Technology draws our attention away from how we’re feeling. Wearables quantify, but they don’t describe. They tell us what we already know: how far we’ve walked; if our heartbeat is elevated; if we slept well or not. Because we’re desk-bound, lazy, half-slept or distracted, this turns out to be a valuable service. Hard truths are easier to stomach coming from a microchip, which is why trackers like the Oura Ring and Whoop have the cultish followings to prove it.
A 2022 Pew Research study found that upwards of 21% of Americans use some type of smartwatch or fitness tracker on a daily basis. Seemingly every Oura and Whoop user in that fifth of the population seems to be writing hyper-partisan missives on Reddit, where one side debates sleep accuracy and comfortable daily use and the other notes misgivings about movement accuracy. This thing is tribal. The Oura people say Whoop’s app is information overload. The Whoop people express misgivings about Oura’s activity tracking. The rhetoric makes the products sound profoundly different even though both come with sensors that provide real-time updates on heart rate and blood oxygen levels and give you a daily snapshot of how recovered your body is.
They analyze your sleep, your active minutes, your heart rate and your respiratory rate and deliver a score out of 100. All you type A, “academically gifted” teachers’ pets out there who miss the grading scales of youth? This one’s for you.
The truth is that both side are pretty obnoxious, which is why I decided to wear both products for a month to see which one’s data felt more accurate, and if they actually concretized my sense of my own health in quantifiable stats or created a lot of clutter. My hypothesis? Health trackers overcomplicate what should be a simple approach to health (loosely adapted from Michael Pollan): eat some green things, try not to do meth, Peloton 3-4 times per week, and shut off TikTok before midnight.
I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either.
Whoop 4.0 Band
Whoop’s band is designed to be worn 24/7 and comes free with a $30/month membership that gives you access to all of your metrics.
Both trackers took some getting used to. The Oura ring is significantly more comfortable than the Whoop band. The Oura Ring is only about 1-2 centimeters thick and sits unobtrusively on the ring finger. It has flat biometric sensors on the side and three sensor nodes that sit underneath the finger that are barely perceptible with the proper fit. Oura sends a ring sizing kit before the actual ring for picking out the right size. It only really got in the way when I was lifting. My skin pinched between the ring and the barbell.
The Whoop 4.0 is a tight-fitting fabric wristband with a bulky sensor that sits right on top of your wrist. This fit was ultimately too tight for me, and I didn’t love sleeping or working out with it on. It wasn’t a complete nuisance, but compared to the Oura ring it was far less comfortable.
These health trackers would be nothing without their synced smartphone contrivances, so let’s discuss apps. Both apps look at three main factors related to your health and recovery to give you relative scores as part of your overall snapshot. They differ slightly in their approach, but ultimately they’re the same thing.
The Whoop 4.0 looks at your:
- Strain (How tired your body is from that boxing class your friend forced you into)
- Recovery (Couch time divided by non-couch time)
- Sleep (Hours of snoozing)
The Oura Ring 3 looks at your:
- Readiness (Should you make the uncomfortable call to your MIL today, or wait till tomorrow?)
- Sleep (Snoozing hours)
- Activity (When was the last time you touched that Peloton?)
The Oura Ring’s app UX is a little prettier and the Whoop app is more technical and easier to work with. Both are easy enough to use and chock full of information; they divide health info into different categories and include extras like meditations (Oura) and journaling and goal setting (Whoop). Whoop is likely better for high-intensity athletes because it doesn’t track more basic metrics like steps; it tracks overall bodily strain. Ultimately, the Whoop feels medical. That likely suits people who treat wellness as another area of achievement and insist on running marathons even though it’s unhealthy behavior. The Oura is more of a workout partner. It’s not built around the concept of high performance. It’s built to encourage.
If you’re going to carry around a tiny tracker, you at least want it to be accurate. But accuracy is a funny thing. I found that the form of accuracy I cared about wasn’t precisely accuracy at all. It was correlation. I wanted the numbers to reflect how I felt. I think this is how most people ultimately interact with these devices. Surely this moves the goalposts on engineers.
I’ve got mixed results with both the Whoop and Oura ring when it came to perceived accuracy. That said, I found that one device reflected how I was feeling much more closely than the other, despite the overall metrics being the same.
The following is a snapshot of data I got from each device on Monday, January 9th, 2023.
|Health Metric||Whoop 4.0||Oura Ring 3|
|Recovery Score||32%||93 (Optimal)|
|Heart Rate Variability||29 ms||25 ms|
|Resting Heart Rate||65 bpm||58 bpm|
|Respiratory Rate||16.1rpm||16.0 rpm|
|Sleep||7 hours, 21 minutes||7 hours, 34 minutes|
I previously reviewed the Whoop band 3.0 and found it grossly misaligned with how I was feeling. It would tell me I was super under-recovered when I had gotten 8+ hours of sleep and constantly had my resting heart rate very high. I wish I could say I had a better experience with the Whoop 4.0 band, but I didn’t. As you can see above, on a day when I had gotten nearly 7 hours of sleep and felt rested, it had me at 32% recovered. That’s compared to the Oura ring’s 93 readiness score (out of 100) despite nearly all of the other bodily markers aligning exactly with the Whoop.
The Whoop was very accurate when tracking my workouts but because it doesn’t track steps, stairs climbed or active minutes — and doesn’t gauge the quality of sleep nearly as well as the Oura — the scores felt off.
The Oura ring failed to capture all of my activity – I use a walking pad during my workday and it failed to count those steps – but it did capture my sense of well-being. The data validated me and, well, I loved it for that.
For me, Oura is a clear and obvious winner for non-professional athletes. The one area where the Oura Ring’s engineers need to improve is exercise tracking, and I’ve been told by their reps they’re going to do so. First off, they only have dedicated tracking programmed in for running, walking, and cycling. Everything else is available as a category but the calories burned and other metrics are an estimation. It does detect when you’re moving and asks you to label the workouts, but they’re modestly accurate at best.
After weeks of testing, I still think health trackers are superfluous in the grand scheme of health and wellness regimen. They can help nudge you in the right directions, but so can your pounding headache, drooping eyelids or parched lips. All of their signals are also accessible as bodily signals if you’re paying attention.
They’re a satisfying way to check in and quantify progress if you’re working towards a goal and gain insight week over week, or month over month, regarding things like sleep quality or cardiovascular health. I’m going to keep wearing my Oura ring because my own fitness regimen is well-tailored to the information it provides, but in no way do I view it as essential to accomplishing my goals.