Data on diet, exercise and more help push for optimum health

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2013 - 6:12 AM
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Jared Sieling, the quantified self.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Jared Sieling’s first experiment was on his diet.

For weeks, he diligently recorded everything he ate until the data revealed a nutritional gap: not enough protein. Next, he strapped on a device to monitor his activity level. The numbers revealed the software engineer was a slug, averaging fewer than 1,000 steps a day — well below the recommended 10,000-step mark.

“That was the big ‘aha’ moment when I realized, ‘Oh, this is a big problem,’ and started to fix it,” he said.

Sieling, 27, of Maple Grove, is part of the rapidly growing “quantified self” movement — the practice of collecting data on everything from diet to blood sugar to sleep patterns and mood levels. Also called self-tracking, bio-hacking or “qs,” it involves measuring and analyzing the body’s inner workings for optimum health.

Once used only by elite athletes, self-tracking is becoming more accessible to everyday folks as tracking devices go high-tech. Instead of single-use pedo­meters, devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone UP, Nike+ FuelBand and others can monitor heart rate, calculate calories and count the number of stairs you climb or the quality of your sleep.

For some, it’s merely a quirky hobby, born out of a fascination with numbers that borders on obsession. Others, whom Sieling calls “elite livers,” see it as a way to take charge of their own health — a powerful new tool that could lead to early detection of diseases and better management of chronic ones.

Health professionals, however, remain guarded about self-tracking. While many acknowledge its proven results in areas such as weight loss, they caution that the volumes of information netted by new technologies could become overwhelming.

Yet that hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of Sieling and other members of the local Quantified Self Minneapolis meetup group, who’ll gather this month.

While a meetup for self-tracking may seem extreme, 7 out of 10 American adults say they track some aspect of health, either for themselves or for someone else, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the first national study of its kind, Pew found that most people track things such as weight, diet or exercise routine. And about a third of those surveyed said they also track their blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches, sleep patterns or other health indicators.

The study found that 46 percent of trackers said the activity has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they care for. In addition, 40 percent of trackers said it led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.

Early adopters

Consider the computer scientist in California who, in analyzing his stool samples, noticed a disturbing pattern that led to an early diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. That scientist, Larry Smarr, is a legend in quantified-self circles who shares his story on websites and at meetups.

He started out like most trackers do, gathering data on his nutrition and exercise habits. He added sleep and ratio of fatty acids to his self-examination regimen, even signing up for a personal blood-testing service. Then, he began studying his poop. After noticing abnormalities, he pressed for more testing and eventually doctors diagnosed him with Crohn’s.

Scott Mark is another self-tracker. The Minneapolis ultra-runner who also works in Medtronic’s innovation department, says that the quantified self movement is in the pioneer stage and that its adherents resemble the organic computer dabblers working out of garages in the 1970s and ’80s.

“They were laughingstock early adopters at the time, and look at where we are now. I’m totally convinced that this is the same thing happening with the quantified self,” Mark said. “They are paving the way of where we are going to be heading with health at some point.”

Mark, who started out as a computer programmer, says his love of data drove his interest in recording his body’s performance during his runs.

“When I had the opportunity to throw a GPS on my arm and a heart-rate monitor on my chest, it was really kind of fun from a pure geek standpoint to be able to see all this data that I could capture,” he said.

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