What I Learned Tracking My Health Data for a Month

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A little over a month ago, I got back into a familiar routine, one I’ve drifted in and out of for well over a decade: I started hyperfocusing on my health “data,” tracking workouts and rest on an Apple Watch, calories in and out on an app, and my weight and body composition on a smart scale. I’ve relished in doing this sort of thing, off and on, for my entire adult life, because it gives me a sense of insight and control—but this time, I wondered if spending all day, every day thinking about my “health” was really that, well, healthy

Here’s what I learned after another month in the data trenches and a few chats with experts. 

Tracking workouts: pros and cons

What I use: Apple Watch Series 8 ($299.99)

The primary function I use my new Apple Watch for is tracking my workouts. I teach cycling, so I have good reason to wonder how effective my classes really are, since other people are paying to come to them. Outside of that, I also just want to know, realistically, how much I’m really accomplishing when I spend an hour on the elliptical machine, half-assedly moving my feet while delighting in my 14th Gossip Girl rewatch. 

This has been my most beneficial tracking endeavor by far, because while we know that the calories-burned data can be a little sketchy, it still helps me visualize (very roughly) how much energy I’ve expended and when I am likely to use up the most. I do my best when I’m gamifying the mundane parts of my life, so “closing my rings”—that is, meeting my activity, exercise, and standing goals for the day and seeing that reflected in a little badge on my watch—motivates me a lot. Whether I’m actually torching 400 calories on the stationary bike, as my watch claims, is immaterial because without the prospect of failing to close my rings to push me on a night when I’m feeling tired, I might not be doing it at all.

Teddy Savage, Lead National Trainer for Planet Fitness, agrees that wearables or workout-tracking apps “add tremendous value to any fitness journey.” He says that in addition to tracking things like your heart rate or calories burned, using these can enhance personal accountability and help you monitor progress and celebrate milestones—plus set manageable goals that keep you connected to your “why.” That’s certainly been true for me. After about a week of tracking my workouts and daily activity, I noticed I could easily do more, so I increased my daily movement and exercise goals, making the rings harder to close. 

There are some downsides, however. As Savage says, “Sometimes over-analyzing can lead to running in quicksand because you start chasing the numbers instead of the tangible benefits you can ‘feel’ that are the most impactful reasons for moving your body. Plotting a pathway forward by tracking your progress can be a great thing as long as you don’t lose your way focusing too much on the numbers and not enough on your mojo.” There, I’m guilty, too: When I’m gamifying my activity, I’m in it for the reward of closing the rings and getting little “awards” from my apps. To do those things, yes, I have to engage in healthy activity, but that’s not really my goal when I’m doing it. The healthy stuff is a means to an end and the end is making my numbers go up, up, up. 

Tracking calories: pros and cons

What I use: MyFitnessPal (free, with in-app purchases)

I’ve recommended MyFitnessPal before because of its ease of use in tracking how many calories (or, if you pay for the upgraded version, various macros and nutrients) you’re eating every day. I first downloaded it in 2012, the first time I went on a “fitness journey,” but in retrospect, I was really on a myopic “weight loss journey” and didn’t care much about my overall health nearly as much as I cared about my overall look. I was diligent about my food entry to the point where I vividly recall a friend getting upset with me for logging my consumption of a single saltine cracker—and that should be evidence enough of the two main issues with this sort of data tracking: First, it only works if you actually log every morsel you consume, but second, it’s easy to get carried away and start a deeply unhealthy relationship to food. 

Laura Silver, a Brooklyn-based nutritionist who often works with people who fall into that second category, says that while research shows that tracking this way can lead to better eating habits and more accountability, it’s not ideal for much else. At the very least, it’s damn near impossible to determine if the food you’re logging really matches up with the nutrients in the app. Consider all the different sizes, cuts, and preparation styles for the humble chicken breast. Even if you weigh yours and account for whatever you cooked it in, you can’t be sure the calories and nutrients you really consumed are reflected in the amount the app claims you ate. At worst, you can start obsessing—which doesn’t leave much room for a healthy relationship with food, nor an understanding of how your body works. As Silver points out, if you allot yourself 2,000 calories per day on the app, you’re operating on the incorrect assumption your body “resets” at midnight, requiring another 2,000 calories from 12 a.m. to 12 a.m. Consider that anything, from whether you’re menstruating to fighting a cold, can impact how many you really need, and it’s not as linear as the 24-hour app cycle makes it seem at all. When you restrict too much, she adds, your body starts adjusting, learning to function with that lower amount of calories, and your weight loss will stop. If you’ve hit “obsessive” with your tracking, you can dig yourself in deeper after that. 

