There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self. –Ernest Hemingway

I don’t think many people would’ve taken issue with ‘Papa’ over that sentiment, and not just for fear of a bash in the chops from the surly old codger. We aspire to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday, and better still tomorrow, and so on, to the end of our days, and thus it has been throughout our history.

A coterie of industries caters to our drive for self-improvement—diet books, apparel and shoe companies, gyms & personal trainers, several different flavors and temperatures of yoga, and so on. And we’ve always looked for hard data to measure our progress–can I run faster, can I lift more, do I weigh less?

Become an Optimal Human Being

The quantified self movement has its roots in this urge to perfect the body and soul. The advent of powerful mobile technology has led to an explosion in mobile apps, devices, and peripherals (add-ons) that enable us to measure, record, and track a bewildering array of basic physiological indicators and processes, athletic performance stats, and even things like sleep cycles, which formerly required expensive equipment and specialists to monitor. This PBS NewsHour video is a great intro to the concept of the quantified self. Cutting-edge self-quantifiers like Bob Troia, profiled in the NewsHour piece, thirst for data, and seek to become “optimal human beings” through detailed, actionable analysis of their health, fitness, and productivity.

Too Much Data, Not Enough Information?

The flood of new data has the potential to do as much harm as good, especially when read by someone who lacks the depth of knowledge to make informed interpretations. A couple of personal experiences illustrate the difference between information and raw data:

I’m an avid cyclist, formerly a competitive road and track racer. I still ride to work a few times a week (about 25 mi. round trip). I track my progress with a cycling app called Strava. It tells me how far and how fast I went, maps my route, shows elevation gain or loss, and can also accommodate other features like heart rate monitors, etc. for the harder-core self-quantifier. And it’s got social integration, so I can see how far my buddies went, post rides to Facebook, participate in challenges, etc. It’s fun, and the social aspects can help motivate me to ride when I don’t really feel like it. All in all, strava provides me with useful information on my performance.

On the other side of the coin, I recently had some blood work done. I’m fine, thanks. Anyway, I came to have in my possession a copy of the report via the nifty Gazelle app from Quest Diagnostics. I’m a smart guy, and I know a thing or two about medicine and biology, so I studied the report intently. I noticed that my blood glucose was reported out of (normal) range. I did some research online, because I’m smart (but not smart enough to call my father, the retired endocrinologist), and I discovered — ACK! I have diabetes! Well, I was very upset about this because I really like sweets (which maybe led to the diabetes in the first place, my smart brain thought). I fretted for a bit and then got on with my day. The next day, I looked at the report again, just in case I’d misinterpreted something. And I noticed- the range the report used was fasting blood glucose—and I’d had breakfast. My doc ordered an A1C, which came back OK. She declined to offer me a copy of the report, but did give me a disapproving glare. I had a donut to celebrate.

A Net Positive for Health

My personal experience notwithstanding, self-quantifying can be a boon for health. Certainly fitness tools like Strava and Nike Fuel Bands can motivate us to exercise, reach personal goals, and see how we stack up with our friends. And mobile-enabled physiologic telemetry can be a boon for people with chronic conditions like high blood pressure. Patients can partner with their HCPs to really pinpoint how well therapy is working, where it breaks down, what doses are best, and how the condition is improving or deteriorating over time. The key, though, is to partner with a knowledgeable HCP. Laypeople—even smart ones—just aren’t equipped to reliably interpret the wealth of medical data available today.

By Altay Akgun, SVP, Creative & UX Director


About Altay Akgun

Altay likes bikes, and writing, and video projects. He does not like oysters, or okra, or any food starting with an 'o'.

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