- Sheri Colberg, PhD
Motivated to Track Your Health?
A new year is coming, so you’ll have a new set of New Year’s health resolutions to break by March! That’s a pessimistic viewpoint, you say? Well, it’s an established fact that all the fitness clubs are swamped in January and empty by the time spring comes.
As we all have experienced, it’s easy to start out with good intentions to be more active or manage diabetes better, but much more difficult to follow through and stick with these lifestyle changes. While using fitness tracking devices like the Fitbit can indeed increase physical activity adherence in some people who can benefit from it (1), the real question is, will using the latest health information technologies for fitness, diet, diabetes, or other health management be motivating enough for you to continue using them long-term?
The latest craze involving health and fitness apps and tracking devices for self-tracking is attracting entrepreneurs in droves who believe they’ll create the next wildly successful online app like MyFitnessPal. Maybe you’re technology-oriented and internet savvy and have been trying them all yourself. But the important questions are whether this type of tracking leads to lasting behavior change and whether the majority of people who can benefit will actually use these technologies long-term, yourself included.
People who make fitness and health apps and create devices like the Fitbit assume that everyone has have unlimited enthusiasm for tracking health data via technology. However, a recent study on this topic reported surprising (and disappointing) findings (2): a relatively low adoption of consumer health information technologies like online health apps.
Why is this? The most likely answer is that for many people, self-tracking health data feels like work—and who needs more work, especially if your doctor may not even care to see your self-tracked data? For others, tracking results may add to their emotional burden. How will you feel when you don’t reach your goal of 10,000 steps in a day? Will that make you feel worse than you already do when you know you “cheated” on your diet that day? There’s usually enough guilt and anxiety to go around from just trying to manage diabetes and other health conditions on a daily basis without having tracking devices reminding you that you’re “failing” again.
What’s more, not everyone is equally motivated by data tracking with the latest technologies. Ages ago, I tracked my own diabetes responses for years with a pen and diabetes logs to learn how my body responds to different foods, exercise levels, medication, and more, but no matter how engaged I am when I start using a new technology (and I’m pretty tech savvy), I can’t get myself to use online trackers for more than a day or two before the data entry feels cumbersome and boring, and I stop doing it!
Novel technologies are likely to be successful only if they clearly reduce your inconvenience and burden, helping to make taking care of your extra "illness work" more efficient and effective. What I personally believe will likely result in the highest adoption of the use of health tracking technologies in the future is ease of use—which will likely only occur when all tracked data are entered automatically by devices and not manually entered by the users. For example, if your blood glucose meter uploads your readings without your having to do it manually, you may be more inclined to keep tracking it over time. Technologies should also be able to integrate all of your tracked data into a single app or database for easy viewing and interpretation of results and trends, whether it’s blood glucose readings, steps taken, food consumed, or something else that’s relevant to your health. We’re not quite there yet, although we’re rapidly moving in that direction with upcoming technologies! Stay tuned!
Cadmus-Bertram L, Marcus BH, Patterson RE, Parker BA, Morey BL. Use of the Fitbit to measure adherence to a physical activity intervention among overweight or obese, postmenopausal women: Self-monitoring trajectory during 16 weeks. JMIR mHealth uHealth 2015;3(4):e96 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=26586418)
Ancker JS, Witteman HO, Hafeez B, Provencher T, Van de Graaf M, Wei E. "You Get Reminded You're a Sick Person": Personal Data Tracking and Patients with Multiple Chronic Conditions. J Med Internet Res. 2015 Aug 19;17(8):e202. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26290186)