There are apps and tools that allow us to monitor almost every factor that impacts health, including weight, exercise, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, sugar levels, heart rate, sleep quality and nutritional intake. In the right hands, these apps and tools can be lifesaving and improve your quality of life.
After all, what you measure you can manage right? Well, yes and no. It is incredibly useful to know where your stats are, for example your resting heart rate, but if you aren’t sure what the data is telling you or aren’t sure on what direction to take should it be high, then it all becomes a little irrelevant and meaningless. In fact, not knowing the best course of action can lead to hours of procrastination, referring to Dr. Google and thinking of the worst possible outcomes.
With this being said, a study in 2015 by Litman et al., (2015) suggested that people who use exercise apps find the prompts and data to be a motivating factor to allow them to be more active in their spare time, compared to people who do not use the apps. So there are beneficial outcomes to increasing awareness on information that would otherwise be impossible to really gauge.
But are there hidden dangers in these health apps?
Health apps have so much power for good, as long as the data and information is in the right hands. Unfortunately, the data isn’t always in the right hands. In recent years, clients have come to us after becoming “addicted” to closing the loops on certain apps in relation to calorie burning, daily steps and activity. This has often come at the expense of getting quality rest and recovery when they are so clearly burned out and in a state of overwhelm. Losing touch with self-awareness and being driven solely by numbers is dangerous for physical, physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Users may experience different reactions to being provided with instant health data, however, to make a meaningful improvement to some health metrics, the daily actions required can take time to result in progress. In a culture of instant gratification, this can often lead to all or nothing approaches if the numbers don’t start trending in a positive direction immediately. Etkin, (2016) suggests that the data can reduce the intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of activities and exercise, reducing engagement in the long term and creating a larger divide between the individual and subjective wellbeing.
Are food tracking apps at fault for an increase in eating disorders?
Food tracking apps and fitness devices that provide data around calories expended during daily activity or exercise are never 100% accurate (Shcherbina et al., 2017). Although it must be noted, they do put us in the ball park to understand what we are consuming and expending and allow us to see trends in data over time which is far more important than transient changes from day to day. These trends will give you the power to make adaptations based on the numbers, however, they often lack context. The numbers are raw data, they don’t give you a true human experience, they don’t ask you why you are eating, overeating or in some cases, massively under-eating. The numbers don’t make sense of how this makes you feel, what emotions are at play or your preconceptions or misconceptions around food and exercise that is causing you to behave and act in a specific way.
Removing the human element around tracking nutrition can often lead to negative outcomes, harsh personal judgements and that can lead to serious symptoms related to eating disorders (Simpson and Mazzeo, 2017). It really is important to note that there is no one size fits all approach to creating a mindful connection between an individuals nutritional intake and choices, whilst tracking calories may work for some, for others it can be a recipe for disaster.
Is this just the start for health tracking?
As our thirst for data increases, health apps will continually evolve to provide quicker, more reliable and specific data to help users take control of their health. We are likely to see an evolution of AI integrated into health apps soon, with personal recommendations available for specific health profiles that aggregate information based on multiple inputs to provide clear and specific objectives. With the speed at which technology is moving, it is plausible to think that an app will hold health biometrics, from weight, resting heart rate, blood pressure, heart rate variability, fasting blood glucose, cholesterol levels and draw in data from blood panels to be able to advise on how to optimise nutritional intake, what type of exercise will be prudent that day and even when to take a break and implement some mindfulness activities.
Whilst the future growth of personal health technology is vast, one area that needs to be addressed is making the data human. There are some apps that have recognised the need to ensure the data collected is more than just numbers on a page, with apps such as YouAte requesting users to create a more mindful approach to their intake using options as “on” or “off” path to record their nutritional intake and how you feel about your food choices. Mindfulness technology such as guided breathing and meditation often prompt users to score their perceived stress between 1-10 or how they would describe their mood before after participating in a practice, this needs to cross over to activity trackers, asking users to check in on how they feel physically, whether they are in a recovered state or potentially overdoing it. Making sure technology is aligned to human behaviour and experience is key to attain the best possible user experience.
Health apps have the power to give you back control over your own health if you know how to analyse the data and devise clear and logical objectives on the back of the information you retrieve. If the data begins to rule your life, then the numbers are provoking an emotional reaction rather than a pro-active logical one, this is where it is best to find a health professional to support you to find a clear and structured approach to your health and wellbeing.
If the data provides an extrinsic motivator to move more, recognise helpful or harmful eating habits and helps you develop self awareness around your behaviours, then health apps will revolutionise your wellbeing!
Litman, L., Rosen, Z., Spierer, D., Weinberger-Litman, S., Goldschein, A. and Robinson, J., 2015. Mobile Exercise Apps and Increased Leisure Time Exercise Activity: A Moderated Mediation Analysis of the Role of Self-Efficacy and Barriers. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(8), p.e195.
Etkin, J., 2016. The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(6), pp.967-984.
Shcherbina, A., Mattsson, C., Waggott, D., Salisbury, H., Christle, J., Hastie, T., Wheeler, M. and Ashley, E., 2017. Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort. Journal of Personalized Medicine, 7(2), p.3.