Use apps and tracking devices to measure your gains and inspire healthy living.
With the holidays approaching, many of us will be searching for that perfect gift to help empower our loved ones toward better health.
By considering a health tracking device, or “wearable,” you can provide yourself or a family member with tools to help motivate you to achieve better health and fitness in the new year. After all, the top two New Year’s resolutions year after year are becoming and staying fit, and losing weight.
Wearables come in many forms — the most common being the smartphones we carry in our pockets, handbags or on our belts. The latest versions of software and hardware on all platforms are programmed to keep track of measurements such as the number of steps taken in a day, total distance, body weight, caloric intake, nutrient information, even sleep quality and medical lab testing data.
Obviously when we talk about smartphones, we are also talking about apps. At present, there are an estimated 200,000 different health apps for smartphones — clearly an overwhelming number. Health apps can be used to motivate us to keep up with our health and fitness goals. What differs is how each app displays our data and is programmed to keep us motivated.
Sort through the clutter, find what you need
Start with an achievable goal
If you don’t exercise regularly, consider buying a wearable to see what level of activity you engage in currently. You can simply use your smartphone. It might be a nuisance because for accurate measurement you’ll have to keep it with you at all times. A wrist tracker is much lighter and can be synced to your smartphone. Are you walking 6,000 steps per day? We tout 10,000 steps per day as an achievable goal for improving fitness. But the idea is to simply increase from your current baseline. You may be surprised at how many steps you already accumulate. Steps can be collected from walking — in your neighborhood, on a dog walk, to and from your car — so park farther away. The main thing is to know how much you move and build up from there. Even a 10 percent increase over baseline can produce improved fitness and some weight loss.
Get motivated, start a positive feedback loop
My first wearable came from my kids, who learned about them at school. They asked for bracelets that recorded steps, and thus began a healthy family competition. Now we try and encourage each other to always collect at least 10,000 steps per day. The same smartphone app that tracks my steps allows me to record my weight. Seeing the steps increase and the weight go down has created a positive feedback loop that is helping me meet my own resolution to get and stay fit. The better my results, the more motivated I am to keep going.
Understanding what we consume
Counting calories can be a chore. Instead, use an app. There are hundreds of nutrition apps that estimate caloric intake based simply on what you consume at meals or from snacks. I counsel patients that the mere effort of honestly recording everything we eat for a week (a food diary) can make an impact because it provides an illustration of what we usually do automatically with our eating behavior. With the actual data, you are empowered to make even small changes that can result in a big impact. Can you cut back on the number of sodas you drink in a day (those are empty calories!)? What about hacking your snacks? Choose healthier options like nuts or fresh vegetables. When you see the relationship between the steps you take (calories burned) and weight (from calories consumed), you are more likely to want to tweak your data so it keeps moving in the right direction.
Ideas for staying motivated
Surveys show that while two-thirds of Americans say they intend to purchase a wearable, only one-third of us actually do. And of that one-third, half of us have stopped using them at six months. What gives? Like many New Year’s resolutions, wearables get put aside. Sharing fitness goals with friends or family provides “externalization” that can help keep you going. Doing activities together doesn’t have to be strenuous and can be socially as well as mentally and physically beneficial. In Okinawa, groups of elders called “Moais” (social networks) spend time together over tea. They also walk together. Social interactions like these contribute to the amazing longevity of Okinawans — a place where more people live to 100 and beyond (and in good health) than anywhere else in the world.
Healthy habits take time to build
Most of us fail to meet our New Year’s resolutions. Willpower is incredibly hard to maintain in the long term. Instead, look at tracking your health data as part of the adoption of a healthier lifestyle. It’s not the act of recording that makes the difference, it’s how we use the data to inform us and make healthier choices. Just as it’s taken each of us years to get to our present state, healthy habits aren’t established overnight or with the purchase of a simple device. Instead, think of using your wearable as a stepping stone to a healthier you. Whether or not you continue to use it after six months is a matter of personal choice. But in that time, if you are open to change and begin to understand how using data can help motivate you to be more active, you’ll feel better and like what you see. Remember the goal: a healthier you. Data tracking is only a means to that end.
Sharing data with your doctor
Increasingly, patients come to my office and want to share data from their wearables with me. Nothing makes a doctor happier than working with people engaged in improving their health. Unfortunately, uploading your personal data into your electronic chart is not as seamless as it should be. Electronic medical records (EMRs) are still designed as closed, mostly one-way systems in which doctors and other health providers input all the information. EMRs of the future will be more “open-source,” allowing patients to post and analyze their own data along with the health team. Since it’s your medical record, it should be easy for you to upload your own data. We’re not there yet, but don’t let that discourage you. Just keep moving!
John Henning Schumann, M.D., serves as President of the University of Oklahoma — Tulsa, where he holds the Gussman Chair in Internal Medicine. He is the host of StudioTulsa: Medical Monday on Public Radio Tulsa and a frequent contributor to NPR’s health blog, Shots. Find him on Twitter: @GlassHospital.