Those who constantly strive to improve their lives need to define metrics to measure progress. It is easy to reach our goals when it comes to something such as a daily step count. Self-tracking health devices such as simple pedometer or phone app can measure steps autonomously. 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 difficult to answer, as the example of the steps at the start of this article. In the past, measuring sleep quality required cumbersome and costly technology that was not straightforward to use.
But now, we live in the age of multiple wearable devices, such as smartwatches and apps. These can track our health in many ways and provide real-time data on almost anything we can imagine. Therefore, we must balance the benefits of this knowledge with the potential downsides of our health data being more accessible.
This article will explore the trend of self-tracking through health apps. And it will show whether this can improve our life or leads toward psychological distress and development of obsessive behaviors.
Health Standards for Self-tracking Health Devices
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.
Many people confuse health with the typical portrayal of health as seen in mass media. For instance, social media platforms and touched-up magazine covers portray a “healthy” person as muscular and athletic, with perfect skin and hair, glowing teeth, and a generally happy look.
Pictures we see of “healthy” people have little to do with actual medically accepted health measurements. Instead, these would include metrics that medical professionals obtain to make recommendations to patients. A few examples: blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate, or BMI. We have conclusive data on these metrics. Concretely, staying outside a healthy range 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 inexpensive tools can now give us a wealth of data about our health without requiring a medical professional to perform 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 Self-Tracking Health Devices 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 we should take this (like any information) 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 creators of this app know that good quality sleep is essential. The app shows where people need to adjust their habits to improve their sleep quality.
What are the Downsides to Self-tracking Health Devices?
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. Technology must track every single health metric, all day long, in every living person to determine the best health habits.
- 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.
You probably lean to one of the sides without fully agreeing with it.
Whether you lean toward nature or technology, we must acknowledge the potential risks. Namely of relying too much on technology for tracking our health:
- Health Tracking Can Lead to Obsessive Behaviors. Studies have not yet demonstrated a causal link between health tracking and obsessive behaviors. Some study participants reported feeling anxiety and discomfort when unable to use or wear their tracking device.
- Feelings of Dread Due to Measurement Errors. Besides being well-tested, most applications advise users to see a doctor if they have questions. However, suppose there is a bug in the app’s coding, an abnormal/incorrect reading, or any other issue. The user might become deceived that he is outside the healthy range for a given metric. Some users might panic or feel dread, thinking they are sick or in danger. This may lead to uncertainty and mistrust of the technology, which can, in turn, lead to increased anxiety in some individuals.
- Health Data Incorrectly Interpreted. It takes years of dedicated study to know how to interpret data from medical tests. Doctors understand why data may be showing up as “unhealthy” in certain situations, but apps do not. Apps collect data and show results to the user (and possibly to other interested parties). If a user misinterprets this data, it could lead to panic and obsession. As a result, they may believe they are in immediate medical danger and unnecessarily consult emergency services.
Bottom Line: Are Health Tracking Apps Good or Bad for Us?
With the best available research in mind, it appears that health self-tracking is a good thing overall. The practice empowers us in our health choices: self-tracking helps us make decisions based on data presented in real-time.
However, as with all things, you need to be aware of outliers and other considerations. 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 want to use an app to track your health, learn about yourself as much as you can. Suppose you can take in potentially concerning information and follow up on it in a healthy way. In that case, health tracking apps will likely be an excellent addition to your life. Whereas, if you get nervous with a hint of 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.