THE IMPACT OF SELF-TRACKING ON HEALTH
Image Source: www.idgconnect.com/idgconnect/interviews/1009842/umotif-doctor-monitored-health-tracking
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
~Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005), often called The Father of Modern Management
THE RISE OF SELF-TRACKING
People have been tracking various health indicators and habits for centuries. In the last 10-15 years, however, the technology boom and subsequent widespread use of personal digital devices, wearables and apps has taken self-tracking into hitherto unknown territories. The “quantified self” movement began around 2007, with a focus on using digital technologies to better understand how lifestyle choices and other interventions influence personal health. 
Recent studies have found that 65-70% of American and Canadian adults regularly self-track one or more aspects of their health, including around 60% who track their weight on a regular basis. A 2018 study of Canadian adults found that some of the most common factors tracked via app or digital device included physical activity and exercise (51%), nutrition (32%), sleep patterns (28%), cardiovascular markets like pulse and blood pressure (12%), medication intake (7%) and glucose/blood sugar levels (4%). [2-3]
A 2017 study found that older individuals and those who’ve recently experienced a health emergency are significantly more likely to self-track health indicators and habits. 
WHAT HEALTH FACTORS ARE GENERALLY TRACKED?
Health indicators that are often self-tracked include subjective measures like symptoms, pain levels and energy levels, along with more objective measures like body fat percentage, body circumference measurements (“inches”), weight, pulse/heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar.
Health habits that are often self-tracked include sleep, exercise, physical activity (ex. steps), nutritional habits (which may include beverage, nutritional supplement and food consumption) and medication intake.
TRACKING’S IMPACT ON GENERAL HEALTH
In a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 55% of trackers with no chronic health condition say that tracking had a positive impact on their health. The same poll found that 76% of trackers with 2 or more chronic health conditions say tracking had a positive impact on their health. 
Wearable industry leader FitBit reported in 2014 that nearly 50% of people report strong positive behavior changes by using devices that monitor their health. 
A 2019 study found that wearing a fitness tracker resulted in a significant positive effect on users perceived physical health when compared to the control group. Additionally, if the experimental group used the accompanying app, the positive effects on health and wellbeing were even more pronounced. 
Results from the 2018 Canadian study found that 68% of digital device users reported that using their device enabled them to either maintain or improve their health condition. The same study found that 83% of users were highly satisfied with their health device and/or app, and that 88% intend to continue use into the future. 
The big take away here- roughly half to three-quarters of users report self-tracking has a significantly positive effect on their health, and 80-90% report being highly satisfied with their apps and devices and intend to continue using them.
TRACKING’S IMPACT ON WEIGHT LOSS
Several studies from before 2013 that examined self-tracking’s effect on weight loss found that those who lost the most weight in the short and long-term tended to be the most diligent about self-tracking. The same studies found that when people record what, when and/or how much they eat, they usually eat less and lose more weight. 
A 2011 systematic review of the existing clinical literature found that more complete nutritional tracking records led to significantly more weight loss. Additionally, more frequent nutritional recording also led to more weight loss, as did more frequent weigh ins. 
TRACKING’S IMPACT ON EXERCISE & PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
With exercise, several studies have found that when people record their exercise habits, they exercise more, and tend to enjoy exercise more. Those same studies report that people using a pedometer (a step counter) tend to exercise more regularly. 
Research from Samir Becic, author of the book ReSYNC Your Life, shows that wearing a fitness tracker can increase a person’s activity levels by 30%. 
WHICH TRACKING METHOD IS SUPERIOR?
Studies have found that the simple act of recording health indicators and habits is more important than the recording method used.  That said, data is emerging that tracking health habits with smartphone apps may be superior to pen and paper tracking.
7 OF MY FAVORITE HEALTH APPS (+ 1 WEARABLE)
The information below is from July 2018 and is for the FREE version of the app listed. Fee-based/premium versions of these apps will have additional features and functionality…
Apple Health (Apple Only)
Apple Health is to iPhone what Google Fit is to Android devices… sort of. To my knowledge both are normally part of the default app package that comes on new iPhones and Android devices. Both track steps if you take your phone with you while you’re walking, running, etc. And both are can sync to a dizzying array of other health-related apps.
