Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

Better Health Through Personal Tracking

I can pinpoint the moment when I started getting out of shape. It was January 3rd, 2009. It was also one of the most joyous days of my life, the day of my son’s birth. He’s been joined by a sister since then and over these years I’ve lost plenty of sleep as well as any practice I had previously maintained for exercise and keeping general health maintenance. I’ve noticed the addition of some pounds to my weight, loss of energy and some chronic aches and pains, not to mention the increase in the number and duration of diseases I pick up every year, mostly thanks to the Petri dish nature of preschool. Rather than beating myself up over these lapses I’m slowly improving the situation thanks to a bit of attention and help from some nifty hardware and software.

The hardware is a fitbit zip, which I received for free from my employer in return for volunteering to have my some health diagnostics done (a nice example of a helpful nudge). The zip is little more than a tiny pedometer that I keep in a pocket that tracks my steps, distance travelled and duration of physical activity. The zip syncs with my iPhone which shows me that data for each day as well as graphs to show the data over days, weeks and months. It’s a fairly simple device but it does the job and requires very little attention other than remembering to stick it in my pocket every morning (I keep it next to my keys so I don’t forget).

I’m also using My Fitness Tracker to keep track of what I’m eating and am consuming fewer calories as a result. When I hit the mark there in terms of eating the recommended number of calories I feel satisfied but definitely sense that I’m eating less than I was before. The tracking of food is less burdensome than I thought it would be, thanks to the large database of foods searchable in the app and the ability to scan barcodes of packaged foods for even easier entry.

The biggest insight I’ve gained from this is that building habits is a lot easier when they can be anchored to existing behaviors. I’m walking more because I go for a stroll after lunch. I’m drinking more water because I fill up my water bottle when I get into the office and then continue to do so every time I take the last sip. I track what I’ve eaten right after I eat it (this gets missed if I’m out with other people for dinner and don’t want to disrupt my evening by pecking away at my iPhone). I weigh in every morning before I get dressed. All my new habits take place around existing habits that I don’t have to think about. The other thing I’m finding is that good habits have a way of snowballing. Once I was tracking my steps it was easier to use the same application to track my water consumption. Once I was weighing myself daily I was motivated to track my eating to facilitate the weight loss I’m going for.

By no means am I tracking every last detail. Tonight I went out for dinner and there is no way I’m going to try to count the calories in the dosa and prawn curry that I ate. My hope is that if I’m on the right path then a bump in the road every now and then won’t be too much of an impediment.