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Measure of health

A new movement uses gadgetry to track bio-activities and help people tweak their everyday routines to ensure optimum health

Ranjita Ganesan  |  Mumbai 

When Samudra Bhuyan suffered from insomnia some months ago, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He picked up his smartphone and downloaded a range of free that could monitor sleep patterns for deep and restless spells, catch movement and sound and wake him up during his lightest sleep. Soon, Bhuyan, who had been feeling lethargic, found he was "fresh as a daisy" on days when he got seven undisturbed hours of sleep. The incident got the young entrepreneur hooked to tracking other activities to optimise his performance. A number of Indians, mainly those with sedentary lifestyles, are getting drawn to a global fad called quantified self movement (QSM), using technology to follow and store data on personal indicators and tweaking their routines to keep themselves healthy. The term was coined by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf of Wired magazine in 2007. "Using devices to track your was considered a very geeky thing to do, but I felt it would become the new normal," Kelly wrote in a blog. According to a survey by Pew Internet & American Life Project, seven in ten (69 per cent) American adults track a indicator and many say this activity has changed their overall approach to health. QSM groups have since formed in various countries. Vishal Gondal, who attended a group session in the US, returned and set up the local chapter in Mumbai earlier this month. For a group that deals with a relatively new and niche concept, Gondal and Bhuyan were surprised to find other enthusiasts. About 20 people signed up for the first meeting and that number has doubled in less than a month. The community mostly consists of male geeks and techies, many of whom manage their own businesses. There are a small number of women and people from fields like advertising and chartered accountancy. The plan is to meet up once a month. "There is a saying in management: You can't improve what you don't measure," notes Bhuyan. "That applies to the body too." So instead of simply relying on a diet or regime, people are choosing to map their progress daily to find out if it really works for them. Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO of Social Wavelength, says he benefitted by comparing notes from a food application and a device. "I could regularly check how many calories I consumed and whether my workout succeeded in burning them." Gondal, founder of Indiagames, believes Indians are typically good with numbers but while actively tracking exam scores, bank balances and work targets, they are relatively clueless about health metrics. "It is only during a medical problem when we land in the hospital that people start looking at weight or heart rate seriously." Regular self-tracking could prevent early onset of diseases, says the gadget-freak." You can spot irregularities and take action systematically." *** The areas of measurement are divided into activity (fitness, travel etc), biometrics (blood pressure or heart rate) and environment (like pollution, heat). Beyond fitness, users track things like the places they visit, the exposure to humidity or how much electricity they consume per day. One member of the Mumbai community collected data about his moods and the food he ate to draw connections. Most people aim to step up productivity by tweaking the time spent watching TV or on the computer or for naps. Since the data deals with lifestyles, there haven't been cases of it being misused, says Gondal. Getting started is easy as most basic applications are free. Wearable devices such as FitBit or Nike FuelBand let one track on-the-go and sync information with the phone or PC. These, however, have to be sourced from the United States. At present, the devices cost about $100-150 (Rs 5,900-8,900). Indian users are also waiting for the arrival of Scanadu Scout, which in the fashion of the tricorder in StarTrek, claims to track oximetry, ECG, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and stress in 10 seconds. The makers will also launch a device that will allow users to track their entire pregnancy." We'll soon see the first quantified baby," says the company. Being able to immediately note any improvement in performance raises people's enthusiasm for the activity. "It gets addictive then," says Mehta. Users begin testing diets, regimes or sleep cycles until they land on the best one. Applications do their bit by flashing motivational messages such as "you rock" or "step on it" to help users reach targets. They also specify limits; for instance, weight management tools warn people when they try to lose an unhealthy amount of weight in a short period. It was while self-tracking that users discovered they were well behind the minimum of 8,000 steps they should have been walking daily or that a 1.5 litre bottle of cola contained 17 teaspoons of sugar. Spurred by noticing his carbon footprint, e-commerce businessman Champ Alreja says he started giving out free bookmarks that could later be planted as saplings. Athletes in the group swear by their water intake-tracking devices, which based on one's age, weight and body type, decide the amount of fluids one needs.

Bhuyan says when physiotherapy did not help his back pain; he invested in a device to correct the spinal posture. Each time he slouched at his desk, the band worn around his lower back would beep. A bolder subculture of the self-tracking movement is body hacking, where people experiment until they find ways to get massive results with minimum change. The book that boosted this, Tim Ferriss' Guide: The 4-Hour Body, released in 2010. It contained tips on how to lose more fat than a marathoner by bingeing and how to reach one's genetic potential in six months. Athletes try to use the data to stretch their capabilities. Gondal's interest in QSM developed three years ago when someone challenged him saying he could not run a marathon. The 37-year-old has since turned into an endurance athlete, having run six half-marathons and completed two 100-km walks. Tracking data and testing techniques helped bust myths like the power of running footwear, Gondal says. He found best results by running barefoot or in thin-soled shoes. *** The parallels being drawn are interesting. Local QSM practitioners compare their selves to a company or a car, where the data tracked represents its balance sheet or speedometer. So far, the data is used to set personal goals but could even go on to help insurers tailor policies for their clients. DNA or genomic analysis firms are also focusing on self-trackers. Their specific findings on what proteins or carbs are good for one or which medicines one is allergic can help trackers to take lifestyle decisions. The obsession with self-tracking usually catches people in their late 20s. The movement is in a nascent stage in India but users claim this will be the way of the future. QSM enthusiasts expect price points to come down as devices start being sold locally. Consumer companies are competing to please those who seek wellness. Samsung introduced a health suite in its S4, which monitors fitness levels throughout the day. After Nike launched a self-tracking device, competitors are expected to follow suit. Users should exercise some caution though. The tracking tools are not 100 per cent accurate but should be treated as a close estimate, says Gondal. At present, most users are techies but as others get into self-tracking, they may find it difficult to grasp the finer data points. Also, incessant monitoring will likely take the fun out of an activity and make it stressful. The practice could start with something as simple as keeping a personal journal but usually culminates in a community, says Bhuyan. This helps people because they can share their discoveries and offer advice. Those who are not in groups often rely on online reviews, which may not always be trustworthy. To a lay person, the concept sounds exhausting but most of the data recording just happens in the background, says Mehta. "Since most electronic devices like mobile phones are ubiquitous and connected, and others like Fitbit are innocuously small and easy to use, most users can track effortlessly," says a researcher at genetic analysis firm openPGx. QSM user Alreja offers a word of advice, "Those who are not into tracking should try it out. And those who are should try not to overdo it."

  • SleepBot: Besides a customised alarm, the free app allows users to playback sleep talk or snores, correlate movement and sound, and see sleep quality over time
  • MyFitnessPal: An online journal with a free app that lets you log meals and remembers items you eat regularly. It also has calorie listings for Indian food
  • MoodPanda: A free mood diary that stores inputs in colourful graphs to track the user's disposition over days, weeks and months
  • Cardiio: The app uses the iPhone camera to monitor heart rate and award a fitness level rating
  • Endomondo: The sports tracking app logs running, walking, cycling and other distance-based activities. Users can set distance goals and have an audio coach speak to them using that as a target
  • Wristbands: The Nike+ Fuelband tracks physical activities and calories burned. The Jawbone UP bracelet also tracks food, mood and time spent idling. FitBit Flex, the most affordable of the lot at $100, offers similar to the Nike device
  • Scanadu Scout: When held to the forehead, the device is designed to log temperature, respiratory rate, oximetry, ECG, blood pressure and stress within 10 seconds

First Published: Fri, July 26 2013. 21:45 IST