Living by Numbers

Thanks to an article in Sunday’s Guardian I am now considering the concept of Quantified Self: a term coined by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. The latter is an ex Wired journalist, former said magazine’s founder executive editor. Both are cited as founding fathers of the Quantified Self Institute in the Netherlands, whose aims are very simple:

Quantified Self (QS) is the term that embodies self-knowledge through self-tracking. The list of things that we can measure about ourselves is endless: among others our heart rate, respiration, hours slept, or even the number of sneezes and coughs during a day. However, not all important things in life can be measured and not everything that can be measured is important. QS really revolves around finding personal meaning in your personal data.

This weekend I made a decision to stop using Fitbit as a result of their acquisition by Google, but an alternative fitness tracker has already been chosen. It would be tough to live without the mental and physical advantages a pedometer and sleep analyser provide me at present… sure, it could happen, but the benefits such metrics provide me in terms of self-motivation… I’d miss them.

I suppose I am a QS advocate without even realising that was the case.

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In a period where increasing numbers of people are rejecting and regulating their tech use, there are lots of factors to consider around who holds this kind of information and for what ends. Once, it was just about selling your name and address to advertisers if you gave details to websites. Then credit cards came into play, stakes increased, but when one thinks about heart rates, menstrual cycles and exercise frequency as saleable data…

Of course there’s a crucial caveat: as yet, wearing a pedometer/heart rate monitor is not enforced. All the people who might yet get judged for their sedentary lifestyle are far less likely to care about their QS than those who have become enamoured with the benefits of such metrics at their disposal. However, there’s at least one life insurance company asking for activity tracker data to gain discounts, and that list will undoubtedly grow.

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Without my heartrate monitor, I’d have not learnt some vital lessons in the last six months. These figures are often more accurate an indicator of general health than I’d ever be able to obtain, at speed, from a medical professional. However, they are really no substitute for actual medical intervention and regular check ups. You can be as self-knowledgeable as you like, but you’ll never be an actual doctor, so don’t try.

Any exercise plan is only as good as your own overall health, and many issues can hide undetected from sight. If you’re going to become a member of the Church of QS, remember to cover other parts of your fitness equation. Oh, and don’t get stressed if you’re constantly being beaten on leader-boards by serial overachievers. The only contest that matters is the one with yourself.

Winning isn’t everything.