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Objective data using wearable tech...the future

I have worn my fitbit for 2 weeks now and I am obsessed. Each time I have to take it off to charge it, I am torn; I don’t want to lose that data. I cannot wait to see how my sleep patterns change with the seasons and how my heart rate adapts to different types of exercise; not to mention how all of those things change with age! I believe wearable technology is a great unobtrusive way to collect objective data about patients and research subjects for medical care and clinical studies, respectively. If nothing else, measurements about sleep, exercise, and heart rate can help report lifestyle data that may otherwise be skewed when self-reported. One of the first things I noticed when looking at my fitbit data is how much I had previously overestimated the amount of sleep I was getting and the time I was keeping my heart rate up at the gym. It’s definitely easy to round those numbers up or down to make yourself feel better, but the hard data forces you to acknowledge your daily habits and is a more tangible data set for research.

A recent feature in Nature brought my attention to other types of technological updates for collecting lifestyle data. The Centre for Time Use research have a collection of diaries recording people’s daily activities in 30 minutes increments. These studies were initiated in 1961 by the BBC to help design their television programming schedule with a better understanding of their audience’s daily availability. Similar daily diaries have been collected since documenting the evolving lives of the population over the past 50 years. These data are part of an enormous archive that is being used by social scientists to understand the way people are spending their days and how that has changed with time. Epidemiologists are also using these data to see how the changes correlate with chronic disease prevalence. 

The modernization of the daily diary includes an accelerometer to track activity and a wearable camera that snaps photos a few times a minute, all day, capturing images of how you are actually spending your time. Researchers are hoping this data will offer additional details that people may forget to record in the self-reported diary. Helen Pearson, author of the Nature feature, tests out this new technology and reports on her experience in a great article that I highly recommend. Although this data seems like it has the potential for subjective interpretation, it is an interesting approach to acquiring objective data describing a person’s life. I hope all the big data crunchers are ready for what they have coming to them!


Pearson, H. The lab that knows where your time really goes. Nature. 526; 492-496 (2015)

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