There are some notable differences, however. The Apple Health app has an attractive and easy to navigate dashboard. Google Fit, not so much. The Apple Health app seems to want to be your centralized hub of health information, accomplished in large part by your syncing the app to other 3rd party health apps. So while Google Fit has the basic functionality of a “running app” (mapping route, tracking speed, distance, etc.), Apple Health by itself does not, which leaves Apple users looking elsewhere for a solid running/biking/swimming app.
Fitbit (Apple and Android)
Fitbit is the industry leader in health and fitness wearables. They make several products, but the “base 4” include the Versa, Ionic, Charge 3 and Inspire fitness wearables. Ranging in price from $100 to $250, all 4 of these fitness wearables track steps, heart rate/pulse and walking/running/biking activity, as well as sleep quantity and quality. Additionally, all 4 are waterproof and thus can be used to track swimming as well. The app can also track your body fat percentage and weight, but as I mention below, I prefer keeping that info on MFP (along with body circumference measurements and pictures).
If you’ve been sitting for longer than an hour, the Fitbit wearable will gently buzz you, to remind you to get up and move a little bit. The app also lets you track water consumption and has basic nutrition functionality (tracks calories, decent food database, barcode scanner, etc.), but lacks many of the features MFP has (which is why I would recommend keeping your nutritional info on MFP). Lastly, Fitbit has a “Female Health” icon on the app dashboard, allowing women to track cycle information (including “fertility window” and PMS symptoms like cramps and headaches).
Google Fit (Android Only)
When you take your Android phone with you, Google Fit automatically tracks your steps. It also possesses some
basic “running app” functionality, and can map and track your walking, running and biking activity.
JEFIT (Apple and Android)
While a substantial number of apps can track and map your steps, walking, running, biking and swimming
activities (and offer general approximations at the “calories you burned” while doing those activities), a relative few apps dive deeper into exercise measurables and let you track specific strength and cardiovascular exercise metrics (weight, reps, sets, etc.). JEFIT is my favorite app for accomplishing the latter. If you spend any amount of time in the gym (or otherwise doing strength training), it’s worth a look.
JEFIT possesses a large database of exercises (mostly strength-based movements but also some flexibility and cardio exercises as well) and gives visuals on how to properly perform the movement. JEFIT lets you track performance (weight, time, reps, sets, etc.) and even estimates your 1 repetition max (1RM). JEFIT gives you the ability to customize workouts and even lets you create your own exercises. If you want to compare JEFIT to other exercise apps for Android, you might consider FitNotes and Progression. While I haven’t dug into either
one, both apps boast some impressive user satisfaction ratings.
If you decide to get a Fitbit wearable, I still recommend downloading the MFP app to use for body composition and nutrition goal setting and tracking. While the free version of the Fitbit app will let you track weight and body fat percentage, they don’t have a way of tracking body measurements (hips, waist, chest, etc.) or pictures like MFP does. And of all the apps with nutrition functionality, MFP remains the most robust (in my opinion).
For body composition, MFP can track data such as body fat percentage, body circumference measurements (hips, waist, chest, etc.), weight and pictures. Tracking body fat percentage requires either calipers (generally not recommended) or a bioelectrical impedance scale (i.e. body fat scale). One can purchase a body fat scale with Bluetooth capability on Amazon for $25-$100 (or more if you want to get high-end). Tracking body circumference measurements requires a soft tape measure, available on Amazon for ~$5.
