The Unquantified Self

Fewer wrist devices, more butterflies.
Health & wellness

The “quantified self” is a term spawned by Silicon Valley in the late 2000s to describe how health and fitness could be revolutionized through new, enhanced data collection methods using wearables.

The premise of self-quantification is that the limitations of the human organism can be enhanced like an engineering upgrade. By constantly measuring variables like sleep, activity levels, food intake, and so on, we’ll know exactly the right amounts of various ingredients for our bodies (and minds?) to optimally perform. The promise of self-quantification is enhanced intelligence and physical performance. And maybe even live to the ripe old age of 200.

For better or worse, self-quantification is a stepping stone on humanity’s trajectory toward cyborgdom. And, as part of that trajectory, the trend further blurs the already gray area of doping for intellectual or physical performance gains.

As a former science teacher, I also see a connection between the psychology of quantification and the performance orientation we in the US have about K-12 education. While we emphasize lots of testing, countries that incorporate organic, freeform, non-measurable elements into their education systems outperform the US. It turns out fun beats bean counting and incessant quantification. No surprise, this extends to our approach to physical education: Studies show that most people hate PE class, and that disdain lasts a lifetime.

“Winning at life! It’s not always about the medals. Believe me. I’ve done both! Here we are in a success-driven society comparing ourselves to others all the time, and forgetting to look inside and figure out what truly makes us happy.” —Julia Mancuso, professional skier

As Fox Mulder says: “I want to believe.” Unfortunately, at this point in time, the evidence supporting the efficacy of self-quantification is scant. Plus, there are abundant examples of ways to promote optimal fitness, health, and longevity that don’t require buying devices, apps, or (highly processed) miracle foods.

Caveat: Paying attention to the numbers does help some folks who have a specific near-term training objective, like preparing for an upcoming race. Once the race is over and there is no clear objective, the benefits go away. Anecdotally, when I ask friends how they use the data they collect, the most common response is “I look at my numbers when something feels off.” When I probe further and ask what they discover when they look at their numbers, the answer is “I’m not sure.” A recent study of top cyclists reinforces the importance of the subjective component of training. How you feel is at least as important as whatever data you collect about yourself.

That said, I’m not a complete Luddite. Tangentially related to quantification are GPS recording gadgets. I’m a big fan. A device that records time and distance is usually essential whether you have a formal training plan, or just need a way to estimate when you’ll arrive at the pie stop. A gps track for routes is a great visual memento of the experience, and can be reused to plan future outings.

And, as someone who is predominantly a cyclist, I completely understand the seduction of self-quantification. Simply riding a bike, you become part of a machine, and it’s easy to imagine your heart, lungs, and legs as the engine of a Ferrari or a Mercedes diesel. (Or, in my case, a Honda Civic.) Add devices that measure heart rate and wattage, and the temptation to go down the self-quantification rabbit hole feels irresistible.

A major problem with self-quantification is that we really don’t understand human biology as well as we think. Our understanding of the influence of diet and activity on weight is under constant revision. The longest-lived peoples in the world don’t follow any of the diet and exercise regimens we follow in North America. And, despite conventional wisdom, body shape isn’t necessarily an indicator of athletic potential. We don’t understand the sleep mechanism very well. And our understandings of the microbiome and the effects of stress on the genome, are both in their infancy.

In other cases, the promise of some wearables is not based on science. The “10,000 steps a day” metric followed by so many folks originated in the 1960s as the marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer. They were looking for a nice round number they could pitch to potential buyers of their device.

Another example is that current evidence shows fitness trackers aren’t effective for weight loss. It’s unclear why this happens. The possibilities include that while users of fitness trackers are counting steps, they aren’t counting calories, aren’t eating real food, or that trackers work well for folks who are intrinsically motivated, but not for those who aren’t.

Finally, a growing concern is privacy. Almost daily there are stories about ways Facebook and other tech companies are misusing user’s data, or using data in ways not fully understood by the users. It’s not unreasonable to expect that, just as data from wearables could be used to help people, it could also be used in ethically questionable ways.

“…as the one who has been trying to race in every discipline this season, and who has won in 5 disciplines this season alone, I can tell you that not a single one of those wins was ‘easy.’ There is no such thing as an easy win. From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve.” —Mikaela Shiffrin, professional skier

A couple years ago while I was researching a new fitness business idea, I came to the conclusion that the current state of wearables is that they are just the latest in a long line of dieting fads. I came to call wearables “digital dieting.” Since then, I have developed an increasingly contrarian perspective about fitness technologies, supplements, and drugs: snake oil.

I think most of us would be better off simply making best use of the existing proven ways of optimizing health and wellness at low or no cost:

1. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
This is the takeaway maxim from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Although Pollan’s maxim is simple, in practice it can be difficult to do. In conversations with athlete friends there is some disagreement about the definition of “food” (does beer count as food?), and tracking “not too much” can be tricky. On the “not too much,” theme, if you can swing it, it’s possible to get tested for resting metabolic rate–the calories you burn in a 24 hour period with zero activity. I did this a few years ago and it’s been a useful reference number.

2. Get enough sleep
Sleep is a performance enhancing drug. Comprehensive new research shows all adults need 7-8 hours a night in order to perform higher-order cognitive processing such as the ability to see complex patterns and solve problems. And don’t forget about coffee naps!

3. Move your body hard enough to sweat 4-6 times a week
Based on the research I’ve seen, for folks who are working to gain or regain fitness, current best practice is to move hard enough to sweat at least 4 days a week, and do at least 30 minutes of strenuous movement at least once a week. For athletic folks I think this same principle applies in between planned training phases.

Even ten minutes of mild exercise alters how certain parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with one another and improve memory function. As noted in the Ted Talk above, folks in the longest lived regions of the world don’t exercise as we define it in the US, but they do have very active lifestyles. “Exercise” is really a first world concept.

For folks training for an event, or who have an athletic orientation, over the years I have noticed a tendency to “overtrain.” Overtraining results from not allowing the body to recover from strenuous exercise, and is typically indicated by flu-like symptoms and malaise. When in doubt take a nap because that’s when the training effect blossoms.

4. Cultivate a rich, diverse (live) network of fitness friends
One of the biggest advantages of being a runner, cyclist, hiker, or skier is the potential for ready-made, live, social networks. While there is scant evidence of the efficacy of self-quantification, current best research about social networks shows that we tend to become like others in our social networks. This can go both ways: hang out with partiers and you’ll become more like the partiers; hang out with avid runners, cyclists, hikers, and skiers and you’ll become more like them.

Whether you are a newbie or a veteran of a particular sport, you’ll get immense benefit from being an active member of a fitness group, club, or team. The other members of the group will support, inspire, and motivate you. Guaranteed.

5. Cultivate a regular daily meditation practice
I admit bias on this one: I’m a 30-year practitioner of a mindfulness meditation technique called Vipassana. The benefits of yoga and meditation include reductions in stress and anxiety, and improvements in cognition, sleep, and emotional well-being. A long-term commitment to cultivating mental health is at least as important as following a physical training plan.

No surprise, I’m skeptical about all of the mediation apps available these days. While some apps can provide structure and guidance, I recommend connecting with a yoga or meditation group. Just like joining a running or cycling group, other members of the group will support, inspire, and motivate you.

We live in a time when there is quite a bit of promise about the potentials of digital tools to improve our health and well being, and it’s easy to get seduced by those promises. Some of the tools can help, but based on the current state of these technologies, we’ll all benefit more by simply focusing on the *unquantifiable* elements of physical and mental health.

Fewer wrist devices, more butterflies.

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