Health App And The Inside Track

Soaring high above the Mediterranean sea attached to nothing but a parachute, my mind racing with the sheer wonder of it all, another thought elbows in on the elation – I’m not going to have any photos to document this moment in my life. The irony of feeling as free and uplifted as I’ve ever been, while simultaneously worrying about a lost social media opportunity sounds crazy, but it’s a concern that colours almost all my day-to-day interactions.

I have grown up as part of a generation that trades in pictorial evidence. Look who I met! Look at what I wore! Look at what I’m eating! Look at me working out: and yes, I am #strongnotskinny. Unlike my parents’ generation, who picked up the phone to check in with friends and family on a daily basis, my friends and I upload images and ‘progress reports’ throughout the day. If we’re out for jogs, we can track our route and upload to Facebook: if we’re on a new health kick, we can snap every meal, and keep tabs via our jawbones. This is the very tip of the tracking iceberg – beyond the hundreds and thousands of Tweets and Instagram shots that appear every second of every day, it seems that our thirst to know (or is reveal?) ourselves, is insatiable.

 It’s been estimated that there are currently over 17,000 wellbeing apps, and that by the end of 2015, over 500 million people worldwide will have used at least one. Like many millenials, I have used tracking apps to keep tabs on my diet and my excercise routine. To go from a veg-fearing teen to some semblance of a conscious eater is no easy feat, but it’s been facilitated by apps like MyFitnessPal, which instantly provide you with nutritional statistics, and running apps like Nike+. Had it not been for these apps, I would not have stuck with my 10k training. At several points I was certain I’d reached a plateau and could no longer see my body’s progress, yet the app-tracked evidence clearly showed I was improving, which kept me on track, too. Research shows that measuring progress means you’re more likely to stick to your fitness goals.

Diet and fitness apps aside, there’s a new wave of ‘guardian gadgets’ that enable us to learn more about our own bodies, moods, minds and selves. A close friend uses period tracker Clue to increase her awareness of her cycle and fertility, giving her insight into how she’ll feel, emotionally and physically, at any given time. “I plan my diary as much as I can around my cycle,” she says. As someone who always struggled with PMS and debilitating period pains, this takes the pressure off – she knows when she’ll be on top form, and less so, and adjusts her life accordingly.

There are numerous apps to help us track our moods, with some of them, like Emoods Bipolar Mood Tracker, specifically created to help those with the condition. Marketed as an easy-to-use tracking tool, you keep tabs on daily moods, and a chart is generated that can be sent to your doctor at the end of the month. The premise is to help the individual pinpoint their triggers, and aid them in avoiding certain activities, scenarios or events that might lead to future relapse.

Some people are so reliant on wellbeing apps they’d even consult them before contacting a GP. Health app Babylon, which markets itself as ‘everyone’s personal health service’, essentially brings the GP to you, via your smartphone. Patients can either send a simple text query or photo to be looked at by a doctor or nurse, or they can book a secure video or face-to-face consultation. Once you’ve been ‘seen’ you can have your prescription either sent to your mobile, to your home in the post or to a nearby pharmacy. The founder, Ali Parsa, formerly of Goldman Sachs, said his mission was to make healthcare as accessible as iTunes has made music, or Amazon the purchase of books. Richard, a colleague of mine, who subscribes to Babylon (at £7.99 per month), eschewed his GP in favour of his smartphone, after hurting his shoulder at the gym. “All it did was confirm what I already knew, but the speed of reply was definitely better than going to a doctor,” he said.

Ross Tavendale – head of media at Ideas Made Digital, agrees. ‘I’d rather consult an app over a GP. I think if you’re smart and take baseline readings of your weight, sleep and blood pressure, as well as things like body fat percentage and muscle mass, you can manage your health by yourself. The trick to being able to monitor yourself in this way is to understand what you are starting with,’ he said. To help us better understand,there are, of course, yet more apps – from iTriage, the brainchild of two A&E doctors, to Vida, which acts as a health coach, trainer and GP rolled into one app (at around £10 per week). Cue, a personal gadget that uses a drop of saliva or blood to collect biometric data, helps users detect flu early, track fertility or optimise mood by getting enough time in the sun each day. Really impressive, and close to becoming a reality. Cue is currently available for pre-order and is expected to be available before the end of the year. There’s also mySugr, which helps diabetics track their sugar intake, iBreastCheck helps women stay on top of their personal breast examinations, and TalkSpace connects users to licensed therapists for unlimited messaging.

