Can Data Make Us Healthy?



by Desiree Tran

In an age of rapid technological advances in microsystems, nanotechnology, smart fabrics and miniature sensors and society’s continued aspiration to lead a healthy lifestyle, it is not surprising that wearable fitness trackers have been enjoying a steadfast popularity for the last couple of years now.

In a survey conducted by Statista in 2016, 94% of respondents state that they use a fitness wristband, a smartwatch or some other type of health and fitness tracker on a regular basis. This development is also called “Quantified Self” and aims to self-improve and optimize through numbers. But can those high-tech fitness trackers with their exorbitant amount of data on one’s daily steps, heart rate, sleeping quality and various other physiological parameters really help people combat a sedentary lifestyle by changing their behaviour and increasing their physical activity? Or are they mostly a glorified fashion product?


A 2013 literature review by O’Reilly  and Spruijt-Metz concludes that

“on-body sensing systems lack evidence for feasibility of PA (physical activity) measurement and intervention delivery, so research is needed to determine how viable mobile on-body sensing systems are for these purposes. The fact that usability of mobile technologies across modalities received mixed results from study participants indicates that research is also necessary to determine the features of mobile PA measurement and intervention technologies that are functional for users.”


However, a more recent systematic review done by Lewis, Lyons. Jarvis and Baillargeon in 2015 found that

“EAMS (electronic activity monitor systems) technology is readily available and utilized commercially by health professionals to motivate patients. The EAMS interventions studied in this review demonstrated ability to increase PA (physical activity) and decrease weight. Though comparisons to other interventions produced equivocal results, effect sizes suggest potentially clinically significant outcomes.”


A clinical trial conducted in 2016 by Jakicic, Davis, Rogers et. al reports that

“among young adults with a BMI between 25 and less than 40, the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioural intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months. Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioural weight loss approaches.”


These diverging findings prove that the effectiveness of mobile health tracking devices in increasing physical activity and improved health behaviour cannot be unequivocally confirmed. Despite bringing about promising opportunities to address the skyrocketing healthcare costs associated with a sedentary lifestyle, the rapid speed of technology innovation and issues of data privacy make this an important and fascinating topic.