Know Thy Quantified Self

My great-grandfather Dart lived to be 105 years old. Nearly everyone downstream of him on the family tree is still alive, including my grandfather, who was born in the 1930s and still goes whitewater rafting. Longevity runs in my genes.

That said, the last 20 or so years of Grandpa Dart’s life were less than pleasant. Although set financially, and cared for by his children, Grandpa was mostly deaf, almost entirely blind, and confined to a wheelchair by the time he passed. He had not only outlived all his friends and much of his family, but almost everyone he had ever heard of. Worst of all, he was forced to live the last 28 years of his life without his wife Olive, who died in 1983 after a decades-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In his last years he was granted only sporadic moments of mental clarity, but always seemed to manage a scoff when overhearing children referred to as “kids” (a word he believed should be reserved for youngling goats).

My 105-year-old great-grandfather is an outlier by today’s standards, but what if the average human lifespan wasn’t 67 worldwide and 80 in the US but an even 300 all around? What if we could extend our lives to 1,000 years or more? With advances in science, medicine, and technology, it won’t be long before centenarians outnumber those who live to be merely 90 or 95 years old. Researchers at the Methuselah Foundation go so far as to say that the first person to live to be 1,000 years old has already been born. 

This is an exciting prospect, but such a drastic change in the human condition brings with it many uncertainties. For example, what would be the benefit of living for hundreds of years only to have your mind and body deteriorate like those of my great-grandparents? It is rare that one’s physical health and mental acuity improve with age, and adding a century or two to the average human lifespan could usher in a swath of unpredictable healthcare costs and challenges.

This is one hurdle the growing movement known as the Quantified Self seeks to leap past. Sometimes shortened to QS, the Quantified Self aims specifically to increase self-knowledge by providing insight through self-reporting and activity tracking. QS is often referred to as a movement, though I find it more fitting to call it a practice, much like a daily yoga or meditation routine.

The modification of routine and habitual behavior, regardless of how minute it may seem, can have large effects on overall health, particularly if practiced for years and years. Consider the man who stops drinking soda on a regular basis, and rapidly drops 15-20 pounds. Now consider the long term health benefits of similar positive choices over a lifetime. To be clear, I’m not talking about 6-week diets and point systems for meals. Starting a QS practice is as simple as taking a look at your daily activities, recording that data, then through gradual progression, improving your health by modifying behavior.

The term “Quantified Self” has only recently come into mainstream usage, but there’s nothing new about people keeping track of specific data in hopes of improving overall health. Many of us monitor our weight on a daily or weekly basis, some of us count calories, and even the recommended 8 glasses of water per day is an example of quantification. On a more formalized level, it has now been commonplace for decades to track the blood glucose levels in individuals with diabetes. What is new about QS is the ever-increasing number of consumer tech products available to aid in monitoring all kinds of heretofore ignored and underreported data.

It has been said that one cannot hope to effectively improve that which one cannot accurately measure. Luckily, it’s never been this convenient to track and improve so many aspects of our overall health. Wearable pedometers used for tracking steps, pocket-sized blood pressure cuffs that work in conjunction with smartphone apps, and wifi-enabled scales that automatically upload weight and BMI information to the cloud are common examples of how the consumer tech sector is focusing efforts on the growing number of people interested in QS.

The majority of my current QS practice is made possible through the use of a fitbit Flex and Evernote.

The Flex keeps track of how many steps I take everyday, and syncs automatically with my smartphone and the fitbit web interface. I periodically check the fitbit app throughout the day to make sure I’m on track to reach my daily goal of 10,000 steps. The Flex sends my data to the cloud all on its own. The only thing I have to remember is to remove the sensor from the wristband every few days for a charge.

The Flex also has the capability to track my sleep. I simply tap the sensor when I lay down for the night and once again when I wake up. In the morning I can check the fitbit app to see how long I was asleep, as well as how “efficient” my sleep was, i.e. whether or not I was tossing and turning, or sleeping soundly. Apart from steps and sleep, fitbit also provides its users with manual data tracking tools, like the ability to input weight and daily water consumption.

When combined with a daily journal, these four metrics (steps, sleep, weight, and water) are incredibly useful for identifying trends in physical and mental health. Now I can easily look back over the months and see how my sleep schedule correlated to whether or not I was grumpy throughout the day, and how my hydration levels influenced my exercise routine. It didn’t take long for me to pinpoint the exact amount of water I need to drink every day in order to feel fully capable of completing my workout with ease. And if I ever need a motivation boost, I can connect with my friends on fitbit.com and compare my activity levels to theirs.

Fitbit’s app and web interface are great tools for analyzing data from my Flex, but numbers alone aren’t very useful. I use Evernote to track additional metrics–like vitamin and supplement consumption–and for the qualitative side of my QS practice. My daily to do list, the best photos I take throughout the day, and my daily journal all live in Evernote.

I use a dedicated notebook for this, called “Daily Fill.” Within this notebook, I create an individual note for every day of the year, one month at a time. I then use a template note as a starting point and copy and paste its contents into each day’s note. Throughout the day I launch the Evernote app from my phone or web browser to fill in the blanks and complete the checklist in the Daily Fill note for that day. As the months have progressed, my Daily Fill notebook has become a living record of my life, containing both quantitative data and qualitative content.

Starting a QS practice of your own is one way of taking a proactive role in monitoring and improving your physical and mental health. Soon there will be even more useful tools and services for unlocking the secrets of our genetic heritage and discovering previously unknown insights. In just a few years it will become affordable for anyone to have their individual genome sequenced, leading to highly targeted and personalized healthcare strategies. Already, the cost of sequencing a single human’s genome has decreased from billions of dollars to less than $10,000.

Until this practice becomes commonplace, there are some useful tools already available. 23andMe is a service that provides insight into one’s personal health at the genetic level. By analyzing one’s saliva sample, 23andMe delivers reports on over 240 inherited or acquired health conditions, as well as reveals ancestral connections between other 23andMe users.  Stories abound of families that have finally sorted out mysterious allergies, and of adopted children discovering links to biological relatives from across the globe.

One awe-inspiring truth and hallmark feature of the New Era is that we live in a post-memento mori world. No longer need we remember that we will die in order to live full, productive lives. With imminent advances in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology, and biotech, the radical extension of life is no longer science fiction. Never before in history has it been reasonable to believe that there are people alive today who may live long enough to live forever. But now, with the growing promise and infinite potential of cloud technologies, the sun, the moon, and the stars are closer than ever before.

A sufficiently robust QS practice is extremely useful for ensuring that our physical bodies remain as functional as possible as they approach, then move beyond the previous decades-long lifespan that was our species’ former biological destiny. I’ve learned that by combining the qualitative aspects of a daily journal and photos with the metrics and data of a QS practice, I can achieve a truly sublime sense of self-awareness. Some days I’m much more active than others, but regardless of how many steps I pack into any 24-hour period, there’s still nothing quite like a leisurely walk through the neighborhood at dusk.

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