Wonder Tools — A surprisingly useful ring

The Oura Ring offers a helpful window into how health habits impact sleep

Hello! I’m Jeremy. You’re reading the Wonder Tools newsletter. Spring is just a month away☃️. Welcome to new readers who saw the piece I wrote for Poynter this week with 50 links to various tools and resources. I often focus on sites, apps, etc. Today I’m sharing my experience with a new fitness tracker.

I bought an Oura smart ring to learn more about my sleep patterns. I was curious about how diet, fitness and mindfulness might impact my sleep. 

I’ve never worn a smartwatch. One smart device 📲 a phone— seemed sufficient. I’ve long been curious, though, about the potential benefits of tracking personal health metrics. The Quantified Self phenomenon is intriguing. And the era we’re in — no travel, consistent schedule— opens up an opportunity to observe how various inputs affect sleep, mood and health.

My iPhone doesn’t track sleep well, nor does it track other biometrics. I looked around for screen-free options and stumbled upon the Oura. I bought the ring for $239 on Cyber Monday last November. With shipping and tax I ended up paying $275.91. It’s normally $299 plus tax.

I earn no affiliate or any other fees on this post, nor do I have any relationship with the company. I’m writing to share my thoughts in case that might be useful to you and to document my own experience.

This is not a scientific review that compares Oura against other trackers. It’s the only tracker I’m using. So I’ll share what I find most useful about the ring, as well as a few limitations.

How it works

The Oura has no screen, just sensors. It sends data it picks up from my finger to my phone via Bluetooth. I view the data in the free Oura app, which is excellent.

From a technical standpoint, the Oura uses infrared light photoplethysmography (PPG) 🔦 to assess various metrics from the arteries within a finger🖖. Studies have shown it to be more accurate than other devices at measuring things like resting heart rate, where it has 99.9% reliability compared to medical-grade electrocardiogram (ECG) data, according to studies like this one. Other research also validates the quality of Oura’s sensors. 

What I like most about the Oura

Helpful Insights

The ring has a free companion app—for iOS or Android— that gives me a sense of the quality of last night’s sleep. It measures a wide range of data, including resting heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, body temperature and sleep efficiency—what percentage of time in bed I actually slept, vs tossing and turning. And it assesses sleep stages, so I know how much of my sleep was REM sleep, light sleep, and deep sleep.

That data is useful for me, because over time, I’ve started to recognize patterns in my own sleep and more importantly, things I do during the day that impact my sleep, for better or worse. For example, eating close to bedtime seems to impact the quality of my sleep early in the night, as does using my laptop. Taking a shower before bed seems to have a positive impact on early sleep quality. 

Correlations and Connections

I discovered recently that the data dashboard on Oura’s free Web app is much more detailed than on its mobile app. The Web app offers an elegant view of personal data trends and allows me to see correlations & connections between various things. I can examine the relationship between the time I go to bed and the amount of REM sleep I get. Or the relationship between the number of steps I take in a given day and the quality of sleep I get that night. I can spotlight particular metrics and zoom in or out to look at a day, a week, a month or whatever other period I want. I can even download the data to review in an external tool. I haven’t done that, but I imagine it could be useful for sharing with a personal trainer, coach or physician.

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Personalization

It took Oura about two weeks to get a baseline for my sleep and fitness patterns before it started offering personalized guidance. It recommended a bedtime for me between 10 and 11pm, based on the quality of sleep I was getting on various days. Each day it measures my progress toward a target active calorie burn total. This is similar to the goal features available on other trackers, like the Apple Watch or the Fitbit Charge 4.

At times the Oura recommends extra recovery time based on my fitness activity over the past few days, my recent sleep and other factors, like my resting heart rate and heart rate variability. It’s not offering generic recommendations based on my age, gender, or weight. It’s employing an algorithm addressing my specific biometrics. 

Simplicity

Even though Oura shows lots of data, it’s simple to use. It offers a simple readiness score and a sleep score to summarize how I’m doing. It also integrates seamlessly into Apple Health and Google Fit so I can use those apps to see my data. I’ve been using all three lately. I find Oura’s own app to be the most useful, though Apple Health is useful as a hub for data from other apps.  

Water resistance

I like being able to wear the ring regardless of the weather. I don’t have to take it off to swim or shower, unless I want to. It’s light and hasn’t scratched.

Long-lasting battery

I typically charge the ring twice a week for 80 minutes each time. That’s better battery life than most other devices I use regularly, right up there with the electric toothbrush I only use for just a handful of minutes a day.

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I like what the Oura lacks

No subscription

There are neither monthly fees nor premium upsells. That contrasts with the Fitbit Charge 4 my wife has, which requires a subscription to unlock some data. (To be fair, the Charge does have a lower price tag of $130 as of 2/10/2021).

No screen

I no longer notice I’m wearing it. I don’t think of it as a device. And it’s not a distraction. 

No alerts. No buzz.

Notifications are a nuisance. I try to avoid interrupting alerts. Thankfully, the Oura has none of these. It stays out of the way. I can view my data on its phone app whenever I want, but unlike many apps, it never tries to grab my attention.

No glitz

I wear no jewelry other than a simple wedding band, so I appreciate that the Oura is small and unobtrusive. It’s less than half the size of the original Oura ring. 

Some reviewers—in Techcrunch and Wired—rave about the Oura. PC Mag’s reviewer didn’t like the look or feel of the ring. NYMag.com’s review includes an interesting take on Oura’s potential in identifying Covid-19 symptoms.

Things to Be Aware Of

  • Ring fitting can be tricky. I’m not used to wearing rings, other than my wedding band. So I appreciated the free ring-sizing kit that Oura sends out when you buy a ring. Even so, I found myself struggling to decide between size 10 and 11, wondering whether one was too tight or the other too loose.

    In the end, I went with a slightly looser size, which can result in occasional brief data gaps in Oura’s nighttime readings. Those data gaps can happen if your ring is too loose, or for one of these other reasons. It hasn’t been a major problem, but some people might find fitting hard.

  • Once in a while, it can get in the way. I find the ring a bit annoying when I’m playing violin or guitar, but that would be the case with anything on my fingers.

  • Limited mindfulness content. Oura has a feature I like called Moments, which allows you to check in with your body or to practice mindful breathing or meditation during the day. During your practice, Oura offers audio to listen to and measures your resting heart rate, your heart rate variability and your skin temperature variation. That part’s great.

    The limitation is in the content offered — there are just a few guided mindfulness recordings, and the options start feeling repetitive after just a few listens. To the company’s credit, when I inquired about this, someone responded quickly. I’ve been impressed with their responsiveness to feedback.

  • Complexity. Even though Oura offers simple summary views, it also includes lots of sophisticated data. Some of it, like heart rate variability, can be tricky to make sense of. It’s not a fault of the Oura, per se, but drawing clear conclusions from the vast amount of information it offers can be challenging. I love having the Web view of the vast data trove, but it can be easy to get lost in the sea of data points. Some people might find it helpful to use the data in coordination with a trainer, coach or health advisor. 

  • Tags. You can manually add workouts or tags to indicate things you’re feeling or eating — things like anxiety or caffeine, for example. But given that tags are such a blank slate feature, it would be great for Oura to offer more guidance on how best to make use of tags.

Final Thoughts

The Oura remains the only real option if you prefer a ring to a smartwatch or bracelet. Other smart rings have all been discontinued, including Ringly, Amazon’s Echo Loop, and Motiv. Oura, on the other hand, picked up $28 million in new funding last year. And the NBA apparently ordered 2,000 for its players this season. So the Finnish company, founded in 2013, won’t be folding up shop anytime soon.

Thanks for reading.

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