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Smartphone apps are available to track almost anything you can imagine, from food to exercise to sleep to happiness.

Tracking your path to better health: The future of personal health monitoring

by Jaclyn Voran
Oct 24, 2013

Staying healthy isn’t always easy in today’s supersized world, but new digital health technology is making it possible to empower yourself as your own health provider.

When doctors diagnosed Leslie Ziegler at age 27 with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease causing digestive tract irritation, she spent a year self-tracking her health with various apps and gadgets to manage her disease.

Self-tracking is keeping track of your daily decisions from what you eat to your activity level to your general well-being, according to Ziegler, who also self-tracked to immerse herself in the digital health space, where she is an advisor to companies. Ziegler spoke on the topic at Chicago Ideas Week Sunday.

“It changed my life – the way I live and manage my health – but it was a lot of work,” Ziegler said. “The benefit to the majority of people is relatively small, because it’s just too hard. Right now, the technology and the way different apps interpret data is too difficult to make it worth it for most people.”

Studies show that just the act of tracking can lead to increased self-awareness and healthier outcomes such as weight loss.

“The literature would suggest that self-monitoring is predictive of success and changing behaviors, especially when you talk about diet,” said Angela Pfammatter, a preventative medicine expert at Northwestern University.

This proved true for Eugene Granovsky, who also presented on self-tracking at Chicago Ideas Week and is co-founder of Experimentable, a self-tracking technology startup.

“I used to eat a bag of chips every day,” Granovsky said. “I started tracking and realized what I was doing and made some very easy changes. I don’t eat a bag of chips every day. That little thing has completely changed my health.”

So with America’s obesity epidemic, is self-tracking the answer? Well, not so fast, experts agreed. Changing health habits is especially hard when we live in an environment where healthy behavior is actually the abnormal behavior, Pfammatter said.

“It’s only going to work to the extent that the individual is paying attention and not just tracking for tracking’s sake,” Pfammatter said. “And there needs to be an element of processing of information. If you’re just writing it down and not giving it another thought, it probably won’t help so much.”

But interpreting the data isn’t easy, and today’s tracking technology is not quite user-friendly enough to truly go mainstream, both Ziegler and Granovsky said.

“The problem with obesity isn’t the lack of technology,” Ziegler said. “It’s behavior change. People have to be motivated and want to change. Right now, it requires a willingness to actually participate, which requires the technology to be easy to use.”

Most nutrition technology, including apps such as MyFitnessPal, require users to manually input everything they eat or drink on a daily basis. Experts agree that the biggest challenge is the burden of remembering and taking the time to actually do it.

“If you do it for a week, and you’re sick of it, you’re not going to stick with it if you’re not seeing results,” Pfammater said. “We’re not really good at delaying gratification.”

But tech startups are working to make things easier through automated self-tracking and data interpretation. And some of it’s already out there.

Ziegler pointed to MC10, for example, a digital health company “making electronics that conform to us,” as described on its website. Among MC10’s innovations is Checklight, a wearable head-impact sensor designed in partnership with Reebok to help predict concussions for athletes. MC10 is also developing a small, wearable Band-Aid-like “biostamp” to monitor vital signs, heart rate and temperature, Ziegler said.

And this type of health technology is the future of self-tracking, Granovsky said. Today’s technology is mostly collecting data without providing analysis, leaving the user to draw insights. For some, like Granovsky, that may work. But for others, it may not, Pfammater emphasized.

“Self-tracking works for certain types of people,” Pfammater said. “But there needs to be more research for whom these strategies work and whom they do not and why.”

But what if instead of trying to change users, we try to change technology, questioned Granovsky.

“If you have better technology where the user doesn’t have to do anything to get good feedback, who wouldn’t use it?”

And Ziegler thinks that’s exactly where we’re headed.

“It’s an exciting future, and it’s going to be passive, invisible products that deliver insights seamlessly without you ever even thinking about it,” Ziegler said.