Arguably, technology stands to save the NHS a lot of money. ‘Anyone with a smartphone can access a health app at any time,’ says technology PR Lauren Ingram. But that’s not to say that doctors won’t still be playing a vital role. Ida Tin, co-founder of Clue, stresses that the sheer amount of data people will be collecting can only be the beginning of a good thing – once we are able to track our health in an accurate and unbiased way, patterns can emerge that will lend our local GP true insight into what may well be going on underneath: an insight you’re unlikely to get from a rushed 10-minute appointment alone. Apps could then, arguably, become the starting point for a future of far more accurate medical histories, for all of us.

From apps to tracking gadgets, with Space.NK selling a new wristband – the Netatmo June, £118 – which measures your skin’s UV exposure and tells you when to put on SPF and get in the shade. Spire measures the frequency and intensity of your breathing and lets you know when to de-stress, and medical monitoring device Wello can, within seconds, tell you your heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and more. It’s never been easier to monitor your wellbeing. Companies like Spotify can even correlate a user’s mood to the kind of music they’re listening to – a bespoke playlist that intuits your headspace, who’d have thought?

Given the boom, it’s no surprise that Apple, Google and even Nintendo – best known for video games and the Wii Fit – are also getting in on the action. The first product from Nintendos’s new health and lifestyle venture is a fatigue – and sleep-deprivation sensor that is placed by a person’s bedside and uses a radio frequency sensor to measure bodily movements, breathing and heartbeat – all without physically touching their body. This data will then be transmitted to cloud servers, analysed and sent to the user with suggestions on how best to improve their sleep. Also due to arrive in a bedroom near you is Lovely, a gadget and app that is essentially like the Fitbit app (which helps you track activity levels) for sex. Currently seeking crowdfunding on Indiegogo, you’d assume not many people would want to track their sexual performance (or be rated on it!) but, at the time of publishing, the device has raised $40k of its $95k goal. Not only will the device – which can be work on a penis, finger, or dildo – monitor how many calories you’re burning during sex, it will also cite top speed reached and suggested positions for next time (let’s hope the Social Share option is disabled on this one). A pocket GP is one thing, but anything south of naval-gazing begins to sound a lot like Big Brother gone mad.

Socrates believed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ The highest echelons of humankind, he reasoned, would necessarily live lives that sought out some greater purpose. Not to do so placed mankind among the animals; non-sentient, basic, ignorant. Could data-tracking shed lights on those unexamined parts of ourselves – open up our minds more powerfully and light up our souls, while also refining and developing our bodies? It’s a big promise, and one that seems to be paying off in places; many of the Psychologies team report better night thanks to the Sleep Cycle app and a more mindful existence thanks to leading apps Stressless, Headspace, Lumosity and Calm. But when tracking tips over into obsessing over each calorie, dissecting every social interaction, and fretting about each and every mood change, this brave new world begins to lose its appeal. I am not sure Socrates had this level of self-obsession in mind when he came up with this truism. Do any of these apps sincerely support self-discovery? Are there any true arbiters of bona fide self help?  Could any comfortably replace real human connection, or replicate one’s own gritty journey towards awakening, and ultimately,better self-awareness? I am not sure.

What I do know is that if all your gadget does is enable you to become more concerned with yourself – down to the mechanical minutiae of your increasingly competitive sex life – perhaps it’s time to shift the focus the other way, switch off, and just let life happen, without a graph, message, measurement or photographic evidence to get in the way.

As written for the October 2015 UK edition of Psychologies Magazine

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