When I was a pleasantly plump 10-year-old, I joined Weight Watchers with my mom and my fifth-grade teacher (the details of that arrangement are for another time/therapy session). The program is based on logging points, a simpler form of counting calories, so I got pretty good at keeping track of my reduced-fat Triscuits and SnackWell's ('90s health foods!) while my fellow classmates enjoyed their Gushers and 3D Doritos.
But a lot has changed in the decades since, and Weight Watchers points are papyrus scrolls compared to the innovations that have led to the quantified self movement. Now there are apps and devices to track everything: steps! Calories eaten! Calories burned! Calories considered but ultimately avoided! Cervical mucous! Poops!
Zeroing in on the data that makes me me should result in a highly optimized existence -- as it stands, I'm floating through life ignorant of all the data I'm passively accumulating. That data could contain valuable clues about the inefficiencies that prevent me from reaching my fullest potential.
So I started collecting hard data on every single part of my life, thanks to some handy mobile apps. After a week, could I use the information to start on the path to a healthier, happier existence? In the absence of data, it's useless to speculate!
The apps I used
In case you're interested in accumulating your own data to live your best life, here are all the apps I used, some of them in conjunction with the Apple Health app already on my iPhone. I also rocked my Fitbit all week and used the corresponding app as a backup way to track steps, calories, water, and sleep.
MyFitnessPal: Tracks calories and exercise
Daily Water: Number of glasses of water consumed
UP Coffee: Amount of caffeine consumed
IntelliDrink: Alcohol consumed
Sleep Cycle: Hours slept, REM cycles
Pee Tracker: Color, amount and frequency of urine
Stool Log: Shape, texture, and length of bowel movements
Eve: Menstrual cycle
myPill: Birth control pills taken
Moodtrack: How you're feeling that day
Mr Mood: A super-simple version of how you're feeling that day
Day 1: My Fitbit doesn't believe me
I started on a Saturday, when I was visiting my parents in the suburbs of St. Louis. All health bets are off in the 'burbs: Alcohol and coffee flow more plentifully than water, there are no leafy greens in sight, and exercise is performed only under doctor's orders.
That day, perhaps because I was actively trying to prevent dehydration, I actually drank a lot of water (13 glasses!), so I ticked off the eight glasses recommended on Daily Water.
"Presumably the iPhone 10 will have a feature that allows you to pee directly on the phone."
This also means I peed a lot. With each urination, I noticed my color was light yellow, sometimes almost clear -- good signs, according to the app. I tended to pee a "normal" amount; Pee Tracker gives you five options for how much you pee: "few drops," "less," "normal," "more," "lot," but presumably the iPhone 10 will have a feature that allows you to pee directly on the phone to measure your stream in milliliters. Some of the transition to a quantified self requires relics of the way things used to be, when vague words were descriptors, instead of specific numbers.
While my food mostly consisted of whatever leftovers were in my parents' fridge, I managed to fit in a workout that day with my sister, who's a personal trainer and loves torturing me. We went to an Orangetheory class, which requires 20 minutes each of rowing, running, and floor/weight exercises.
My Fitbit only picked up on the steps I took on the treadmill, and nothing else -- if you row a fake oar in a fitness class, but no app is around to track it, did it really happen? When I went to plug in the other exercises into MFP, it also had no idea what I was talking about. Standing dumbbell upright rows? Burpees? Nothing was popping up; I logged a few sets of arm curls (close enough), frustrated that my actual hard work wasn't registering. I felt like such a slacker.
When I assessed my logs so far that evening, I realized I hadn't needed to use Stool Log all day. I don't think I pooped at all the day before, either. Uh-oh.
On the plus side, I hit my Fitbit-recommended 10,000 steps for the day, thanks mostly to my workout class from earlier and trips to and from the bathroom, probably.
Day 2: Back on (BM) track
After spending the morning searching for halfway-decent snacks in the St. Louis airport, I managed to fall asleep on the flight back. I awoke to a pleasant turn of events.
In the afternoon, I finally achieved BM victory. For the first time ever, I was hyper-aware of my stool, especially since two days had passed with no logs to log -- the Stool Log app has you track the shape based on the Bristol stool chart, and this first one was described as "sausage shaped in appearance, but lumpy." Oddly specific for a turd.
Have I been pooping for years and just ignoring what it looks like? Have I been disregarding this key element to my overall health? Type 2 is "obstipation-ish," according to the app, but I had no idea what that meant. Anything ending in "-ipation" can't be great, and Stool Log provides no dictionary. This is about data!
That evening, I logged another stool -- thanks, coffee and kombucha! -- and this time it was a Type 5, "a bit diarrhea-ish." I felt like the Goldilocks of poops; first it was too firm, then it was too soft. Would I ever get it juuuuusst right?
Day two was also the last day of my period, which I had been tracking with Eve. Aside from letting me know what was up with my hormones on the last day of my cycle, it also alerted me to when I could expect my next period -- the week of my wedding. Fan-fucking-tastic.
Not giving prior attention to my cycle made me feel like a failure as a woman. Before apps, people tracked their cycles with a calendar... on paper!
