Fit at 50: tracking your health

Some researchers have seized on self-tracking as a new and much cheaper way of finding out if various lifestyle treatments are beneficial

March 5, 2012 | By:

Sticking to a fitness regime can be a tough call. But now, says Jerome Burne, there are apps and gadgets to get you motivated and keep you on course

Health_apps and tracking gadgets

“Weight 129 lbs (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers two days as four hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5,424.”

Most of us can empathise with Bridget Jones’ endlessly hopeful/endlessly failing list-making. You may have had your own January self-improvement plans, but chances are that the regular runs ended with the first freezing morning and that normal alcohol consumption resumed by the end of month. The trouble is, sticking to such resolutions is hard on your own. However, help is much closer than you think.

Outsourcing your conscience

Your first requirement is to find a way of outsourcing your conscience to somewhere or something that never ‘forgets’ what you are supposed to be doing and never makes excuses. You’ll also want it to know exactly how well or badly you’ve done, as well as telling your friends about it so they can gloat or congratulate you. Giving up would be so much harder then.


Welcome to the latest idea not just for improved health but for a more efficient use of your time in general. It goes by several names: self-tracking is the most descriptive but also ‘self-hacking’ (from the computer term for a shortcut) or ‘self-quantification’, referring to the measuring aspect.

It started a few years ago in California – of course – among a few computer nerds, exercise fanatics and the sort of people who neatly record petrol purchases and regularly calculate their car’s MPG rate. But now the idea is spreading and beginning to get traction in the UK.

Like all good ideas, it’s very simple: set goals, measure how close you get to them, then make changes to perform better.

Fitbit 01 rotated

Fitbit’s wireless tracking device

Ken Snyder, a 45-year-old Londoner with 17 years’ experience in the IT business, has been using self-tracking to improve his health and exercise regime for a couple of years. When he set off on his first run this January, he had one miniaturised device attached to his waist (Fitbit, left) and another round his wrist (Jawbone) that would record exactly how far he had run in the month, which days were the best, and how much sleep and dream-time he got each night.



Jawbone’s sleep monitoring app

At home, a sophisticated weighing machine tracks his body fat and muscle mass. The results from all the devices are automatically uploaded to his page on the Lifegadget website, where they appear as read-at-a-glance charts. He can instantly see that in a recent week he took 58,940 steps, ran 35.59 miles and used 16,512 calories.

Most importantly, the data doesn’t just appear on his website; it also goes to his friend Steve, who is aiming to lose some weight. “This equipment is changing the way I go about organising my life,” says Snyder. “It’s brilliant for keeping me motivated. When I increase my daily distance, it means I’m getting one up on Steve.

“It also gives me accurate data on what I’m doing (runners always exaggerate how far they’ve been) so I can see what I need to improve. I can watch the effect of calorie intake on sleeping patterns for instance.” (There is an app that tells you the calorie count of packaged food when you scan the barcode.)

Mobile mood monitoring

The benefits of harnessing the networking abilities of the web to keep you on track can be remarkable. Jon Cousins is another self-tracker from London, but his mornings don’t involve detailed record-keeping or long runs. Instead, he takes just two minutes to click through a series of images in an app on his phone that record his emotional state. His choices are then automatically sent to his website, Moodscope.

Jon started the site about two years ago as a way to track his emotional ups and downs linked to depression. He found that just making the information public made his mood more stable, and then linking it to friends directly brought him pretty well up to normal.

Now he’s got 40,000 members, and a recent analysis of the figures shows that those who recorded their scores daily and had a buddy went from 30 per cent cheerful to 52 per cent in three months.

The latest plan is to allow users to upload their results from Fitbit to the Moodscope site so that members can see how mood and exercise influence each other. “Everyone knows that exercise improves mood,” says Cousins, “but we don’t have good data on how big the benefit is or who is helped the most.”

Measuring the benefits

In America, some researchers have seized on self-tracking as a new and much cheaper way of finding out if various lifestyle treatments are beneficial. For instance, does cutting out sugar help if you suffer from psoriasis?

As a psoriasis sufferer, Ian Eslick, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology New Media Medicine Group, has a personal interest in this project. “It’s a very different model to what happens in traditional medical research,” he says.

“Big clinical trials are expensive, hard to administer and they are usually short. Self-experimentation studies, on the other hand, can run for much longer and produce much more data because they are cheap to administer.”

Future Bridget Joneses may not just find it easier to cut down on booze and fags but also to discover whether Echinacea or vitamin C actually helps with their colds.

Visit Quantified Self for more on self-tracking