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New year, new you? Penn State researcher offers 3 health tracking tips

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At the beginning of every new year, millions of Americans resolve to get healthier. Thanks to the widespread adoption of fitness trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone, it’s easier than ever for people to get actionable insights into their own personal health data. In fact, according to a national survey, 7 in 10 U.S. adults will track health data for themselves or a loved one.

Eun Kyoung Choe, assistant professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State, studies how understanding this personal data can empower people to live healthier lives.

“If you’re self-tracking for health and wellness, using commercial trackers for data collection motivates people to do better,” Choe said.

But like many New Year’s resolutions, health tracking can be hard to stick with.

“It’s common for people to disengage with their activity trackers quickly for numerous reasons. So a lot of research is going into ways of lowering the burden of tracking and helping people stick with it,” she said.

In her study, “Understanding Quantified-Selfers’ Practices in Collecting and Exploring Personal Data,” Choe and a team studied “super-trackers” of personal data, people who extensively track their personal statistics. If you’re hoping to take more control of your health in the new year, Choe’s research offers three tips for success when using your personal health data.

Don’t get too ambitious

The most popular data that users track are food consumption, weight, sleep and mood. With commercial apps like Apple HealthKit and GoogleFit, you can log even more data, like blood glucose, sleep quality and stress.

While it can be tempting to track all of these data points, Choe recommends against it. “Tracking too many things often led individuals to stop tracking entirely due to tracking fatigue,” the study said. Choe also observed that people who simplified their tracking were more likely to continue long term.

It’s best to identify the two stats that are most important, like heart rate or weight, and focus on those. Tracking a more manageable number of factors might help you avoid burnout and stick with the health tracking regimen for longer.

Pay attention to your triggers, not just your symptoms

Health tracking newbies can sometimes focus too much on symptoms without figuring out the triggers or larger context behind them.

“Just looking at your data won’t help you,” Choe said. “What’s most important is self-reflection. You need to make sense of your data and come up with a strategy to change it.”

For instance, if you report a night of poor sleep, try to figure out why. Could an alarm clock be emitting sleep-disrupting light? Is an exercise session in the evening keeping you awake? Digging deeper into these triggers will help you improve your overall health instead of merely recording data.

Don’t draw conclusions without talking to your doctor

It can be easy to make assumptions about your health with an abundance of data at your fingertips. But it’s important to note that correlations may not necessarily indicate a cause-and-effect relationship.

For instance, someone may track their gluten consumption while also noticing negative health symptoms like fatigue or stomach discomfort. When there is a correlation, users sometimes conclude they have a gluten intolerance. But it could be misleading, as health trackers don’t have the scientific rigor required to diagnose these conditions. While it’s helpful to be attuned with how you feel, it’s also important to talk with your doctor to receive a proper evaluation instead of self-diagnosing.

Erin Cassidy Hendrick is a communications specialist in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

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