Two weeks ago, I attended the Global Spa Summit in Bali, Indonesia, where spa and wellness leaders from around the world gathered together to discuss trends for the future of wellness. One surprising trend that came up again and again in multiple sessions during the summit was the concept of personal biological monitoring—people using technology to keep track of their own health metrics.
Traditionally, we have left all health diagnosis in the hands of our physicians. Medical measurements are typically performed by highly trained specialists using very expensive pieces of equipment, which are paid for (and controlled by) the insurance companies.
But modern technology is giving us new tools to measure our health ourselves. Perhaps the most common is the heart rate monitor, which has been used by athletes for at least the past ten years to track cardiovascular fitness and performance.
In recent years, the technology is growing in new directions so people can track their fitness more broadly, using GPS to track distances run or walked, motion detectors to count the number of steps or detect general activity throughout the day, or home scales using electrical impedance to measure percentage of body fat in addition to weight.
The technologies are getting better and more sophisticated, allowing us to track more and more personal health data in less and less invasive ways. New apps are being developed that can measure your heart rate through the camera on your smart phone (measuring slight variations in skin color caused by the blood flow from the pumping of the heart) or measure your sleep cycle with a smartphone under your pillow that detects subtle movements in bed through the course of the night.
“Nanotechnology” was another word that popped up in several conversations at the Global Spa Summit. Kenneth Pelletier (Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of Arizona,) for example, talked about nanotechnology pills being developed that you will be able to swallow so they can measure internally what is going on with your body and send via Bluetooth a variety of health metrics back to your computer or smartphone.
Another new personal monitoring technology that got quite a stir at the summit was the development of USB keys that you urinate on before inserting into your computer. Software can then perform a urinalysis based on the uploaded sample and can provide detailed health information.
Some people have taken these ideas to extremes, measuring and tracking as much of these metrics as possible and sharing information via social media or using the data to inform their decisions in creating the best possible life for themselves. The website “Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers” gives information, videos, and a conference to help people track a variety of statistics to bring new meaning to the idea of “the examined life.”
Tim Ferriss’ recent best seller, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, shares his tips for improving health and performance based on his own individual research experimenting with personal biological monitoring.
Until recently, athletes have been the primary users of these technologies because most of these systems require a certain amount of motivation to use. And then once the data is collected, a certain amount of knowledge is required to know how to use the information. Athletes are one of the few segments of the population that are both motivated to improve their performance, and knowledgeable enough about physiology to know how to interpret and use the data.
According to the trends experts at Global Spa Summit, (for example, David Browning, CEO of Somasigns, Philips Consumer Lifestyle in the UK) the next generation of technologies will be more accessible to a broader base of consumers. No longer will you have to strap on a monitor, use an app, or (God forbid) pee on a USB key. The technology will be integrated into your everyday lifestyle.
In the future your clothes will measure your heart rate and activity levels (e.g., in this TED video on quantified self monitoring, Gary Wolf reported that Apple has filed for a patent to allow their earbud headphones to measure heart rate, body temperature and blood oxygenation), your toothbrush will measure your dental health, and your toilet bowl will analyze your urine for health and nutrition information.
And the technology will get better at translating the data into useful guidance for users, so consumers won’t have to interpret the data themselves. As funny as it sounds, it is easy to imagine a near future where your toothbrush can tell you when to go to the dentist or your toilet bowl can tell you which vitamin supplements to take.
It is exciting to think of a future where health information is in the hands of the individual and not in the hands of elite medical gurus with access to expensive equipment. Personal biological monitoring could be the key to moving towards a system of positive health and prevention rather than the disease management system of today.
References and recommended reading:
Ferriss, T. (2010). The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. Crown Archetype.