Tiffany Jenkins: Health? There’s an app for that

Going out for a run or exercising the dog are ideal activities for the Apple Watch to monitor. Picture: Getty
Going out for a run or exercising the dog are ideal activities for the Apple Watch to monitor. Picture: Getty
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INCREASED popularity of health-tracking apps for smartphones and smartwatches take physical monitoring too far, argues Tiffany Jenkins

It is with fondness that I remember my first watch, received as a present when I turned seven years old. This timepiece proved to everyone, as far as I was concerned, that I was no longer a little girl – I could tell the time all on my own.

I stuck out my arm at every opportunity to show off the small round face and red leather wristband. But the constant use, together with the rough and tumble of life, ensured the watch didn’t last long. It stopped ticking when the face was inevitably smashed.

Like many people, I haven’t worn a watch for years. When I need to check the time, I consult my smartphone and then get sucked in, into emails, social networking, news, and there goes at least 15 minutes – if not more.

Of course, I could be disciplined and just check the time, once, and then put it down, back in my bag, but that’s wishful thinking: the allure of the smartphone is too great. It is a portal that consumes time, rather than informing you of the time.

And with the arrival of the new Apple Watch, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

The watch has been described by Apple as “our most personal device yet”. The company hopes it will revolutionise the wearable tech market in the same way iPhones shook up the mobile phone market.

I admit to mixed feelings about the product: the return of the timepiece for one’s wrist is welcome, and it’s stylish, but from the looks of it this device will end up as the next stage in tech-tyranny. More of our time will be lost to it. And not just lost – monitored and regulated. This watch is far too personal. It will wear us out.

Because with this new device, not only can you check the time and update your status, you can count calories, check your heart rate, and chart, in the words of company promotional material, your “all-day activity goals”.

The Apple Watch will count how many steps you take, wherever you go, walking the dog, going up the stairs, or running in the park. “Made to measure the many ways you move” is how the company promotes it. And the watch will remind you to work on your goals, when you start slacking – if you sit around for too long, it will tell you to stand up and get moving, like a personal trainer on your wrist, nagging all day and night.

It’s the next stage in the development of health and medical apps. Already, such apps for smartphones and tablets are proliferating. Supposedly, they promote good health – physical and mental.

Many of these devices are wearable and offer continuous physical monitoring, including the fetal heartbeat in pregnancy, heart rate, and even oxygen in the blood. They are said to help weight loss, control food allergies, aid self-diagnosis for all kinds of diseases, manage pain and measure other medical conditions. Blood-pressure cuffs are in the pipeline that will be connected to your smartphone. Google is developing a contact lens sensor that monitors blood sugar concentrations. Some apps are endorsed by the NHS. Like having doctor on call all the time. Sort of. These wearable devices will soon be watching us 24/7. It’s a little troubling.

That mobile technology allows us to track these metrics better doesn’t mean that we should. What could possibly be wrong with doing so? If it is really necessary, I would prefer a person instead of a watch checking up on me.

And if it’s not urgent, and that applies to most of those who will wear these products, they just enable us to be more narcissistic. We already spend too much of our time looking inwards, not outwards, on our computers and our tablets, on ourselves, rather than on others and our surroundings.

We complain about objectification when it comes to advertising, especially in relation to how women are depicted, but don’t worry enough when it comes to the constant promotion of the fit and healthy person, as if it is something we should all aspire to be no matter what. But even if it were that easy, and it’s not, it’s not necessarily a good ideal – and it may come at a cost. For everyone, not just those that fail to be healthy.

Our future reliance on health apps is something that concerns professionals such as Dr Des Spence, a GP in Glasgow, who recently argued in the British Medical Journal that not only were they “untested and unscientific” but that they opened the door of uncertainty.

“Make no mistake: Diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people,” he wrote. Dr Spence is worried about those of us who are healthy, but obsessed with being more so – the worried well. These apps make us feel sick, when we aren’t particularly, is his point. And we enjoy life less as a result.

It’s also worth considering who else will use this information. Employers have become interested in health apps as a way to encourage “healthy choices” by workers and cut down on sick days. BP has been giving US employees the app Fitbits for a few years to measure their steps. But I don’t want my boss to know much I move about at work or at home.

You could say that a healthy and aware generation is an improvement on those who came before us, who drank, smoked, and sat their way to an early grave, although that is somewhat overstated. But before we flatter ourselves at how far we have come, we should also question whether we are not encouraging a generation of health obsessives, who monitor every move they make, assessing the health benefits rather than the enjoyment of living. The Apple Watch will count how many calories you burn playing with your children, but what about just hanging about with your kids because it’s joyful?

Data like this can miss what is really important.

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