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Can body-tracking devices play a role in the non-diet approach?

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

Mandy rolls out of bed at the sound of her alarm clock. She slips off the headband that has been recording her brainwaves all night and has a look at the graph of her deep sleep, light sleep and REM to see if she slept well. She walks to the bathroom and steps onto her scale. It measures her weight and uploads it to an online data file. Before she eats his breakfast bowl with superfoods, she takes a picture of her plate with her phone which automatically logs the calories. She puts on her smartwatch that will count her steps and measure her heartrate throughout the day and walks out of the door.

Mandy is a body tracker.

Body tracking devices are everywhere.

The idea is that much as an engineer will analyse data and tweak specifications in order to optimise a software program, people can collect data on the inputs and outputs of their bodies to optimise physical and mental performance. A principle of the computer business is applied to personal health- you can’t change or control what you can’t measure.

So, everything gets measured. Weight, heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, caloric intake, footsteps taken, fat intake, salt intake, fibre intake, flexibility, sleep, smoking, drinking, mood fluctuations, attention span etc. The idea is that when you know your numbers, you can work on changing them- forcing them closer to the ideal numbers and in the process, “optimise” your health.

But what kind of health is that?

Measuring health

Calling an individual healthy because the numbers that can be measured are right is like believing that the development of Paint by Numbers truly opened the door for everybody to be an artist.

It is saying that somebody with a blood pressure is 120/80 and a pulse rate of a steady 60 and a BMI 22 and a body fat percentage 20 and a cholesterol level of 4 that walks 10 000 steps every day and eats 9 servings of fruit and vegetables and drinks 8 glasses of water and etc etc etc is a picture of perfect health. It believes that the numbers are everything. It forgets that unlike machines, humans have personalities, thoughts, intuition, feelings and emotions, and that we are complex beings not amenable to quantification, prediction and control. The numbers do have some meaning, but the current craze of fixating on them is missing the most important part of being human.

We cannot be reduced to a set of numbers.

Quantified self?

I have a clear memory of a Sunday school class that must have taken place when I was about 5 years old. The teacher made all the kids (a mixed group of different ages) sit on the carpet and announced that the activity for the morning was that we were going to build a person. The older kids sniggered at this, knowing that it was not possible, but us younger ones crept forward to be sure that we did not miss this extraordinary thing that would be taking place right in front of our eyes. He had brought along a big tub and a few shopping bags full of ingredients. He asked us “what are people made of?” Somebody called out “bones!” “And what are bones made of?” One of the older children knew, “Calcium!” “And where can we find calcium?” “Milk!” He took out a bottle of milk and poured about a liter of it into the tub. “What else?” “Blood!” “What is blood made of?” “Iron!” He tossed a bunch of keys into the tub. This continued until he had filled the tub with a concoction that quite plausibly contained all the bits that constitute a human being. Then, he added a plastic doll (that looked very much like a real baby) to the blend. I sort of knew that this wasn’t REALLY how you make a person and that it probably wasn’t going to come to life…but I watched very closely nevertheless just in case.

Of course, nothing happened. That motionless tub full of the right ingredients amounted to nothing. Just a soupy pile of bits and pieces.

I learnt that human beings can be broken down to their composite parts, and that we can think about ourselves mechanistically (operating more or less on the same principles as machines), but that it would never be enough. The most important part of who we are, the part that gives us life, cannot be captured by science, cannot be studied under a microscope, cannot be numbered, cannot be quantified, cannot be measured, cannot be graphed, cannot be controlled.

Self-tracking is a huge a trend. It is probably true that with smarter, slicker technology it will become even more so. Technology has become integral to the management of certain diseases like type1 diabetes for example- and I am very grateful for the role it can play.

But I will opt out of self-tracking. I will not use technology to keep track of my fruit and vegetable intake or to give me feedback about my level of cardiovascular fitness. I will not let numbers tell me whether I am well or not. I will let life course through my body and embrace the mystery of it.

I will move when I feel the itch in my feet to get out. When my back starts feeling stiff, it will remind me to stretch. I will eat vegetables because a meal without them is just not satisfying. Vegetables make it look better, taste better and sit better in my stomach. I won't over-indulge in sugary snacks, because my body will tell me when enough is enough (there are wonderful in-built mechanisms that do so). I have an internal compass that points towards health- I will follow its guidance. Everybody has that compass-some need help to learn to listen to it and trust it if they have tuned it out to listen to the beeps and prompts of their devices to remind them what they need to do to be well instead.

Joy Clarkson puts it this way: "You are not a machine. You are more like a garden. You need different things on different days. A little sun today, a little less water tomorrow. You have fallow and fruitful seasons. It is not a design flaw. It is wiser than perpetual sameness. What does your garden need today?"

Sound Bite

It is more than likely that we will all struggle with emotional, spiritual, and physical issues during our lifetimes, and it is inevitable that we will die. Understanding and living skilfully and compassionately with these struggles, rather than perpetually searching for the latest holy grail of optimal health, may come closer to what it truly means to be healthy.. Jon Robison
Complete well-being is a fantasy. Health, whatever else it might be, is something that happens not so much in the absence of illness as in its presence David B Morris
"People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle." Thich Nhat Hanh
“It was never meant that the working of the organs of our body should be watched by the mind” Axel Munthe

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