Why collecting data about your health doesn’t always make you healthier

Healthcare data

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shone new light on the shortcomings of collecting data from large groups of people during medical research. The longstanding belief is that the bigger the subject pool, the more representative the results will be of the public at large.

However, the scientists discovered something different that could impact how people use fitness trackers.

Group Data Does Not Indicate Individual Health Factors

Scientists found when medical researchers want to know how test subjects feel or what makes them sick, they must focus on individual data, rather than relying on findings they glean from the collective group.

The way a patient feels from one moment to the next can vary greatly, and big data collection processes may not show the full picture.

Moreover, the researchers said when people in the medical field or social and behavioral science sectors rely on group data too heavily, they may misdiagnose individuals or prescribe inappropriate treatments.

So, how does this research apply to fitness trackers? Marketers from fitness tracker brands may use group data from their user bases to send updates or promotional offers to people periodically.

Research from the Federal Trade Commission involved the data collection practices of the companies behind 12 fitness trackers. It found these companies sent customer information to 76 third-party entities.

However, if that content is solely based on data from a large pool of people, it may not be specific enough, particularly for helping someone live better.

The researchers recommend doctors incorporate individual, routine research into ongoing care as a step forward for making health care more personalized.

Some Fitness Trackers Give Too Much Data

A study by Endeavour Partners found more than half the people in the US who bought fitness trackers no longer use them. Analysts believe that may be the case because many of today’s fitness trackers collect too much data about almost every aspect of health imaginable.

And, because they often provide that content without actionable tips to make improvements, many people may feel overwhelmed or decide they’d rather the trackers not tell them so many things about themselves.

Plus, high-tech solutions may not necessarily make people get on board with improving their health. Some psychologically based wellness suggestions, such as thinking about the rewards of completing a workout instead of all the effort it takes to do it, and encouraging a person to not compare themselves to others in favor of focusing on personal gains, could work, too. And they’re free.

Fitness Trackers Don’t Cause Enough Activity Gains or Weight Loss

There’s also the reality that although fitness trackers might tell people more about their lifestyles, those individuals may not do enough to make substantial improvements.

An investigation of 800 people in Singapore examined the effects of fitness trackers on behavioral changes over a year. It split people into three groups. The first group did not wear trackers, the second group used Fitbit Zips and the third group wore the fitness trackers too, but also got financial rewards for physical activity, either as cash for themselves or donations to charity.

At the start, midpoint and end of the study, researchers measured how much moderate to vigorous physical activity the participants did. They also got data about the individuals’ weight, blood pressure and cardiovascular fitness.

During the first six months of the study, only those people in the group getting cash incentives showed increases in physical activity. Also, the average daily step count of the Fitbit-wearing group was the lowest compared to other segments of people and totaled 8,550 steps.

By the time the study ended, the people in the cash-incentive group had returned to the same level of activity they had been doing at the beginning. On a slightly positive note, though, the people with Fitbits recorded 16 minutes more physical activity at the end of the study compared to the start.

Another investigation of fitness trackers for weight loss found that at the end of two years, people who didn’t wear them lost almost twice as much weight as the fitness tracker group, and scientists aren’t sure why that happened.

Fitness Trackers Are Not Cure-Alls

The marketing material associated with most fitness trackers typically shows users who are toned, active and confident. Some people believe fitness trackers will make meaningful changes in statistics regarding the number of people with chronic illnesses, too.

Indeed, it makes sense that a gadget that tells a person about activity levels and other health aspects might make that individual want to get serious about emphasizing a better way of life. However, the real-life characteristics that potentially influence wellness outcomes aren’t so straightforward.

People could decide the fitness trackers are too invasive, or that the amounts of data they provide are too vast, making the material confusing enough to cause discouragement.

Also, as the first study covered above proves, users must be especially careful if they buy fitness trackers that compare how they’re doing against a national group, because that data may give poor representations.

Most fitness trackers show data for an individual wearer over time. That could be valuable on a long-term basis, but only if people continue wearing them and make conscious efforts to achieve the fitness goals most applicable to them.

Image Credit: everything possible / Shutterstock

Kayla Matthews is a senior writer at MakeUseOf and a freelance writer for Digital Trends. To read more from Kayla, visit her website productivitybytes.com.

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