Health / Pharma

The Quantified Self: Big data’s emerging role in personal wellness

Because of the relatively new quantified-self phenomenon, defined as self-knowledge through self-tracking via data, big data is experiencing a bit of a moment. Followers of the movement would ideally love to track every waking moment of their lives via technology — whether it be wearable technology, fitness apps, or sleep monitors.

Let’s examine the notion of the quantified self in terms of its impact on the collection, analysis, and tracking of data on a societal scale.

Quantified self vs. mindfulness

The quantified-self movement seems to share some familiarities with mindfulness practice — specifically, with the idea that mindful living can make you a “better person,” or a new and improved version of your current self. Ideally, we can improve through heightened awareness of formerly unconscious habits such as mindless snacking or negative thoughts.

Despite what you may have heard, however, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily have to include meditation — although meditation will likely help us become more mindful more quickly. Meditation requires us to stop, unplug, and pay attention to our surroundings, as well as our internal thought patterns.

As similar as the two movements might seem on the surface, the quantified-self movement is more concerned with the collection and analysis of data related to people’s daily lives. In other words, the end goal is to acquire self-knowledge through a more objective, numbers-based tracking system — rather than understanding the self internally. There are more externalization and objectification of one’s personal habits and movements than contemplation.

However, the new obsession with personal data is ultimately more concerned with change and taking action, rather than mere accumulation of data for the sake of facts and figures. But behavior modification requires more than a mere collection of data: it requires the changing of deeply-ingrained habits — a feat more complicated than the act of data accumulation and recording.

For sale: Healthy lifestyles

The “lifelogging” of one’s daily life was started by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, colleagues at Wired magazine, as an attempt to attain, as Wolf described it, “self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology.”

One benefit of adopting new technology into one’s life is the gamification aspect of it all. If we decide to make healthier lifestyle choices that help prevent chronic illness and diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, we may as well have fun doing it.

Health and wellness apps and activity trackers come with a number of benefits, including encouragement of healthy behaviors such as daily aerobic exercise, reminders for medication and doctor’s instructions, accurate records of diet, condition monitoring, lifestyle analysis, educational tools, and convenient access to doctors and healthcare professionals.

Though straightforward monitoring of preventative health habits is positive, it’s good to be aware of the many snake oil salesmen attempting to cash in on this lifestyle trend. For example, healthy nutrition choices like incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in one’s diet make good intuitive sense.

On the other hand, extreme diet fads like ketosis-based diets — exhibit A: Bulletproof Coffee, which advocates excessive consumption of fats and strict elimination of grains and carbohydrates — should probably be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism, if only because of the price tag. Though its founder Dave Asprey is an avatar of the quantified-self movement, the science behind Bulletproof products like Brain Octane Oil and Fat Water seems dubious, at best — if only because it’s nonexistent.

Healthcare & medical treatment

Fad diets and extreme elimination diets of any kind can be dangerous and should probably be able to pass muster with a doctor or healthcare consultant. Ideally, a doctor or family nurse practitioner can utilize evidence-based practices to recommend dietary changes in accordance with one’s personal health.

Like the quantified-self movement, big data is influencing health care in a significant way. Unlike snake oil salesmen, doctors and nurses have always implemented evidence-based practices and documented data according to professional standards. The only difference now is that data is emerging to more prominently define patient-practitioner relationships.

For example, nurse practitioners may utilize a glucose monitor to help track their patients’ blood sugar levels from afar, so they can be more informed about when and if a patient is due for a check-up appointment. The great thing about trained medical professionals is that they have undergone a great deal of academic and professional training in their fields.

We, on the other hand, must learn how to properly design self-experiments. Much of the fallibility of the quantified-self movement stems from the inevitably subjective nature of data tracking.

There are guides out there to help the experimentally curious learn about best practices when it comes to recording and analyzing data. In addition, some tools are better than others — according to the experts. Extreme versions of biohacking begin to resemble science fiction novels, with visions of cyborgs and intellect enhancement in the form of ‘transhumanism.”

However, such extremism is not necessary. There’s always the option of trying out a Fitbit or downloading a phone-based app like Google Health, for starters.

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What do you think of the quantified-self movement? Do you have any experience with specific apps or products that you’d especially recommend or warn other readers against? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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