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Surprising Science

Can Quantifying Our Lives Make Us Healthier?

A host of new consumer electronics allows people to monitor fluctuations in their health like never before, but does knowing more about your health help you change your behavior? 

What’s the Latest Development?

A number of consumer-friendly medical devices and digital apps have allowed individuals to monitor their health in a way that only doctors with pricey hardware could do before. Heat- and motion-sensing armbands can gauge energy expenditure, an activity tracker clipped to your waistband records movement, a blood-pressure cuff connected to an iPad will squeeze your arm, and a brainwave-sensing headband can monitor your sleep. But simply recording your health data will not make you healthier, so can knowing more about yourself inspire you to eat right and exercise?

What’s the Big Idea?

Unfortunately, closely monitoring fluctuations in your physical health inspires only a minority to change their behavior. “Joseph Kvedar, head of the Center for Connected Health at Harvard, is a proponent of health trackers. But he has found that only a small portion of the population, around 10 percent, will change their behavior based on tracker information alone. That 10 percent is composed of people inherently interested in data, like fitness buffs and ‘quantified selfers,’ the newly recognized class of nerdy people who revel in using technology to track their daily lives. Everyone else needs an additional motivator, he says, like coaching, social networking, games, or rewards.”

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