How technology is making us healthier

With the explosion in wearable technologies such as fitness trackers and smart watches, is it time to get on the bandwagon and “quantify” yourself? By Nafisa Akabor.

Nafisa-Akabor-280Self-tracking, body hacking, life-logging, wearables, the quantified self — you may have heard these terms being thrown around a lot in the past year thanks to products such as Fitbit, Nike+ and Jawbone.

It was these companies that were largely responsible for taking the quantified self “movement” — if one can call it that — mainstream and making wearable technology de rigueur. As a result, wearables were one of the biggest trends at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

Companies you’ve heard of and many more you haven’t heard of released their own activity or fitness trackers, which track people’s movements, calories burnt, sleep patterns, heart rate and more.

Manufacturers hoping to cash in — LG Electronics, Sony, Garmin, Archos, Razer, Epson, Spree, Wellograph, Jaybird — all showcased fitness tracking devices at CES.

The term “quantified self” was proposed by Wired editors as far back as 2007. They described it as “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking”.

This is exactly what products like Fitbit, which made its way to South Africa last year, allow users to do. Fitbit is a pedometer that not only tracks your steps daily, but records how many calories you burnt, what distance you covered, what your sleeping patterns are like and how many minutes in the day you were most active — with options to input things like the food you eat, in turn showing you calories consumed.

Fitbit devices sync the data via Bluetooth to Android, iPhone or PC, allowing users to view a panoply of statistics. Users set daily goals, check if they’ve met them at the end of the day, and get motivated to do better by earning badges for, for example, milestones achieved.

The main motivator for using a fitness-tracking device is obviously to track health and wellness.

Sure, some smartphones already offer these features: the iPhone 5s has a dedicated chip for activity tracking and the Galaxy S4 has the S Health app.

And, yes, accessories such the Sony Smartwatch and Samsung Galaxy Gear act as fitness trackers with the right apps.

But a dedicated tracker or smart watch just takes things a notch up — and it’s also not comfortable running with a comparatively bulky smartphone.

In a way, they are highly motivational and push you to improve your fitness, even if you’re already in good shape. Depending which service you use, there’s also the social aspect of adding friends and comparing runs, swims and the like, which also adds a competitive element and further motivates you to put in those extra kilometers.

But are fitness trackers a gimmick or a fad? Andy Smith, CEO of fitness website DailyBurn, says fitness trackers aren’t much more than “glorified accelerometers”. The benefit of fitness-tracking tools goes away after the first few weeks and users ultimately fall into the same activity patterns as before. “You find that there are type-A personalities that like to track everything and that’s great. For others, it might give them a little jump-start. But the value proposition of those devices after the first few weeks goes way down.”

According to researchers, keeping food and exercise logs may help meet goals, while some may end up feeling overwhelmed by the numbers.

The Fitbit Flex health tracker

The Fitbit Flex health tracker

Slate.com’s Katy Waldman says self-trackers favour a kind of utopian business-speak that is both inspiring and strange. They are “quantifying biometrics we never knew existed” and “shedding light into a dark unknown”. Her colleague Sara Watson is right when she says everything about our lives is in the process of becoming data and, although some suggest avoiding quantification as a subversive means of resistance, it will only be as effective as hiding our heads in the sand.

I honestly don’t see any downside in wanting to monitor my food intake, daily movements from running, going to the gym, or just monitoring my regular daily routine. It helps you understand yourself better, challenge or motivate your friends, and besides, data always looks better in colour-coded graphs.

As to whether you should take steps to quantify yourself if you haven’t considered it, start with a free app for your smartphone. If you like what you see, or feel that you need more detailed data, then opt for a fitness tracking device.

I must confess, I still have no idea what to do with data that monitors my sleep patterns. It’s never going to stop my cat from waking me up several times a night. Every. Single. Night.  — (c) 2014 NewsCentral Media

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