I have no proof of this but I have a feeling the 4G SIM in my phone will be emitting a level of radiation that could disturb my sleep. Whereas I feel the relatively low powered Bluetooth radio on my band is unlikely to affect me. It’s just a feeling but I tend to heed my intuition as it usually proves to be right. Here’s what my health app imported from my band on May 23 compared with my running app’s data.

Forgive the pun, but sleep analysis puts me to sleep.

My running app and fitness band sharing data with Apple’s health app

After the early days, I stopped using the band as an alarm, or to warn me about incoming calls. In fact, I turned off the entire vibrate function as it uses up battery faster. I’d rather it didn’t do this, as the one month between charges is one of the things I really loved about my Mi band.

Actually, that alarm function is pretty useful for a morning wake-up as it doesn’t disturb anyone else at home. However, I’m one of those guys who can wake up at a set time without an alarm. So I never did use that feature. For other alarms during the day, it’s far easier to use my phone or my Echo speakers, both of which can be activated by simple voice commands.

Since my band is an Android device, I have an option to install an app to be able to control music on my phone. I have tried it on my Android phone, and it works. I thought this might be useful while jogging as the watch has a dial to tell me which song is playing. But reading a small dial while running is not ideal. Instead, I find using the controls on the phone or headset a better experience. In practice, I usually use the buttons on my Mi Bluetooth headset, which does a quick job of pause, skip forward and backward, and volume control, with a convenient combination of short or long clicks.

As I built up my case for a watch instead of a band, it became obvious that my band was filling an artificial need created in my mind by skilled marketing. My phone was already doing most of what my band did, and it was doing it better. Once I realized this, it was easier to accept that I didn’t need the band. In fact, I felt a bit foolish in falling for the marketing spiel in the first place.

That way, Apple is pretty smart. The latest way they push their watch is by saying it’s a health device that can warn you of impending heart attacks. This may be true but I have a funny feeling I’m being conned.

There was one last hurdle before I switched back to a normal watch. Even if a watch has replaceable batteries, it too is going to be e-waste in a few years. I mean my band lasted two and a half years, and I doubt if a watch will last more than five years even if I replace its batteries.

This would be a big deal if everyone who uses a band that lasts 2 years switches to a watch that lasts twice as long. It would reduce environmental pollution by smartwatches by half. But I doubt if more than a small fraction of fitness band lovers will abandon it because of environmental concerns.

Was there really any point in my taking this stand? My case against smartwatches suddenly began to look quite shaky.

That’s when I had a brainwave.

I suddenly recalled that my teenage daughter had been gifted several watches over the last few years by relatives and friends. The thing is she never wears any of them, except during her school exams, which happens maybe two or three times a year. So what did happen to all those watches?

I checked with the kid if she had a watch she could spare as my band had conked off. I think she felt responsible for the band as it was the first gift she had ever given me. She was back in no time with a Swatch in a red and black color scheme, and a comment that it was a bit girly. I could live with that.

It was actually a good looking watch that she had been gifted nearly two years ago but had never worn. The battery was replaceable so I could, in theory, keep it going for many years. I say in theory because the plastic glass and general build quality of the watch don’t exactly scream ‘durable.’

However since it was just idling away at home, I wasn’t really adding to the world’s electronic junk. It was more like recycling and I was fine with that.

Who knows? Maybe by the time, this watch gives up the ghost, someone will have come up with a solar-powered fitness band that lasts forever.

Even a nerd can dream.

it’s an odd world

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