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The Ups and Downs of Quantifying Your Life


The Ups and Downs of Quantifying Your Life

The impact of the data collected by wearables will be much greater than we imagined.

I've been reading Victoria Song's wearables reviews since she took over the beat last year. But it wasn't until she wrote this month's cover story that I appreciated the toll that fitness trackers could take on a human being.

OpinionsIn her story, she shares the highs and lows of living a perpetually monitored life, where every trip to the watercool is quantified and analyzed. That kind of mindfulness leaves a mark, and not just on your wrists. Wearables changed her life in some surprising ways, and there are some vital lessons in there for the rest of us.

First, the wearables revolution is moving a lot slower than we thought it would. Countless startups have folded, and even big players like Fitbit and Apple are struggling to make their products a daily habit. Battery life remains a real issue; and once someone takes off the device and misses a day, the incentive to put it back on fades. Who cares about steps, anyway? I've bought five different versions of the Fitbit—three were lost, and two sit in a dresser drawer, quite powerless.

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At the same time, the impact of the data collected by wearables will be much greater than we imagined. Helping consumers lose weight and encouraging the deskbound to stand up once an hour is nice, but data can do so much more than that.

During the past year, 14,000 Apple Watch users have allowed a free app called Cardiogram to access their data. The company now claims its algorithms can detect diabetes with 85 percent accuracy. Furthermore, the company claims it can detect arrhythmia with 97 percent accuracy, hypertension with 82 percent accuracy, and sleep apnea with 90 percent accuracy. This is a remarkable step forward.

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The ripples are already spreading through the healthcare industry. The economic impact is easy to see. More than 100 million US adults are diabetic or prediabetic. Treating them costs more than $266 billion a year.

Today's fitness trackers are not medical devices; they're just gadgets. That means they aren't regulated by the FDA and the data they collect is not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which provides data privacy and security provisions for medical information. So the only thing keeping your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or third-party app from sharing your personal data is the company's privacy policy. Have you read one of those lately? Neither have I.


Victoria's story is filled with personal details she wanted to share with readers, but there's another record of all her wearables testing—a virtual log of steps, heart rates, and sleep patterns, as well as habits, medical conditions, and risk factors that, at the moment, can legally be shared with anyone. United Healthcare already offers a plan that offers users $4 a day if they hit certain fitness goals. What's to stop it from imposing a penalty on customers who miss those goals? Will employers ditch employees who drive up their insurance costs? This is going to be a problem.

None of this will keep me from digging out my Fitbit Blaze, charging it up, and trying to get back into my workout routine next week. But as we focus on the healthy changes wearables can help us make, we should be aware of potential unhealthy consequences.

The March issue of the curated, ad-free PC Magazine Digital Edition is available now.

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