Ultimately, she advises that “we’re not machines.” Bodies aren’t as easy to define in numbers and absolutes as apps make it seem. I’d be launching stones out of a glass house if I told you to avoid food tracking with an app altogether, but at least consider why you want to do it before you start. If you want to take careful notes about when you tend to consume certain types and amounts of food, make better eating choices, and visualize your habits, these apps are good, science-backed tools. For anything else, though, consider chatting with an expert, whether it’s a nutritionist like Silver or a trainer like Savage, to determine your body’s unique needs and how consciously monitoring your eating can help (or hinder) your personal goals. Silver, for instance, is a proponent of intuitive eating, not obsessive tracking. 

As for me, after another month of dedicated MFP inputs, I think I’m going to call this one off. I felt the urge this week to log a single Ferrero-Rocher candy after I ate it, which momentarily zapped the fun out of my Christmas revelry. The whole point of keeping track of data is to better yourself; marking down the consumption of a 72-calorie chocolate confection might be a way to stay on top of my nutrients, but it’s not a way to stay happy—so it’s not really a path to true betterment at all. 

Tracking weight: Pros and cons

What I use: iHealth Nexus Smart Scale ($39.99)

My relationship with this device is contentious. On the day I unboxed it, I jumped on it, eager to glean insight into not only my weight, but BMI, body fat percentage, bodily water percentage, muscle mass, and bone mass—plus have that information immediately entered into my Apple Health and various other tracking apps, with which the scale syncs easily. I reminded myself that BMIs are a poor measure of health overall and that research has shown that for all the hype, these things aren’t always very accurate when measuring body composition. Nevertheless, I was demoralized by my results across all seven measurements. To be clear, the data I got on the first night put me in a funk, which is not really conducive to betterment. Silver cautions against calorie tracking apps because it’s easy to stop using them when the first burst of determination wears off or you start feeling bad about something. The same can be said for the smart scale. After I stopped moping, I vowed to show the scale who’s boss and work hard for better results on future readings. That sort of thinking is unsustainable; it’s much better to have measured, long-term goals that are in favor of your own betterment, not the besting of a machine or the achievement of hitting a certain number.

In the weeks that I’ve been using it, I’ve stopped paying attention to the body composition stats at all, aware that they’re likely garbage and just another number to get hung up on. That definitely reduces most of the utility of the device, but not all of it. I’ve also started resisting the urge to weigh myself constantly, knowing that weight fluctuates through the day based on a number of factors. Now, I do it once in the morning, and here’s where the only real benefit of a smart scale kicks in: In addition to sharing my data with the apps I granted permission to, it makes a little chart for me to monitor my weight changes over time. I’m a visual person, so I really like that. Day to day, little changes, but over the course of a week or month, the dip or upward turn of a line is more meaningful. If anything, the smart scale reminds me that changing and becoming healthier are long-term events made up of little habit tweaks. It took me weeks to land on that sort of motivational outlook after my disastrous first night with the machine, so if you’re going to start tracking your weight (or other metrics) like this, keep it in mind. 

That’s what Savage says, too: “Smart scales allow you to put all the puzzle pieces together to get a clearer vision of the bigger picture when it comes to weight management.” 

A month of data tracking in review

After four solid weeks attached to my devices and routines, the following definitely happened:

  • I paid more attention to the nutritional value of my food.

  • I lost a little weight.

  • I was more consistent with visits to the gym or rides on the Peloton.

  • I tricked myself into walking more and taking the bus less.

  • I got a little too into the numbers game and had to remind myself to chill out.

I recommend data tracking if you’re looking to visualize your habits and behaviors, then make meaningful change based on your new insights, but not if you’re someone who can easily get wrapped up in minutiae, obsessions, or the quick dopamine hit of reaching a daily goal with no concern for longer-term progress. Frankly, these things make it too easy to get carried away if you’re not careful. I’m sticking with my watch and my scale (though ignoring a vast chunk of what the scale claims to reveal about me), but probably uninstalling MyFitnessPal. If you plan to incorporate any tracking software or hardware of your own, consider keeping a journal with it, too, and tracking how you feel after a workout, after dinner, and after using the devices. Keep data of your data! And if you’re feeling negative about any of it, reassess and consider offloading whatever isn’t making you feel good. Gaining more awareness about your body and habits is cool, but feeling like you have to write down everything you consume or get to the gym on a day when you just have no time is not. 

“Fitness is all about making the experience personalized and enjoyable,” says Savage. “The more you can find out about yourself, the more you can create the most beneficial and holistic fitness routine for both your physical and mental health. When adding wearables and fitness apps into your routine and monitoring the data, its important to remind yourself that the numbers should only be seen as the breadcrumbs that lead you to the next step along your fitness journey and should never turn into the end-all-be-all of your efforts or successes.” 

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