Thursday, September 6, 2012

Santander por tu corazón

What better place to find a bunch of willing Human Guinea Pigs than amongst the 6,500 employees of Santander who work in the "Cuidad Financiera" campus and whose employer is willing for us to take time out of the working day to take part in the tests.

The initiative is a joint collaboration between Valentín Fuster, an internationally renowned heart surgeon and Banco Santander (whose Head of Operations is one José María Fuster - I'm not sure if he is any relation). So far 2,000 people have taken part and the aim is to get to at least 3,000. The goal of the research is to find ways to detect heart disease before actual irreversible damage has taken place.

Yesterday it was my turn. The day before I had had to follow a diet that was low in fibre, no alcohol and, what was particularly hard for me, with no fizzy drinks. Actually, I got the date wrong so I followed this diet on Monday and turned up at the medical centre on Tuesday only to find that I was programmed for the Wednesday. So no fizzy drinks for another whole day. It was probably just as well because I was in such a rush to get there on time on the Tuesday that I got very stressed and probably would have recorded much higher pulse rates and blood pressure.

The tests started at 8:30 and took 6 hours(!) in total to complete. They included blood and urine tests, a CAT scan and an ultrasound exploration of the arteries in my neck, stomach and groin. The reason it took six hours is because I also had to complete a detailed questionnaire on my dietary habits and my physical and mental well being. Even though in the run up to the Ironman last year I had been very diligently recording everything I ate and drank, it was surprising just how difficult it was to estimate what I had been typically consuming over the last year. I'm not terribly confident that the results will be terribly accurate. It seems to me that it would be more accurate to ask participants to keep a food and drink diary for a week although I suspect that this introduces Heisenberg Uncertainty: it is a well known phenomena that if you count calories, you tend to consume less.

To measure my activity during a week, I have to wear a little device on the outside of my clothes:

This is an "accelerometer", much like the device built into iPhones. I asked whether it could tell if you were riding a bike (as your centre of gravity doesn't really move up and down very much, unless you are going over rough terrain) and they said that it could sense in three dimensions. But then I thought about it afterwards: if it can measure velocity somehow (perhaps by adding up the accelerations) then it will think that I am doing a lot of exercise when I drive a car... I think that the device can only really tell the difference between being sedentary and active as well as judging the quality of your sleep (rather like those apps that exist for the iPhone). I also have to wear a heart rate monitor which sends its data to the accelerometer for recording, so with these two bits of information it should be possible to calculate how many calories I am burning reasonably well. Of course there are many ways of doing this more accurately but it has to be a foolproof protocol that everyone can follow without problems. The fact is that people doing as much exercise as I do will be among the outliers in a population of office workers, so its not really that important to distinguish between running and cycling or to capture swimming (the device isn't waterproof). In any case, the battery life limitation means I only have to wear the heart rate band for the first 24 hours and another 12 hours of my choosing.

You may be wondering why I am wearing the device on the outside of my clothes. This is because it has a light sensor which is used to detect whether it is day or night. I also have to record the time I go to sleep (which is actually quite an annoying thing to try to do) and the time I wake up (which is when the alarm goes off, so at least that is easy). I would have thought that this information would be more useful than the light meter reading which, as I type this, is pressed up against my desk and probably thinks that I am fast asleep in a dark room. Wearing the device on the outside around the work campus is like a declaration of "I am over 40!" as that is the minimum age required to take part in the programme. That doesn't bother me in the slightest but it is a bit disgusting to have to put the sweat soaked strap over your shirt after a hard workout.

I'll have to go back again in 3 years and 6 years, even if I am no longer an employee of Santander or, for that matter, living in Madrid. In the meantime, I am very curious to see the kind of results they come up with, as well as anything they might find wrong with me.


  1. You can see how the future will look like here



    1. Indeed! Perhaps you should consider adding an accelerometer... And GPS (haha)! How's it going?

  2. It is includeed, indeed...

    I would say that it is moving at its own pace and in the right direction!