For nutrition, MFP allows you to set your daily macronutrient goals (water, fiber, protein, fat and total carbs), and then track your macronutrient consumption (in ounces for water, and in grams for fiber, protein, fat and total carbs). You can calculate your “net carbs” by subtracting fiber intake from total carb intake. The free version of MFP doesn’t let you “time stamp” your nutrition activities but you can set time periods for eating (ex. 11a-1p, 1-3p, 3-5p, etc.) and then log your nutritional activity in a specific time block. This is especially helpful if you’re doing time-restricted eating/intermittent fasting. MFP offers perhaps the most robust food database of all nutritional apps, as well as a scanner to scan nutritional UPC codes. When manually entering common foods (ex. broccoli, chicken breast, avocado, gala apple, brown rice, etc.) recommend selecting the option provided by the USDA, for the most accurate nutritional info. And if that’s not enough for a FREE app, MFP also offers an impressive database of nutritional supplements, so you can even track your supplement consumption too!
Sleep Cycle alarm clock (Apple and Android)
By opening the app and placing your phone on a bedside table near your head while you sleep, Sleep Cycle can track when you fall asleep, when you wake, and the overall quality of your sleep. Another popular sleep app with highly positive user reviews is Sleep as Android (available only for Android devices).
Strava (Apple and Android)
There are a ton of running apps out there, with some of the more popular including Endomondo, Nike+ Run Club, Runtastic, Runkeeper, MapMyRun and Strava. I’m partial to the last 3, and I give preference to Strava. Why? Two words- online community. Besides containing all the basic functionality of a solid running app, the Strava app also has a very Facebook-like feel, with users regularly posting the details, metrics and pics of their latest run/bike/swim session. Other users regularly “like” and comment on the post, which was something I really didn’t see from other running apps. There’s an element of competition on Strava, which some users may not appreciate. For me, I generally benefit from that kind of external motivation, and can usually keep my competitive streak dialed in so it doesn’t end up hurting me after the fact. That said, Strava users do have the option of keeping their activity results private.
SUGGESTED APP COMBINATION DEPENDING ON DEVICE SITUATION
For Android, Without FitBit Wearable: MyFitnessPal, Sleep Cycle alarm clock, JEFIT, Google Fit
For Android, With FitBit Wearable: MyFitnessPal, JEFIT, Fitbit App
For iPhone, Without FitBit Wearable: MyFitnessPal, Sleep Cycle alarm clock, JEFIT, Apple Health, Strava
For iPhone, With FitBit Wearable: MyFitnessPal, JEFIT, FitBit App
SELF-TRACKING: THE BIG TAKE-AWAY…
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” ~Peter F. Drucker
Some might dispute the absolute truth of the popular management saying above, but it should be clear that, for many processes and activities, without properly tracking (or measuring) we’re only making a guess at the effectiveness of the execution. With health, whether it’s tracking indicators (blood sugar, body fat, weight, inches, energy levels, etc.) or habits (sleep, exercise, nutrition), the very act of tracking itself can bring about an increased awareness, which can help to positively modify behavior, even IF an effective plan isn’t in place (which hopefully it is). Additionally, effectively tracking and measuring can provide valuable data to health professionals, the patient and others who are involved in the health efforts.
As you can see from the research above, a habit of self-tracking (aka self-monitoring) of health indicators and health habits tends to improve health outcomes. Combining self-tracking with working alongside a qualified health professional (or group of professionals) tends to yield even greater results.
1 www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14461242.2016.1228149 (2016 review of the history of self-tracking)
2 www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/28/tracking-for-health-2/ ( (2013 Pew poll results on self-tracking)
3 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5956159/ (2018 study on Canadians and self-tracking)
4 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5977566/ (2017 study on self-tracking)
5 www.express.co.uk/life-style/diets/446355/The-secret-to-a-successful-diet-Tracking-calories-and-exercise-on-a-self-monitoring-app ( (2014 data from FitBit)
6 www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563219300275 (2019 study)
7 https://completehumanperformance.com/2013/04/23/self-monitoring-weight-loss/ (April 2013)
8 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268700/ (Jan 2011 systematic review of self-tracking data)
9 www.healthfitnessrevolution.com/top-10-benefits-of-fitness-trackers/ (Sept 2015)