Health and fitness tracking is all the rage. You want to keep track of your weight or count calories? There are apps for that. The NHS even offers an app ‘to track the whole family’s BMI over time.’ Through using these personal digital devices we can all learn to monitor our behavior. This in turn can motivate us to make and maintain changes to prevent disease, and improving our health by sharing data with friends (see the recent BBC documentary, Monitor Me).
In some ways this narrative is persuasive. Personal computing has changed the way we live and work, and the spread of smart phones has been rapid. People now hold enormous analytic power in their hands many times a day. But we have some doubts about the extent to which people are happy to monitor themselves in this way.
We’ve been researching consumers of the cholesterol lowering drugs, statins, and of so-called functional foods that contain plant sterols, like Benecol and Flora proactiv, for a few years now. Respondents in our research were from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Their views suggest a strong reluctance to engage in the kinds of activity that are involved in digital health tracking.
First thing is that people are not necessarily that preoccupied by their health day to day. As Lawton points out many people do not focus on their body until it fails them. People are clearly aware of the pressures to act responsibly and many described themselves in the interviews as trying to be healthy. But they are also quite cautious about presenting themselves as too concerned. This resonates with Backett, who suggested more than twenty years ago that people do not want to appear as a health freak. For example, in our data, the idea of being ‘a gym goer’ was often be qualified.
I wouldn’t say I was terribly fit but I’ve been to the gym this morning OK But I’m not terribly fit so I don’t go for huge long runs and that sort of thing.
While being healthy is one moral position, being ‘ordinary’ is another.
And there are other pressing interests that shape what people eat, not least the pleasure of different tastes and textures and the desire to share food with other people. Indeed the wish to avoid being seen as health conscious can shape claims that even healthy food choices are really a matter of pleasure. One respondent stated that:
“I can’t stand full cream [milk] and I don’t particularly like cream either.”
These social pressures – to be seen as healthy, or ordinary and not a health freak, to enjoy food, may well act as a counter to political and commercial encouragement to track and change our behaviour. Furthermore, while there are well-established methods for quantifying aspects of diet, people can be resistant to counting food. Here this was apparent in the simple government sponsored rule about ‘five a day’.
“I’d always eaten fruit and vegetables anyway and don’t hesitate about eating that. I don’t religiously think oh I haven’t had my five today because situations don’t help…”
There remain important disconnects between the way people make sense of their daily lives and the concept of ‘behaviour to promote health’ being incorporated into new technologies.
These observations might make us wary of buying into the hype around digital health records or the Quantified Self movement. Tracking technologies may catch on with people with existing illness, or people already monitoring themselves as part of fitness regimes, but as the embarrassing failure of Google Health suggests, the wider appeal of such techniques is small.
About the co-author: Kate Weiner is a Research Fellow in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. She has been working with Catherine Will looking at everyday health practices. She is increasingly interested in the use of consumer health technologies at home.