Photo by Rob Tringali / graphics by MSJONESNYC
I have a confession. I've been a professional health writer for three decades. But if you were to give me a report card on how well I care for myself, I'd fail almost every basic test of healthy living. And it's not like I don't already know what I need to do:
- Eat smaller portions. (Do fries come with that shake?)
- Move for at least 30 minutes a day. (Does fidgeting in my chair count?)
- Do weight-bearing exercises for stronger bones and muscles. (Sure — a few hundred coffee-mug lifts per day.)
- Consistently get enough quality sleep. (Oh, sorry, were you talking to me?)
- Don't smoke. (Yay! I've never smoked.)
Which means I have the same experience that many people have. At my routine doctor visits, I have to listen to the “talk” that a person of my age (I'm 62) needs to be more proactive with her health to live a long, productive life.
I always walk away with good intent. But this year in particular has been rough for the health of my friends and family who are also in their 50s and 60s. I have lost people I love to preventable diseases. This was my wake-up call. And I know that nobody can fix me but me.
Or is that entirely true?
In the past few years, the market has exploded for consumer devices that can measure just about every aspect of our health and wellness. It started about a decade ago with fitness trackers produced by companies such as Fitbit, electronic gadgets you wear on your wrist to track how many steps you've taken per day and how well you sleep at night. Those morphed into smart watches, led by the Apple Watch, which added a host of features beyond health but also incorporated everything from noise-level detectors to electrocardiogram tests into that little box on your wrist.
Now there are all sorts of “wearables” that can monitor your health from head (headbands that measure your brain activity) to toe (smart insoles that measure your gait). Some 142 million smart wearables were projected to be sold worldwide in 2019, according to research firm CCS Insight. What started with tricked-out pedometers has blossomed into a category of products that let us gather just about as much data as we'd like about our health.
"Big tech companies, small tech companies — everyone seems to be getting into the market,” says Thomas Rieck, a wellness and exercise specialist for the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program in Rochester, Minnesota.
With the right device, you can easily measure your heart rate, blood pressure and more. Maybe if I loaded up with all this new technology, I could get a handle on my health. So I went on a 30-day quest to see if digital health devices could help me jump-start real and sustainable change. The data was all there, inside my body. If I could access it in real time, perhaps I could become more proactive rather than simply reacting when aches, symptoms or the sight of a changing profile in the mirror moved me to action.
The Devices Andrea Tried
Withings Body+ scale
Tracks weight and body composition; $100.
Muse 2 headband
Uses an EEG to track brain activity. Useful for mindfulness meditation; $250.
A posture-training device; starts at $80.
Blood pressure monitor for the wrist; $45.
Blood pressure monitor for the arm; $100.
Smart watch that monitors a variety of fitness and wellness factors; starts around $450.
Step one: Go shopping. In short order I had on hand a smart weight scale, two blood pressure monitors, a brain wave headband, a posture-alert device and three health-related smartphone apps that work with the Apple Watch I already owned.
Next, I sat down with my physician, Darin Morse, in Lansing, Michigan, to create a plan and a baseline for this new effort. We went over my starting numbers — weight, blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol and blood glucose levels. And we crafted realistic goals for the next 30 days.
Excited by this experiment, I wanted my doctor to be my partner. I wanted him to see my results as the data was coming in. And I wanted to be able to electronically link up with his office. “In theory this is great,” he said. “But our system isn't set up to receive this kind of information from our patients’ digital devices."
I was surprised — and disappointed. Several years ago, when another doctor in the same large health care system had me wear a Holter monitor to look into what appeared to be an irregular heartbeat, the device sent information directly to the cardiac team. “That monitor was a part of the system,” Morse explained.
He offered a compromise: “If you record your device data in a notebook and bring it in, we can add that to your medical records. What we can get now from these personal devices is amazing in terms of being able to gather info, but we still need to be able to make sense of what we see."
And then came the sage advice: He reminded me that just wearing a digital device wouldn't make me healthier. “You actually have to do the work if you want to see results.” A frustrating comment, yet I knew he was right. I could push buttons all day long, but just playing with my new toys wouldn't improve my health.
Still, wearing digital devices might help keep me motivated. Although I'd previously tried to make lifestyle changes, I wasn't consistent — or patient. Failing to see results quickly, I wouldn't know if my actions were doing any good. I'd get discouraged. And like so many people, I would fall off the health wagon with a thud. But perhaps not this time.
So I began, focusing first on my weight. What should have been an easy initial step — simply getting on the scale each day — proved to be difficult and ego challenging. It took me three days to work up the nerve to get on the Withings Body+ scale for a baseline. This smart scale not only measured my weight but also gave me details on my body composition (for example, what percentage of my body is fat). It communicated with my computer, watch and phone to record my weigh-ins. I gathered my courage, and soon I was logging new numbers each morning.
