Five Stories From the Front Lines of the “Quantified-Self” Movement

How sedentary office workers, anxious parents, and obsessive data geeks are using health and fitness trackers

In “How I Quantified Myself,” reporter Emily Waltz tried out the most popular fitness-tracking gadgets on the market. In the end, she declared herself fairly unimpressed. To find out if these consumer gadgets were helping other people lead healthier lives, she talked to some early adopters.

The Everyman: Tyler Neilson

Tyler Neilson
Photo: Tyler Neilson

Tyler Neilson went from fit college basketball player to sedentary software developer, and like many postcollege workers, he noticed a change in his physique. “I sit at my desk typing code all day,” says Neilson, who works for a consulting company in Prince George, B.C., Canada.

After he reached 113 kilograms (250 pounds) he decided to try Fitbit, a thumb-size movement tracker, and discovered that he was taking fewer than 2000 steps a day—a fraction of the number needed for weight control. The data resonated with Neilson. “It’s an empirical number that you can’t fake,” he says.

He began checking his stats six times a day. “I enjoy seeing the numbers,” he says. “It’s the same reason I don’t care about baseball but I like fantasy [baseball].” He found new ways to raise his numbers, like walking over to talk to coworkers in person instead of calling them. He convinced his wife, parents, and a coworker to get Fitbits too. “Then it was a competition,” he says. “We find ways to steal steps from each other.”

Within one year, Neilson increased his average daily step count to about 13 000, lost 23 kg (50 pounds), and with nearly 5 million steps in total, has now logged more on his device than Fitbit’s CEO and cofounder, James Park.

Ultimate Self-Tracker: Larry Smarr

LarrySmarr
Photo: John Hanacek/California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology

It started in 2000 with a simple log of his body weight and food intake. Within eight years, Larry Smarr was having his feces analyzed for microbial content. Smarr became the ultimate quantified-selfer, building a computational map of his body that makes electronic medical records look like ancient hieroglyphics. And as director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, in La Jolla, Calif., he has every resource available to him.

His tools range from the pedestrian to the most exclusive technologies. He wears commercially available gadgets that track movement, steps, sleep, heart rate, and stress. He sends his blood and stool samples out for lab analysis several times a year. Based on MRI data, he has built an interactive model of his colon using 18 gaming PCs linked to 3-D display screens. And most recently, he had all the microbes in his gut genetically sequenced by the J. Craig Venter Institute.

This kind of data collection is not for the fainthearted. “If you had seven years of blood work and stool, you’d probably find things about yourself that you don’t want to know,” he says. For Smarr, it was watching his C-reactive protein, a blood marker that rises in response to inflammation, double in 2008. It turned out he had Crohn’s disease, an incurable inflammatory bowel disease, and his data alerted him to the problem before his doctors saw it.

Smarr thinks self-quantification is the future of health care and that pooling everyone’s biometric data will lead to better understanding of diseases and earlier cures. “It will take the engagement of the medical community with the quantified-self community,” he says.

Quantified Kid: Ashley Barchas

Dave Barchas
Photo: Dave Barchas

Many parents who wear sleep and activity trackers wonder how they might use the devices to help their children. Dave Barchas, a technology architect in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of those parents. His 4-year-old daughter, Ashley, was perfectly healthy and a big eater, but she hadn’t gained weight in 18 months. Concerned, Barchas looked for answers in biometric data.

Barchas had noticed that Ashley seemed to put extra effort into playtime, like sprinting when other kids were jogging, and wondered if it was excessive. “She doesn’t stop,” Barchas says. “Coloring is a whole-body experience. Her feet are involved.” So he tried measuring her activity by clipping a Fitbit onto her clothes. The device recorded 20 000 steps a day for Ashley—twice as many as taken by an active adult. Fitbit isn’t calibrated for kids, so Barchas manually counted Ashley’s steps on a playground and found the device’s numbers to be 10 percent too high.

Her activity numbers still seemed high after that data correction, but Barchas says it’s hard to draw any conclusions about Ashley without data on how active other children are. He also says he has mixed feelings about continuing to let Ashley wear Fitbit. “If kids started wearing these, would play become another competition?” he wonders. “It’s already ‘My child speaks/eats/sleeps/colors/reads/spells better.’ ”

Office Spies: Employees of Qualcomm

photo of man working out
Photo: Christopher Lee/Qualcomm

Most self-trackers find it motivating to share their biometric data with friends. Qualcomm, a wireless technology company based in San Diego, used that strategy to whip employees into shape. It held two fitness competitions in which tracking devices monitored employee volunteers’ movement and weight loss and posted the numbers to a database in real time for all to see. Knowing your boss and coworkers are spying on how lazy you’ve been—that’s motivation. In the first competition, 32 participants collectively lost 57.6 kg (127 pounds), and in the second, 24 lost 77.6 kg (171 pounds).

For eight-week periods, executives and interns alike at Qualcomm wore BodyMedia movement tracker armbands and weighed in on Wi-Fi–enabled Withings scales. “We built a cloud-based leaderboard where we could see everyone’s movement every day,” says Jamie Eisinger, a marketing communications coordinator at the company who participated. “You would not believe the smack talk.” One executive sent around a video of himself on the treadmill telling coworkers to watch out, she says.

The Organizer: Ernesto Ramirez

Ernesto Ramirez
Photo: Aaron Coleman

Ernesto Ramirez is helping bring structure to the quantified-self movement. As a community organizer for Quantified Self Labs, Ramirez helps self-trackers find each other and share what they’ve learned about their bodies. “Some people have equated it to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] without the 12 steps,” says Ramirez. A typical meeting at his San Diego chapter usually features three or four speakers who describe their self-tracking efforts. The most interesting talks have come from diabetics sharing their blood glucose and insulin data. “For them, these are life-and-death numbers,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez has personally experimented with mood, calories, weight, sleep, and movement tracking. He once connected a treadmill to his workstation at the University of California, San Diego, where he is a doctoral candidate specializing in public health. Ramirez has been able to tie the quantified-self movement to his research. In a recent paper, he and a colleague discuss how people can use the “digital narratives” created by their self-tracking tools to improve their health habits.

About the Author

Emily Waltz, a freelance journalist based in Nashville, frequently writes about biotechnology for IEEE Spectrum. She most recently covered an effort to store digital information in the form of DNA, in which researchers converted a 53 000-word book into genetic code.

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