Health

Healthy or TMI? The rise of the 'biometric selfie'

Jan. 18, 2014 at 4:26 AM ET

 Four fitness trackers are shown in this photograph, in New York,  Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. They are, from left, Fitbit Force, Jawbone Up, Fitbug Orb, a...
Richard Drew / AP
From left, here's the Fitbit Force, Jawbone Up, Fitbug Orb and the Nike FuelBand SE.

Thousands of steps taken. Dozens of stairs climbed. Hundreds of calories consumed and then burned.

Zero idea what to do with all this data.

Wristbands like the Fitbit, Jawbone Up or Nike Fuelband deliver an avalanche of personal health data, and market research data suggest that every 10th person might be wearing one. In 2012, just 3 percent of people surveyed said they owned a wearable fitness device, but in 2013 that number tripled to 9 percent, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That CEA report also found that 20 percent of people surveyed said they’d downloaded a fitness app in 2013, and appetite for these devices is expected to keep growing: By 2018, sales for wearable health devices are expected to reach $6 billion, according to a forecast from ABI Research.

What's not yet clear, some health experts say, is whether we really understand these numbers we're gathering, or what to do with them once we've uploaded them. Even though 60 percent of U.S. adults track their weight, diet or exercise routine — using either technology or good old pen-and-paper — more than half of them say that keeping track of their health habits hasn't actually led to a change in their behavior, according to a survey released last year from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. 

“This is a biometric selfie,” says Max Hirshkowitz, chairman of the scientific advisory council at the National Sleep Foundation. Instead of taking a picture, you're taking a record of your health behaviors, he says. 

The science behind self-tracking is sound, as keeping a record of your daily routine has been shown to be useful for improving healthy habits. “A lot of people overestimate how much they’re doing, so it’s kind of an eye opener,” says Mike Fantigrassi, director of professional services at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and a personal trainer in Chandler, Ariz.

A 2008 study, for example, showed that keeping a food diary can double a person’s weight loss. And a recent review of 26 different studies showed that using a pedometer really does motivate people to be more active: The pedometer users walked at least 2,000 more steps each day than people who didn’t use the device, and they increased their overall exercise levels by 27 percent.

“So there’s quite a bit of data, particularly in the weight loss arena, regarding the positive impact that tracking can have — particularly weighing oneself, or a food diary or a pedometer,” says Dr. James Beckerman, a cardiologist at the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore. (He's written about what he calls the "dark side" of the quantified-self movement.) 

“So it seems like the tech world has taken that and made some inferences about it: If some tracking is good, more tracking must be better,” he says.

And for many users, it works — healthy-minded message boards contain pages and pages of success stories from people who've used their fitness trackers to improve their health. But for some, the focus on mindfulness soon becomes mind-numbing, as Beckerman phrases it. 

Thirty-one-year-old Ari Hamilton is an avid exerciser, who usually runs three or four times a week, and was excited to use her Fitbit One last spring. But that excitement peaked after only a few weeks, and now the device is gathering dust in a forgotten drawer.

“I think the one I was using, it tells you how many calories you burned just by, like, being alive, as well as exercising,” says Hamilton, who remembers thinking, “'I’ve already burned all these calories by just existing … do I really need to do more?'

“It didn’t work for me,” says Hamilton, who lives in Houston. “It was interesting to see the information, but it didn’t motivate me to do more.”

To keep from getting bored or overwhelmed by the data dump, health experts advise setting a concrete health goal, and using the device to help you meet it. Because tracking the numbers of miles you ran purely for the sake of tracking the number of miles you ran may not ultimately be an effective motivator. 

A few years back, Beckerman went on a run with a watch that tracked his distance, pace and the number of calories burned. At least, it was supposed to track that. After the run, he tried to upload the data to his social media accounts, but the device refused to connect to his computer. It didn’t work for weeks — and he says it was like those runs never existed. 

He says he traded his "runner's high" for the high of self-validation, posting his miles to Twitter and Facebook and basking in the glow of each new "like" that came rolling in. 

“I think we’re unfortunately in a culture where the validation of the experience is somehow a stand in or a more important entity than the experience itself,” Beckerman says. “And that’s so lame.” Now, he only uses his running watch when he’s training for a race.

“I find it harder to use any tracking device in the absence of a greater overarching goal,” Beckerman says. “Data in the absence of a goal, it kind of exists in a vacuum. So I think it’s only beneficial if we know how to apply it in our lives.”

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