Next up was tracking my food intake via a new phone app called Lose It! The plan was to record what I ate and drank and at what time, so I could then tally my day's calorie and nutrient consumption. I drank smoothies (with no sugar added) in the mornings. I weighed my food when I cooked. And I cut off eating at 7 each evening.
What I'd hoped for happened: The act of inputting data helped me stick to my routine, and monitoring my progress kept me motivated. It felt so scientific to be able to see my progress on a screen in real time. I was no longer just going by instinct. The payoff, to my delight, was a 10-pound weight loss by the end of the 30 days! Plus, I had more energy and my jeans were looser.
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Devices Best Practices
Do Invest In Long Battery Life
"Every time you have to take off that device, that's time you're missing out on data,” says Thomas Rieck, a Mayo Clinic wellness and exercise specialist. Look for devices that can go days or even weeks on a single charge. Then limit recharging to a period of downtime, perhaps at night (unless tracking sleep patterns is a priority) or while in the shower.
Do Get Social
Many fitness trackers allow you to share data with others. Go ahead and show off. “Connecting with others, whether with friends or family or even to a community, has been shown to increase people's overall use,” Rieck notes.
Don't Spend Big Bucks
"We're definitely seeing a lot of really great trackers come down quite a bit in price,” Rieck says. So don't go straight for the top-of-the-line device. In lots of cases, an older, less-expensive model will work just fine. —Emily Paulin
Along the way, I turned my attention to fitness. My big challenge was this: I work in a home office. My morning commute is 15 steps. So getting a few thousand steps in per day? That would take some effort. To log some decent numbers, I got up every morning and wore my Apple Watch to count steps while I walked around the neighborhood. I ran some errands, too. When I'd check my step count toward the end of each day, I'd see not nearly enough steps. I'd go back outside with a mission of getting 2,000 to 3,000 more. After 30 days, I was at 6,000 daily steps.
Many activity trackers use gamification to motivate users. It's a psychological technique, with the device granting virtual badges or other rewards at various milestones. “It seems from the research that if we can have you do a challenge — where you're trying to gain so many points or steps throughout the day — it helps with overall use,” Rieck says.
I also measured my other physical activities: yoga, Pilates and light weight lifting. Plus, like a helpful friend, the watch would give me gentle reminders to get up and move around when it sensed I was glued to my chair for too long. Additional gamification.
There was more gear to put to use, and so I did.
- I measured my blood pressure three times each day using a MocaCuff device. It was exciting to watch the numbers go down over the month, eventually by more than 10 points for both my systolic and diastolic averages. Must have been the extra exercise and some diet changes. Saying “Goodbye” to potato chips and “See ya” to ice cream was hard; tracking my progress on charts and graphs, however, made this a bit easier.
- Two meditation apps (Headspace and Calm) and a wearable device called Muse 2 helped me break the vicious cycle of drinking coffee to stay awake but then losing sleep because of all the caffeine and anxiety — which just caused me to drink more coffee the next day. The apps gave me guided meditation lessons through my smartphone. And then Muse 2 used electroencephalogram sensors that measured my brain wave activity. I worked up to 15 minutes of meditation twice a day, and the data showed I was successful at quieting my mind. That led to better sleep.
- Wearing a posture device, Upright Go, made me more aware of when my back was not in good alignment through an annoying but necessary means: buzzing every time it detected I was slouching. I would wear it for about 15 minutes per day, but that was enough negative reinforcement to improve my posture, even without the buzzing reminders. The result was fewer aches and pains.
After 30 days of mad science, I checked in with my doctor. But I already knew the news: My little experiment had worked! I had been able to stay focused on my health in a way I could never accomplish before, so all my vital signs had improved. “I am proud of you,” Morse said. “You are moving all the results in the right direction, and now you have to keep up the good work.” The doctor was right. The challenge would hardly end there.
"We know that, unfortunately, a lot of people who have an activity tracker use it for about three months and then abandon it,” Rieck offers. “People get really excited that it's new and different but then realize they bought the wrong model, or it doesn't track accurately, or it's just too cumbersome to use, so they stop using it."
Forget that. I remain excited about the possibilities. Here's the ultimate data point: zero. That's the number of nerves I felt going to my physician's office. I don't need a tracker to tell me I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.
Andrea Collier is a multimedia health journalist based in Lansing, Michigan. She is the author of The Black Woman's Guide to Black Men's Health and Still With Me ... A Journey of Love and Loss. AARP The Magazine associate editor Emily Paulin contributed to this report.