The Quantified Self: How Data-Obsessed Trackers Push Toward Healthier Lives

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DATA EXERCISE
Oliver Burston via Getty Images

By Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer
Published: 04/08/2014 11:40 AM EDT on LiveScience

Like many of us, David Jay sets goals for himself every New Year's. But to track his progress, he goes a step further than many: He spends time each week entering detailed information about his life into a spreadsheet.

Jay tracks the big and the small: from how often he meditates, calls his parents and works out, to how many new friends he's making, what books he's reading and the contributions he's making to his work and community. This New York resident is also working on a side project to develop an app that could track his emotions, in part to see how his feelings correlate with physiological measures, such as his heart rate, skin conductance and other aspects of his life.

"It makes me feel like I have an understanding of what the important things in my life are, and how they're doing in a way that I normally don't have access to," Jay said of his tracking. "It's also good to realize when there are patterns, when there are really important things in my life that I'm not prioritizing," he said.

Jay is a member of the quantified self movement, a group of people who strive for better self-understanding by collecting data about themselves, with no detail too small. They are often aided by an ever-growing list of gadgets, including fitness trackers, heart rate monitors, self-tracking apps and even trackers of trackers.

Some within the movement founded an organization in 2008 to bring together the users and makers of tracking tools, and now its members meet in various cities around the world. Since the first quantified self meeting of about 30 people, the group has grown to include more than 30,000 members in 118 cities. Jay attended a New York meeting in March. [Best Fitness Tracker Bands]

Although people come to the movement for different reasons, they are "united in their curiosity to better understand themselves," said Mark Moschel, a quantified selfer who co-organizes the meetings in Chicago. Moschel described those who come to the meetings as "a community of people who geek out over their own personal data, and what they're able to learn about it."

But the future of this movement may reach far beyond the tech savvy. As the tools available to track our lives become more ubiquitous and mainstream, experts say they could help the public become healthier and improve medical treatments.

Self improvement

Some people use self-tracking as a form of accountability, for example, as a way to tell whether they've met a certain step goal, Moschel said. He started tracking when his dentist told him he should floss more.

"I made a spreadsheet, and I tracked each day whether I flossed or not. I started flossing every day because of that, [and] self tracking as a form of accountability started to make sense," Moschel said. Now he co-runs a tracking tool called AskMeEvery, which lets users write and send themselves questions by text or email, and keeps track of the answers.

Other people track out of a desire to learn more about themselves, and see aspects of their lives that would otherwise remain hidden. Still others push their tracking further and conduct experiments on themselves, to see if they can improve physiological measures.

Bob Troia, a quantified selfer and "biohacker," recently completed an experiment in which he measured his fasting glucose levels for seven months, and tested whether the measures were affected by taking the chemical oxaloacetate, which has been suggested to lower glucose levels.

Troia tracks for a few reasons. "I want to understand — not just what makes me tick — but then, how do I take that information, distill it, act on it, optimize it, and live more optimally. That’s really my goal," Troia told Live Science

Some people use self-tracking as a way to achieve what they might have thought impossible. Moschel relayed the story of one quantified selfer who set herself the goal of completing an ironman race, even though she had not been athletic previously, and weighed 270 pounds.

"Her mind kept telling her that this was impossible. But she tracked her progress, and every time she did, she saw that she was getting better and closer," Moschel said. "She was trusting the data — that this could tell her something she could do."

Better treatments

There is currently a gap between the ability to track data about oneself and the ability to act on it. For example, many fitness trackers provide numbers on calories burned and distances walked, but do not suggest how users might change their behavior to improve their health. So it often falls on the individual to do their own research into what their data means, and what changes to make, Moschel said.

Part of the reason for this may be that getting people to change their behavior is not easy, said Deborah Estrin, a professor computer science at Cornell Tech in New York. "Figuring out what works for people — technology or no — is just a really hard problem.

Still, some companies are starting to fill this gap. A company called InsideTracker, for example, not only offers blood testing, but also suggests ways a person can change his or her diet to "optimize" specific blood biomarkers. And an app called HealthyOut suggests healthy dishes to eat at local restaurants that fit a person's diet.

"It's clear we're seeing an increasing number of applications that have the style of quantified self, but don't require the time commitment, and the proclivity to analysis, that is typical of a quantified selfer," Estrin said.

Tracking tools may also aid in health care. For example, when a patient sees a doctor again after starting a new treatment, it may be difficult for them to recall factors that would suggest whether the treatment was working or was harmful, Estrin said. "If you're dong 25 percent better, that's a hard thing to identify," Estrin said.

But tracking tools can help quantify this, for example, by showing whether a patient with back pain is walking a bit faster, or for longer periods, said Estrin, who co-founded the nonprofit startup Open mHealth, which aims to standardize tracking data so doctors can make recommendations from it.

Tools like at-home blood testing may also help patients see how they're doing between checkups, Moschel said.

"The more data we have, the more personalized our treatment and actions can be...[and] the more we're able to make better decisions," Moschel said.

In the meantime, Moschel has set himself his own "impossible" goal. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, he wants to be able to dunk a basketball. Last summer, he tracked his jump height and training regimen, and was able to increase his jump height by 6 inches, and has another 6 or 7 inches to go.

"That's where the data really comes in handy," Moschel said. "It proves to yourself that these things you think might be impossible really are possible. These numbers aren't lying to you."

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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