in Apps, Opinion

There is a lot of electronic ink being spilled about health tracking apps with rumours abounding surrounding iOS 8 and the potential iWatch. We don’t publish rumours but instead I want to focus on the general picture about health tracking and similar quantified self apps and ask the question…are they a big pointless?

Like many people I have downloaded my fair share of health related applications and accessories. Generally, when it comes to health apps they can be divided into a couple of groups.

  1.  Health Tracking
  2.  Health Coaching/training plans

Though some seek to combine both aspects. Health coaching and training accessories have been around for a long time in different forms. There have been books with training plans or even real people (yes they still exist) and coaches who can help create a plan to get you into shape. As such using an app, which is ever present provides a few little benefits for people but isn’t really that revolutionary. If you really wanted you could bring a book with you or hire a coach for a second. Sure, health coaching apps have helped spread this knowledge and are more convenient than other methods but they are an evolutionary product not revolutionary.

The Revolution of Health Tracking

Health tracking apps add a very different dimension to health related apps though. Previously, we had to rely on our own record keeping and in many cases judgement. Sure you could map out a rout to run, work out the distance and track the time it took you to run it in. You could even use your watch to track splits and do different intensities during a workout but this still isn’t as accurate or easy as using a phone app that tracks your position and calls out instructions.

Furthermore, before these health tracking apps, who really tracked the number of footsteps they took everyday? Sure some people would carry a pedometer if they really needed to or were curious but it was a very rare occurrence. Now almost everyone is on some app like the fitbit or Nike+ Moves. Some of these even allow you to track what you eat and the calories from those meals.

These systems have been more of a revolution because they can track data that was previously near impossible to track or at least inaccessible to millions and do it with far greater accuracy and less subjectivity. With the latest offerings from Android and rumours that Apple are going to start offering hardware which tracks even more of its users data such as blood pressure, heart rate and even blood sugar levels, this revolution will become even more intense but will this make any difference.

Why Bother?

The premise we are entering into is that if we are mindful and track these details of our lives we can act on this data. It’s a well known fact that humans are pretty rubbish at judging things. Our judgements are influenced greatly by the factors around us and we often over or underestimate our own abilities. Reliably tracking data can really surprise us and help us to act on that.

The problem is, not all tracking is effortless and acting on data requires effort as well. If you realise that you aren’t walking that much each day you may decided to try to walk more…but you still have to put that into action. Sure, seeing the data can give you an extra strong push and incentive to change but you still have to change.

My own personal experience is that I started to use a health tracking app that encouraged inputting of food data and measure the distance I moved and so on. However, after a couple of weeks, the novelty of entering my food data wore off and it became a hassle, plus I didn’t really know if the amount I was walking was good or bad. Occasionally, I check in and notice I haven’t walked a lot this week and so may go for a long walk one day, but it is usually just for one and then after that I go back into my habits.

Tracking data is an important first step, but the journey doesn’t end there.

What might be a revolution?

More apps or groups of apps are looking at tying in these two stages, tracking data and then advising based off that data. This could be really interesting and when combined with the further health data these apps maybe more effective exercise and diet planners than a personal trainer! However, there are still some big limits that I’m not sure technology can overcome.

1. Easy of inputing data

The first is the easy of input, especially regarding food data. As I mentioned before, I found it a hassle to enter what I had eaten and the calories. This is where something like Google glass could be really useful if it could recognise the food via the camera and then search its database. This is an area that great progress has been made in, but still needs to occur.

2. Checking data

If you aren’t checking and noticing your data, then you aren’t going to acknowledge it or act accordingly. Notifications can help but sometimes it’s important to see more than just a daily summary wrapped up in one score or number. Sometimes charts and long term records are more useful.

3. Acting based on data

The big issue though is acting based on your data, it’s all well and good to see your statistics and know that you should eat more healthily, walk more or do more exercise but that is no guarantee that you will act on it. Apps have started using systems like gamifying the process and getting people to compete against their friends or creating adaptive training programs which change based on your information.

But even with all this there is still a leap between knowing and doing. Health is still a niche topic and where some people may like the novelty and idea of tracking their activity, many people just don’t care. There is huge potential in the health niche and I’m sure a well put together health app and accessory product(s) from Apple would do very well, but it is not a magic formula that will make us all get fit simply by having it close. Hard work is still important.

What had your experience of Health App been? Have they actually changed your health habits?

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