An app a day keeps the doctor away
There's an entire social movement dedicated to obsessive personal data gathering. Photo: Getty
What a lousy night's sleep that was. I was awake for an hour at about 3am, doing that mad sort of fretting you can only do during the hour of the wolf.
According to the Sleep Cycle app, which kept vigil by my pillow all night, I was awake, or close to it, for at least two hours, and I was in deep sleep for barely one.
Sleep Cycle monitors movement and uses it to track your sleep cycles. You can use the data to see how factors such as alcohol, caffeine, stress, light and temperature affect the quality of your sleep, and make adjustments accordingly. I've learnt, for example, that more than one glass of wine gives me a restless night. Bummer. But given a choice between red and zeds, I choose zeds.
Sleep Cycle also includes a cunning alarm, which looks for signs of stirring before your nominated wake time and initiates the process at a point when it will be easier to come to.
There's an entire social movement dedicated to this sort of obsessive personal data gathering. It's called Quantified Self, and its adherents monitor sleep, moods, diet, exercise and other health indicators. They then work strategically with data, rather than with feelings and impressions, to manage their behaviour and habits to improve their health and fitness.
Self-monitoring can inspire conscious decisions to amend behaviour - such as mine to cut back on wine - but there also is a substantial body of research showing that just the act of keeping an eye on something can bring about positive change. A 2007 Stanford University meta-study of pedometer use, for example, found that when people started to use one, they tended to walk about 25 per cent more.
Dedicated self-quantifiers tend to employ sophisticated data-gathering gadgetry, some of it expensive, but technological advances mean anyone with a smartphone and 99 cents can do a bit of self-quantifying of their own.
MyFitnessPal can track how many kilojoules you've consumed and how many you've burned on a daily basis, as well as whether you've consumed enough fibre, calcium and iron or whether you're over-doing the salt. To reap such rewards, however, you have to be committed to data entry. You can enter foods by drawing them from a database, scanning barcodes or entering your own info. Or enter recipes and it will calculate the number of kilojoules per serve.
There are apps that can quantify how stressed you are (such as the questionnaire-based Stress Check app) and how long it is likely to be before the caffeine you've consumed so far today is completely out of your system (Caffeine Zone 2 Lite).
There are also exercise-focused tracking apps, such as RunKeeper, that you can use to help maintain a pace during runs or walks, map where you've been or simply to track the number of steps you take. Others, such as Runtastic, even include cheering sounds.
Some monitoring apps, however, promise rather more than the technology can deliver. Meal Snap, for example, claims if you take a photo of what you're eating, it will "magically tell you what food was in your meal" and estimate how many kilojoules are in it.
So far, it has mistaken my coffee for hot chocolate and my pretzels for something called "heart muruku", and questioned whether a pastry being eaten by a colleague was actually food. Mind you, when I turned an objective eye on that lumpy thing, I could see its point. Meal Snap's value seems to be more in amusement.
Then there's Skin Scan, which promises to take photos of your moles and freckles and create a skin cancer risk assessment, but user reviews are scathing. Skin Scanner, on the other hand, keeps things more real: it's simply a means to document your freckles and moles, and monitor any changes over time.
So, self-quantify away and see if you can effect positive change. At the same time, buyer beware, or at least moderate expectations.
Apps are clever, but they're not magic.
1. Sleep Cycle (99 cents) Does what it says, easy to use, oddly fascinating.
2. Stress Check (free) Questionnaire-based, easy to use, a bit limited.
3. Meal Snap ($2.99) Amusing, if not actually useful.
4. RunKeeper (free) Sophisticated and motivating.
5. Skin Scanner (99 cents) Does not overpromise (unlike some of its competitors).
6. Caffeine Zone 2 Lite (free) Briefly enlightening.
7. MyFitnessPal (free) Best suited to obsessives.
8. Runtastic (free) Well-rated, suited to those who like external approval.