John Lawn, Food Management editor-in-chief.
Oxford Dictionaries, the venerable organization that publishes the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, pronounced the word “selfie” as its Word of the Year for 2013. The expression beat out “bitcoin,” “Schmeat” and “twerk” for the honor and apparently caught Oxford’s notice after its usage “increased 17,000 percent since this time last year.”
While there’s nothing new about creating self portraits in one medium or another, the word’s usual context suggests something more personal, a “look at me” moment captured by a smartphone user intent on sharing an otherwise fungible instant of self awareness or camaraderie with others.
I got to thinking about the term in another way a few weeks ago after a friend gave me a FitBit “Zip” unit as a gift. I’d always considered such devices to be little more than high-tech pedometers; but over the past year I’ve increasingly heard about their use in wellness management programs. Used in conjunction with a mobile device, some of them can also capture nutritional information via barcodes, greatly simplifying the job of food logging.
So, in the interest of professional research (and because I, just like everyone else, starts the new year with a resolution to take better care of my health,) I started wearing the unit and checking on its updated log each day.
To my surprise, I immediately found the Zip’s simple tracking of steps taken and “active minutes” captivating. I also found that checking the log was even a bit addictive.
FitBit’s user interface starts immediately to highlight even subtle differences in activity over the course of a day. Life tends to be pretty sedentary here in Northeast Ohio during the winter, but when we had a thaw in January and I took a short walk at lunch, I discovered later that FitBit had awarded me a “badge” for exceeding 5,000 steps during it. Bright yellow bars indicated that my lunch break include 19 “very active” minutes. And at the end of the day, my caloric burn exceeded my typical daily intake by several percentage points.
I know. Looking at daily activities in this way sounds obsessive, and I am sure it can be. But I began to see how technology to enhance traditional wellness management techniques like using food and exercise logs might make them more effective. The digital interface is more than just a visual representation of the data—it can be designed to positively reinforce desired behavior.
For example, I have to admit I felt a modest glow of satisfaction when I saw my 5,000 step badge pop up (Note to Self: you ought to do this more often!).
The idea that this kind of personal metrics awareness can help you improve your life, health and well-being has attracted large numbers of people in recent years to something called the Quantified Self movement. (If you want to know more, the “digital asterisk” at the bottom of this page can take you to articles that give more information about it as well as the ideas mentioned in this column).
Two other aspects of the technology are of particular interest to me. One is its larger potential for behavioral modification by providing “feedback loops” for lifestyle management, just as such loops are used by engineers in ctrols for everything from a plane’s automatic landing gear to your home’s air conditioning system.
The other aspect I find fascinating is this technology’s integration with the new generation of low-cost sensors that is in the wings. These promise to track everything from blood sugar levels to heart rates to sleep patterns and could make such devices an everyday part of clinical health management in outpatient, nutrition counseling and other applications.
The “selfies” recognized by Oxford Dictionaries are entertaining glimpses of personal life. But the quantified selfies these technologies promise have the potential to enhance the wellness programs and customer lives associated with every segment in our readership.
My tip for 2014: try out one of these devices yourself instead of thinking about them only in a theoretical way—it changes things. Then consider adapting your dining program to take advantage of them. It’s a trend we’ll hear much more about in the years ahead.