Will wearables and other gadgets make us healthier?

Is good health really all that digital?

I am not so sure. I am a skeptic.

I realize this is a risky thing to say these days. It’s hard to bet against Apple. And It was only seconds after Tweeting such doubt that John Nosta, an expert in digital health technology, tweeted back:

Well, yes, surely digital technology is important in the diagnosis and management of diseases. I couldn’t do ablation without engineering and technology. We use digital devices to monitor the heart’s rhythm, and said devices, such as the AliveCor iPhone ECG, herald improvements over clunky wired devices. Diabetes is monitored digitally. Vital signs are too. Dr. Eric Topol wrote recently about the (molecular) stethoscopes of the future. I don’t mean to say digital technology improvements are not improving medical care. They are.

But is the digital revolution correlating with better health? A look around America, call it the “general appearance” part of the exam, would suggest not. The view from my waiting room, my orthopedist’s waiting room, an airport, a mall, anywhere other than fitness enclaves like Boulder Colorado, would lead one to believe the correlation between tech and health is inverse. It seems the more digital, white-screen attached, we become, the fatter and sicker we get.

It’s ironic, perhaps metaphorical, when an obese sedentary smoker asks me about doing a screening ultrasound test to pick up early disease.

That’s how I feel about the fitness and health tracking business. I see the devices as fine tuning when what is most needed is simpler. Far simpler. And obvious.

My experience with bike tech is instructive. When I began cycling competitively, bike computers were in the midst of a revolution–not unlike the present revolution in health gadgets. At first, bike computers were crude; they measured only speed, distance and RPMs. But it was digital. You had data. The numbers enhanced the experience. Then the data got better. It went wireless, and power sensors allowed one to measure performance more truthfully. I got even more excited with the advent of power data. And most recently, GPS and social media apps, like Strava, have further boosted the digital revolution of cycling. Now I can measure and share my cycling performance against my peers.

All along this continuum, I embraced cycling technology. I was an early adopter. I was enthusiastic. I had training logs, spreadsheets and power plots. That was then.

The bikes in my garage today have no devices. I have only my sensations, my belt loops, the tightness of my bike jersey (it doesn’t shrink), and my placings in races.

I jettisoned the digital because I made a discovery: going fast on the bike comes from simpler more qualitative things. I found that eating better food, and less of it, helps. I found alcohol, at any dose, decreases watts. I found going to bed at a good hour increases endurance. And for me, high quality interval training interspersed with adequate rest works like magic.

My cycling health, in other words, did not need digital fine tuning. It needed the basics.

That’s how I feel about health for the masses. Nary does a man with a 38-inch waist need a digital watch. He needs a pair of sneakers, a jacket and a gutsy enough clinician to tell him to carve out time in his day to use them. He needs priorities. And on nutrition and sleep and kindness: it’s the same idea. Almost everyone knows the basics.

If health gadgets helped humans master the obvious, then I would be less skeptical.

JMM

3 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a 64 yr old who had a heart attack at 49, carotid endarterectomy at 59, and dual chamber pacemaker at 62. I participate in runs up to half marathon and will be participating in the triathlon later this year in the National Senior Games. I have had a heart monitor since I starting running in 2003, added GPS as it became available, and was given an Alivecor monitor by the Healthy eHeart study a little over a year ago. The heart monitor tells me when I am going over the heart rates “recommended” to me. The Alivecor did little more (for me) than make me obsess about PVCs. I look all around me and know that electronics is not going to solve the behavioral problems of an overweight and under exercised population.

  2. Great article John, and very thought provoking. In a wider epidemiological sense, I suspect you may be right. There are far more fundamental things to address if we are to improve the health and fitness of the general population.
    I do think though, that for many people one of the challenges in making a lasting lifestyle change is to maintain motivation beyond the early “novelty” stage.
    I think this is where some of the wearable tech (or even just a phone app) helps, particularly where the software platforms behind them include an element of “gamification”. The Strava leaderboards, and ability to track your own progress over time and achieve monthly goals etc, are a great example.
    It’s not a sufficient incentive in itself to get people off the couch, but once they’ve made that decision for themselves, my hypothesis is that tech/apps may help them to stick to it.

    1. As a 65 year old with 50+ years experience in endurance sports, I wholeheartedly agree that sensations and belt loops are superior aids to health and performance than digital feedback data. However, I’ve yet to see a correlation between a few beers or glasses of wine and performance . . . grin.

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