Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY
Nearly seven in 10 U.S. adults say they are tracking weight, diet, exercise routines or some medical symptom for themselves or a loved one, but most are doing it without the aid of modern technology and many are just keeping track in their heads, a new survey finds.
The findings may "splash some cold water" on the idea that the masses are tracking and analyzing everything from their daily step counts to their sleep patterns and blood pressure on their smart phones, tablets and computers, says Susannah Fox, lead author of the survey report released Monday by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
But the fact that so many people consider themselves health trackers anyway suggests a big opportunity for technology developers and public health advocates, Fox says. That's because studies suggest that keeping track of progress helps people make more progress.
"We have a population that is aging, that is overweight and dealing with multiple chronic conditions. And we have a population that is carrying around a lot of mobile technology," Fox says.
Right now, though, most people aren't using that technology to track their health.The telephone survey of 3,014 adults found that 60% track weight, diet or exercise routines and 33% track other health indicators or symptoms, such as blood pressure, sleep patterns or headaches. A total of 69% track some health issue for themselves or others. But, among those health trackers:
-- 49% say they keep track of progress "in their heads."
-- 34% say they track the data on paper
-- 21% say they use some form of technology
That's despite a proliferation of smart phone and tablet apps designed for such tracking and a new wave of wearable wireless sensors that can transmit real-time data on activity levels, calorie-burn, sleep and more to apps and websites.
Those technologies may not be mainstream yet, but they will evolve and catch on as "it becomes easier to store and analyze data without putting too much into it," predicts Gary Wolf, of San Francisco, a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Wolf is a leader in the "quantified self" community, a collection of self-tracking enthusiasts and product developers.
"The frontier is always moving," he says. "Today, things that would have been considered very geeky a few years ago, like keeping track of what you eat on a computer, feel more normal."
There are obvious disadvantages to old-school methods, says James Beckerman, a cardiologist from Portland, Ore., who wears a sensor to keep track of his own running routine and encourages patients to track their health statistics. Give your doctor a "beautifully handwritten blood pressure diary" and it may end up in the trash or in a file "where it will never be seen again," he says. Electronic records can be easier to share and save.
The survey found that just 34% of health-trackers now share their statistics or progress notes with anyone, doctors included.
Even so, Beckerman says, it remains to be seen whether people using high-tech apps and devices will keep using them any longer than old-fashioned methods and whether they will be any better at motivating long-term healthy changes.