The Quantified Self – Tools or Toys?

Anyone stumbling through the health and fitness industries will have heard of the so-called “quantified self.” The idea is that measuring our biorhythms and fitness patterns can somehow make us a better person. Devices such as the@Fitbit help us track our daily fitness by measuring how many steps we take, our sleep patterns and calories burned.

The concept of the “quantified self” is, presumably, borrowed from the philosophic notion of the “examined self” or the “examined life” – that we are better people for understanding human nature and our deepest motivations and values. Perhaps the philosophic is now the scientific, or the philosophic is now the digitized?

Firstly it was basic pedometers. Then heart rate and blood pressure monitors. Now we have a slew of sophisticated home telemetry equipment to help both the well and the sick to improve their health and fitness.

I recently bought a Fitbit, a small, easy-to-use device which measures all my steps, calories and sleep.  The saying “what gets measured gets done” helps to make sense of the “quantified self.” Health authorities recommend we take at least 10,000 steps each day and devices like my Fitbit make it inexcusably easy to measure progress towards this goal, and perhaps make us a better person along the way – certainly a healthier person.

As we digitize ourselves through self-monitoring, are we turning ourselves into cyborgs or are we actually reaching a higher plane? Are these bio measuring devices a toy or a tool? Are they merely a fad like a new diet or are they an innovation that can teach us something profound about our own health, changing the way we perceive healthcare and medicine?

Recent research from the Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) with the California Healthcare Foundation (@chcfnews), conducted via a national telephone survey, examined the use of medical tracking devices and methods. The survey found that 69% of U.S. adults keep track of at least one health indicator such as weight, diet, exercise routine or symptom.  Yet there is plenty of evidence that we do not understand our health.

We are all getting heavier, eating badly and resisting traditional means of keeping fit through increased conveniences in daily life. The concept of healthiness is not well understood and our ability to “notice” obesity is clearly diminished.  Recent public health promotions in several countries make it obvious that parents are no longer able to accurately assess their own child’s weight in relation to what is “healthy.” Further, the increasing instance of chronic conditions in most countries is further testament to less healthy lifestyles and environments.

Since I got my Fitbit, I have aimed to achieve the daily recommended 10,000 steps. What I have learnt is that for an office-based person it is relatively easy to get achieve 4,000 to 5,000 steps. Without too much of a stretch, you can get to 6,000 steps – if you walk most days, take the stairs and park a little further away from the office. Even if you are moderately fit and fully mobile, the target of 10,000 steps takes some planning however – such as allowing for a longer walk and including a few small hills.

The key though is that the data is the truth. Using the tracking device I cannot pretend I did more exercise than I really did and the sense of daily achievement of a target is rewarding.

For folks with less mobility – and more ailments – the ability to measure daily improvements in fitness levels can be very motivating.  The value of a device such as a Fitbit is simply the accurate information and the sense of small simple achievements for anyone of any level of health or fitness.

Is the value of the bio tracking devices greater to those who are less fit and the less mobile amongst us with more ailments? Rather than those of us already fit and healthy?

The Pew Research report supports the belief that once we are sick, some of us focus on keeping ourselves from getting sicker by using tracking devices and methods.  Further, the research supports a conclusion that the benefits of tracking health data are much greater for folks with existing ailments than for those who appear to be healthy.

Trackers [people] with chronic conditions are significantly more likely to report that the activities have had an impact on their health:

  • 56% of trackers living with 2+ [chronic] conditions say it [tracking health data] has affected their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help care for, compared with 40% of trackers who report no chronic conditions
  • 53% of trackers living with 2+ conditions say it has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to seek a second opinion, compared with 33% of trackers with no chronic conditions
  •  45% of trackers living with 2+ conditions say it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition, compared with 25% of trackers with no chronic conditions.

So if our tracking devices are a tool rather than a toy, how can we make best use of the data collected? Should we share it? Should we use the data to seek out better advice from our doctors? What if we aggregated our data so that governments and town planners could plan for better walking routes to improve community fitness? What if doctors and health planners could see a population view of how we behave and exercise? Should these devices be incorporated into government healthcare programs and subsidized for folks with health issues in lower socioeconomic groups?

The future of healthcare and the future of medicine may be the quantified self. A relationship between ourselves and our own health data rather than between ourselves and our doctors may be the new evolution of healthcare.


By Lisa Pettigrew, Industry General Manager, Global Healthcare, CSC

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