For those of us who are constantly seeking improvement in different areas of our lives, we have to define a metric by which to measure progress. It is easy to reach our goals when it comes to something such as a daily step count. A simple pedometer or phone app can easily measure steps taken for anyone who has one in his or her pocket. However, more complicated health metrics can sometimes be difficult to define an exact number value to aim for every day. For example, “how many hours of quality sleep did I get last night?” is not a question that can be as easily answered as the number of steps we mentioned at the start of this article. Measuring something such as sleep quality used to require cumbersome technology and tools that cost well beyond what most people of average means could afford, which left these individuals guessing and using trial and error, for better or worse.
But now, we live in the age of multiple wearable devices, smart watches and apps that can track our health in a vast number of ways and provide real time data on almost anything we can imagine. Therefore, we need to balance the benefits of access to this knowledge with the potential downsides that come with increased accessibility of our health data.
In this article, we will explore the trend of self-tracking through health apps to see whether this is our path to improved quality of life or a slippery slope leading toward psychological distress and the development of obsessive behaviors.
Health Standards and How We Define Them
To start, it’s important that we discuss how the average person thinks about “health” in broad terms. We have moved away from the former, commonly accepted concept of health, which was essentially the absence of disease, toward a concept that values fulfilment of goals and ability to thrive in our world.
In fact, many people, when thinking about health as a concept, picture the ideal “healthy” person: muscular and athletic, perfect skin and hair, glowing teeth and a generally happy look to them. This is the typical portrayal of health as seen through social media platforms and touched-up magazine covers.
But it’s important to note that these pictures we see of “healthy” people have little to do with actual medically accepted measurements of health such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate, BMI, and other metrics that are obtained by medical professionals in order to make recommendations to patients. We have hard data on these metrics and we know, through research, that falling outside of what has been deemed a healthy range of these measurements puts us at higher risk for disease and death.
These measurements used to require being in the presence of a physician or other medical person, but now, this is no longer the case for most measures of health. Smartphone apps and other tools that can be purchased or obtained for free can now give us a wealth of data about our health without the need of a medical professional performing in-person tests.
So can these health tracking apps move us from our social-media-fueled concept of health toward a more scientific one? Let’s break this down a little further, and see what the science has to say.
Are Health Tracking Apps Making Us Healthier?
According to the research, yes! Health-tracking apps and technology seem to be improving the overall health of users as compared to those who use strictly conventional care and associated health-tracking methods.
While this (like any information) should be taken with a grain of salt, it is an important finding. This data indicates that our trend toward empowering patients to track their health and modify their habits to obtain better numbers is an effective way to improve the health of a large group of individuals.
Apps that are leading the charge on health-tracking and making a positive difference in users’ lives include:
- The Hyfe App. This application tracks cough data from users. By tracking coughs, the Hyfe app can provide a wealth of information to physicians and to patients based on the quality, frequency, and productivity of the cough among other measurements.
- Myfitnesspal. A popular app among athletic populations and those looking to lose weight, Myfitnesspal provides an easy way to track exercise and dietary data on a smartphone. The app makes calculating caloric needs for a given goal intuitive and also gives estimates of caloric expenditure based on exercise or activity.
- SleepWatch. The Apple Watch’s sleep-tracking app provides incredibly valuable data to users. The importance of quality sleep can not be overstated, and this app lets people see where they need to adjust their habits in order to improve their sleep quality.
What are the Specific Downsides to Health-Tracking Apps?
Depending on your underlying views of technology, you likely fall somewhere between the extreme views of:
- Technology is the only way we will beat diseases and become healthy. Every single health metric should be tracked, all day long, in every living person to determine what the best health habits are.
- We evolved with nature and we should allow nature to take its course. Any technological intervention is detrimental to our development. We cannot be healthy unless we give up technology in all ways and return to the way our ancestors lived.
Even though you likely don’t completely agree with either of those statements, it’s probable that one of them rings more true for you than the other.
But whether you lean more toward the natural end or the technology end of the spectrum, it’s important that we all acknowledge some of the potential risks in the over-reliance on technology for tracking our health:
- Health Tracking Can Lead to Obsessive Behaviors. While studies have not shown that health tracking is correlated with obsessive behaviors, there have been some individual findings in which study participants begin to feel anxious and uncomfortable when unable to use or wear their tracking device.
- Measurement Errors Can Lead to Feelings of Dread. Most apps are well-tested and users are encouraged to always check with qualified medical personnel about any questions they may have about their health. However, if there is a bug in the coding of the app, an abnormal/incorrect reading, or any other issue in measurement that indicates that a user is not within a healthy range for a given metric, this may cause panic and dread in the user, leading them to think they are sick or in danger of a catastrophic medical issue affecting them. This may lead to uncertainty and mistrust of the technology which can in turn lead to increased anxiety in certain individuals.
- Health Data May be Interpreted Incorrectly. It takes years of dedicated study to know how to interpret data from medical tests. Doctors understand the reasons why data may be showing up as “unhealthy” in certain situations, but apps do not. Apps simply collect data and convey the results to the user (and other interested parties, depending on the app and the user agreement). If this data is incorrectly interpreted, it could lead to panic and obsession in the user, where they may even consult emergency services if they believe they are in immediate medical danger.
Bottom Line: Are Health Tracking Apps Good or Bad for Us?
With the best available research in mind, it appears that self-tracking of health is a good thing overall. The practice allows us to be empowered in our health choices and to make decisions based on what data we are presented with in real time.
However, as with all things, there are outliers and other considerations that must be made. For one, the reliance on these devices may create some obsessive tendencies in certain individuals. Additionally, the lack of in-person interpretation and explanation of data may lead to anxiety and other negative psychological implications.
If you are interested in tracking your health with an app, it’s important that you know yourself well. If you’re the type of person that can take in potentially concerning information and follow up on it in a healthy way, health tracking apps will likely be an excellent addition in your life. On the other hand, if you often get extremely nervous even with the slightest hint of disease or illness, you may not want to burden yourself with more health information.
The choice is yours and the technology is available to you, if you want to try it out.
Bennett Richardson is a writer and physical therapist in Pittsburgh, PA. You can learn more about him at richardsonpt.com.