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The New Activity Tracker that Puts Stress Before Steps

Spire

In a world flooded with same-old activity trackers, Spire ($150, spire.io) stands out. Sure, it calculates your steps and calories burned, but it’s not billed as an activity tracker: It’s a mindfulness wearable.

What does that mean? Spire’s main purpose is to track your breath, not your steps. Developed by Neema Moraveji and Jonathan Palley, of Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab, it picks up on little signs of stress—you breathe faster and more shallowly, your heart rate speeds up, your muscles tense—and uses a companion app (free; iTunes) to tell you when it’s time to decompress.

When you set up Spire, it asks you to choose Activity, Calm, and Focus goals (i.e. how many steps you want to take a day, and how many minutes you want to spend in a calm and focused state of mind). I said 10,000 steps, 60 minutes, and 60 minutes, respectively.

Spire tracks your breathing in real time (via a little line that rises and falls on the app homescreen) and logs “streaks,” when you spend 3 minutes or more in a certain state of mind. It also offers “boosts,” which are guided breathing exercises. There’s one to help you de-stress, but also options for increasing focus and energy. (Like these 3 Breathing Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety, Stress, and Low Energy.)

I used Spire for about two weeks. Here’s what I loved (and not so much).

Pros
It's easy to use (and modify). Spire lets you turn on (or off) six notifications: deep breath, inactivity, tense, activity, focus, and calm. The wearable will buzz if, for example, you’ve gone without taking a deep breath or have been tense for a certain amount of time, and a notification pops up on your phone with advice (like “take a deep breath” or “time for a calm boost?”). I only turned on the negative notifications—deep breath, inactivity, and tense. I may be a needy youngest child, but constant positive feedback from wearables just annoys me. (Find out The Right Way to Use Your Fitness Tracker.)

It's non-invasive. In part, this is because I turned off the “good job!” notifications, but Spire only buzzed to nudge me into doing something healthy—take a breath, take a walk, take a break—so I wasn’t inundated with alerts. (It also sends a summary every morning of the previous day’s stats.) And while the last thing I wanted to hear when I was in the middle of a 30-minute tense streak was that I should maybe think about taking a second to decompress (actual excerpt from my notes: I DON’T HAVE TIME TO TAKE A THREE-MINUTE BREATHING BREAK RIGHT NOW SPIRE, GET OFF MY BACK), it was probably the first thing I needed to hear.

It works. While Spire didn’t catch every time I felt tense, I never got a notification telling me I was tense when I actually wasn’t. And maybe it was the placebo effect, but the “calm boost” (basically guided deep breathing) really did work. After, I felt focused and less stressed. And when I tried to fudge the boost (just let it play without following the instructions), my tense streak remained unbroken. Damn you, Spire!

Cons
It's not great for activity tracking. (Again, Spire agrees with this—it’s marketed as a mindfulness wearable. It’s not meant to replace your FitBit, just supplement it.) I tried to wear it running a couple times and found the sensor a bit uncomfortable. So I’d ditch it during exercise. What it did excel at was telling me how often I got up and walked around during the day, which I found extremely helpful, especially given all the recent news about how harmful extended periods of sitting can be. (Lower Your Risk of Death from Sitting in Two Minutes.) 

It's bulky. Spire is a sleek-looking tracker; it even won a National Design Award. It resembles a decorative pebble you’d buy for $40 at Pier One or something—with a wood-accented charging station to match. But you have to clip Spire onto your waistband or bra (my preferred spot) with the pebble facing your skin, and I was always aware of it pressing or rubbing against my stomach or chest. For me, not ideal.

It's a little glitchy. My main complaint here is pretty minor: During the boosts, my phone would go to sleep—and the guided meditation would go to sleep with it. When I’m doing deep breathing meditation, that’s distracting.

So should you get it?
I would. I plan to keep wearing Spire, despite the slight discomfort. I’m a health editor; I know that I need to stand up from my desk more often and stress less, or face dire consequences. But in the moment, when I’m working against a tight deadline, it’s really tough to actually remember that. Spire remembers for me, and gives me a way out, whether through one of its “boosts” or just a reminder to stand up. And even when I don’t want to hear it (another excerpt: OMG WHO CARES IF I’M TENSE I HATE YOU SPIRE), at the end of the day, it’s a good thing to be aware of. (Find the Best Fitness Tracker For Your Workout Style.) 

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