Lively debates over a virtual cuppa

The Ups and Downs of Self-Tracking

An illustration of Jennifer Temple and Marc Kiviniemi's faces in the foam of two cups of coffee.

Jennifer Temple, left, and Marc Kiviniemi. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

“I think there’s a lot of utility out there, but I think in some sense the companies that are developing these apps are preying on a vulnerable population. ”
Jennifer Temple, Associate Professor
Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences

More and more Americans are using self-tracking devices to monitor their personal health. Is this a positive development, allowing individuals to take responsibility for their well-being? Or is it just the latest fitness fad? We asked Marc Kiviniemi, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, and Jennifer Temple, associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, to share their perspectives. 

Jennifer Temple: Last summer my lab started using MyFitnessPal. I said, “Let me just try it for a few weeks and see how it goes,” and I got crazy obsessed with it. But I lost 12 pounds! So then I became really interested in who’s using this and why—and for how long. 

Marc Kiviniemi: That’s similar to my experience with dietary monitoring. I tend to do it for a week or two every six months or so, when I feel myself slipping in portion sizes and stuff like that. And it absolutely works to make me more focused on what I’m eating. The question for me is: Is that kind of monitoring the most optimal way to get to the awareness? Because it involves work, such that I can’t imagine somebody doing that every day for the rest of their lives. 

JT: I think that with all of these things, the novelty wears off. We have good empirical data that monitoring what you’re eating, or how active you’re being, helps. But it’s the same thing with the Fitbit or a pedometer. Give people a pedometer and they’re monitoring their steps—for a couple weeks. 

MK: Exactly. I also wonder which portion of the population we’re actually reaching. You and I are both relatively active people who are already concerned about health. So is this just another way for the monitoring part of the population—the people who care about their health anyway—to do it? Are we getting the folks who seriously need some data to rein in their diet or increase their exercise? 

JT: In the studies we’ve done in the lab, the only population we seem to affect are lean, health-conscious females. I come from a family of people who are sedentary and overweight. And every single family member of mine has a Fitbit. But my mom gets 2, 3, 4,000 steps a day. I’m like, “You have this $120 thing on your wrist to monitor your steps, but you’re not trying to get more steps!” I think there is a segment of the population that wants this thing because it’s new and novel, but it’s not really helping them to be healthier. 

MK: If people are going to do anything other than waste $120 and get a lot of data they don’t know what to do with, they’ve got to use the monitoring to set goals. 

JT: I don’t know who facilitates that. Whether physicians need to facilitate that, or researchers, but I think it’s something that’s missing for the general population that is not already health-conscious. 

MK: When I look at the iPhone and the new health app—there are 80 things that my iPhone purports to be collecting about me. I don’t know what 50 of them are. I really wonder for a lot of folks, do they even have the level of health literacy and knowledge to understand what a tracking number means, and what the realistic goals should be? 

JT: It’s really striking how many health apps there are, and how this is the newest way to try and get money from people who are trying to lose weight, maybe spent decades of their life trying to lose weight, and have not been successful. So they’re looking for something novel, and these health apps are about that. But the whole weight loss industry—it’s a billion dollar industry because people are always looking for something that might work because everything else has failed. The reason everything else has failed is because people don’t know how to use it effectively or can’t stick with it for the long term. And that same thing is going to be true with these health apps. I’m sort of conflicted about it from that perspective. I think there’s a lot of utility out there, but I think in some sense the companies that are developing these apps are preying on a vulnerable population. 

MK: There’s another side of this too, in that these apps can encourage obsessive behaviors. I think it’s always important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is quality of life and happiness. Health is definitely a component of that; it lets you live longer, look better, have more energy. But you can get to a point where you’re so obsessed over the health consequences that you’re not actually enjoying the experience anymore.

How do you take your coffee?

Jenn: 100 percent black
Marc: With caffeine and a little bit of milk