For many people, wristbands like the Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike Fuelband give the wearer a flood of personal health data, including every step taken and stair climbed.

In 2012, about 3% of people surveyed wore one, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. In 2013 that number tripled to 9%. The CEA report also stated that 20% of people surveyed said they had downloaded a fitness app in 2013. It has been projected that by 2018 sales for wearable health devices will reach $6 billion, according to a prediction from ABI Research.

Some health experts wonder however, if we really understand these numbers we are accumulating, or what to do with them once they’ve been uploaded.

And, according to a survey released last year from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, more than half of participants said that keeping track of their health habits has not actually led to a change in behavior.

“This is a biometric selfie,” says Max Hirshkowitz, chairman of the scientific advisory council at the National Sleep Foundation. Instead of taking a picture, you’re taking a record of your health behaviors, he says.

Mike Fantigrassi, director of professional services at the National Academy of Sports Medicine believes self-tracking a record of your daily routine can be very helpful for improving health habits. “A lot of people overestimate how much they’re doing, so it’s kind of an eye opener,” he says.

In 2008, a study found that keeping a food diary could double a person’s weight loss. Recently, a review of 26 different studies found that using a pedometer can help motivate people to become more active. “So there’s quite a bit of data, particularly in the weight loss arena, regarding the positive impact that tracking can have – particularly weighing oneself, or a food diary, or a pedometer,” says Dr. James Beckerman, a cardiologist in Portland, Oregon. “So it seems like the tech world has taken that and made some inferences about it: If some tracking is good, more tracking must be better.” And Beckerman says, for many users it works. However, he points out that for some, the focus on mindfulness can become mind-numbing. He came to this conclusion from personal experience.

A few years ago, Beckerman went on a run with a watch that tracked his distance, pace and the number of calories burned. Later he tried to upload the data to his social media accounts, but the device would not connect to his computer for weeks.  He felt like he had traded in his “runner’s high” for the high of self validation, posting his miles to Twitter and Facebook. Since then, Beckerman uses only his running watch when he’s training for a race.

“I find it harder to use any tracking device in the absence of greater overarching goals,” he says. “Data in the absence of a goal, it kind of exists in a vacuum. So I think it’s only beneficial if we know how to apply it in our lives.”    1/20/14

P.S. One reader wonders: “How about a personal migraine-o-meter? Input your triggers and weigh how strong each one is and you’ll get a report that says that if you eat that piece of chocolate, you’re going to get a full-blown head whammer!”


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