What Wearables and Trackers Are Telling Us Beyond the Numbers

While big data is transforming our health care industry, “little data” is transforming our individual health habits. Increasingly, individuals are collecting and analyzing their personal health numbers from steps to sleep to blood pressure. There are as many data to track as there are tools to do so, from wearable devices like Fitbit or JawboneUP to apps such as MyFitnessPal and MoodPanda, with more than 500 resources listed on the Quantified Self’s self-tracking guide. Various predictions (here and here) suggest a 500 percent growth rate in health and fitness devices by 2017.

However, is it helping or hurting us in the long run to outsource the monitoring of our own body? Perhaps both. Long before this technology existed, Albert Einstein warned, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” As we explore personal data in the name of health, we need to consider whether this is the healthiest way to acquire healthier habits. Are we unnecessarily setting ourselves up for new health problems by becoming dependent on technology to remind us when to breath and move and sleep?

Researcher and author Linda Stone warns that Quantified Self (QS), a movement of self-trackers who use data to identify patterns and behaviors for self-improvement, is “about what the data is telling us, not what the body is telling us.” She says, “Sometimes our five old-fashioned senses are more helpful than any amount of data.” Data and technology are tools and have their limits. In fact, perhaps being out of tune with our bodies is partly why we need wearables and apps to help us with health improvement to begin with.

As a self-tracker myself, I was reluctant to admit that I may have an unhealthy dependence on external feedback. Trackers have worked well for me. I am a Fitbit loyalist who is motivated by the competition, and I know well the value of evidence-based food tracking for bringing awareness to hidden eating behaviors as a Weight Watchers leader. I personally can’t wait for a wearable that will show me my physical hydration status and Vitamin D levels the way my iPhone shows its battery life percentage.

But, while I agree with Gary Wolf, founder of QS, that “if we want to act more effectively in the world, we have to get to know ourselves better,” I also have to acknowledge that with or without an activity tracker or app, I (as do you) have the greatest machine and most powerful operating system there has ever been — the human body and intuition. Einstein again said, “For it is intuition that improves the world, not just following a trodden path of thought … intuition is the father of new knowledge, while empiricism is nothing but an accumulation of old knowledge. Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself.”

Like Stone, I am not saying we necessarily remove technology from the process, but rather, we realign the importance of intuition alongside data. At the same time, we look at the part of the story that isn’t so easy to turn into a graph: that the measurement is actually not core but secondary for self-improvement. Technology and the data it captures offer temporary tools for self-awareness, but what they really teach beyond the numbers is the irreplaceable habit of pause. What does the habit of pause entail? Very simply, the time it takes to stop a behavior and look at your device or take out a tracker has immediate benefits with or without the actual data. The process of tracking, not the numbers captured or the analysis that follows, is where the behavior change happens.


Ben Ahrens echoed this message at a QS meet up, “Although it can provide us with very useful information so far as data, the very act of tracking has value in that it provides us with a form of patterned interruption, a way of changing our behavior if we use it in a certain way.”

If we find health trackers in the form of wearables and apps useful then, by all means, let’s use them. However, let’s use them as Ahren’s says as a “springboard,” and set boundaries on how dependent we are on them. Let’s ensure we’re giving our intuition as much airtime as we give to documenting or assessing our stats, and perhaps experiment with taking periodic breaks from devices and tracking.

No matter what health outcome we seek or technology we prefer to support our own health transformation, trusting our intuition and simply noticing are key to behavior change. Acknowledging this will enable us to let go of unhealthy attachment to perfectionism around tracking, detach from the reliance on devices and tools, and begin to practice listening to our bodies and pausing, the most valuable habits that wearables and trackers can guide us toward.