I'm on birth control, so I know I can just expect my period at the end of the pill pack, but seeing the stats right in my face made me decide to rebel and skip the placebo week of my upcoming pack. Will my uterus fall out? Maybe, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.
The sudden doubt over my reproductive system made me even more anxious for my upcoming wedding than I already was. So I logged my anxiety in both the Mr Mood and Moodtrack apps.
I can sleep through a nuclear war and am a monster when woken too soon.
Birth control is a wonderful invention that unfortunately can be difficult to remember to take. What if you also had to remember to log into an app the fact that you remembered to take it? Would that create a virtuous cycle of remembering?
Now is probably a good time to mention that I forget to take my birth control on time -- a lot. Fortunately, it's quite possible my ovaries don't work properly, but that's a tale for yet another time/therapy session.
I used myPill to log that I took The Pill, but it's actually a great reminder app, letting you know the effectiveness window in case you forget to take it at the exact same time every day. Even though setting a notification to take your birth control is something women have been doing since the first Nokia brick phones came with alarms, I personally can never have too many reminders.
Day 3: BTW, I'm actively trying not to get pregnant
Monday means back to my regular work schedule. Instead of my usual iPhone alarm clock, I used Sleep Cycle to assess my quality of sleep, and wake me up at the perfect moment in my REM cycle.
I was skeptical of the app, since I can sleep through a nuclear war and am a monster when woken too soon, but it worked; I was gently woken up with a soothing chime sound within the 30-minute time frame I requested. I felt refreshed! And, per my Fitbit, I actually got quality sleep, something I was convinced I never get, though again, what about the quantity? Why use an app to tell me something I could tell myself?
I still needed coffee -- it was Monday, after all. UP Coffee helped me zero in on exactly how much caffeine I was ingesting, and what I could have before I became "wired." Except that I hardly ever feel wired from caffeine, so I wasn't totally buying the app's guesstimate -- after three cups, I was getting dangerously close, but still yawning, so what happened to that quality sleep I supposedly got? Were the quality sleep and caffeine thresholds somehow... less than accurate? How could this be?
I assumed these questions held the key to a flawless sex life.
My fiancé was out of town for his bachelor party, so we were, um, excited to see each other when he returned. Glow is helpful for tracking fertility, but it can also be used if you're actively trying to avoid getting pregnant.
I'm always at a point in my life when I don’t want to be pregnant. Glow wants all the deets to help me maintain my unpregnant condition: Did you have sex? Which protection did you use? (It cheers you on for avoiding pregnancy -- wahoo!) In what position did he ejaculate? Wait, does that even matter? Does gravity really serve as birth control? Was there a female orgasm? Are you experiencing any spotting?
I assumed these questions held the key to a flawless sex life.
Then, there's an entry for a cervical mucus check, which I've been doing since I'm a professional committed to this assignment. I'd honestly never thought twice about the mucus secreted from my cervix before, because I have other things going on in my life, but tracking it opened my eyes to what really goes on in my lady parts. This app also asks for physical symptoms usually associated with menstruation and pregnancy: acne, bloating, cramps, nausea, hot flashes. I answered as best as I could, hoping all roads would lead to "you'll never, ever get pregnant."
Days 4 & 5: Less than a week, and I want to quit
Food journaling has been a proven tactic to lose weight and keep it off, but that's probably because people get so sick of logging their food, they just give up eating entirely.
I was sick of measuring, looking up, and tracking every calorie that passed through my lips. It didn't make me want to eat less or exercise better portion control; it made me want to cheat on my food diary. YOU'RE STIFLING MY INDIVIDUALITY, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT WOULD HAPPEN WHEN I RAN INTO THOSE BROWNIES?! Logged "annoyed" in Moodtrack.
It was around this time that I realized that Moodtrack wasn't the private diary I'd expected. I should have paid more attention to the app before I started baring my soul, because a few days in, a stranger "liked" my mood when I was "stressed from wedding-planning drama."
Moodtrack wasn't just for my own personal reflection; it was a social media platform. Someone else out there felt my pain, and maybe I should find solace in that, or maybe I should be a little less glib about sharing my emotions with a hastily vetted app.
Day 6: Either there are some patterns, or I'm John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
While logging every action I took was tedious and battery-draining, I was starting to appreciate the patterns. For example, on days when I worked out, I had more energy, even after only a few hours of sleep. On days I ate lots of vegetables, I had really healthy-looking stools. Go figure.
I was also getting better about taking my medication on time. Medisafe will annoy the hell out of you with constant reminders and alarms to take your pills, so I was basically bullied into taking my prescriptions on time each day... wonder if it'd be more or less popular by changing the name to "Nurse Ratched"?
Day 7: Tracking booze gives you the option of being more (or less) responsible
So far, I had used every app with regularity, no matter how much of a pain in the ass it was. Except for one: IntelliDrink. I'd been making a huge effort to watch my alcohol intake, but based on how my moods were looking on Moodtrack, it was time for me to unwind that weekend.
I had plans to meet up with some friends, which obviously involved drinking, what are friends for? After a tough spin class and not a lot of time for food that day, I checked MyFitnessPal before heading out that evening -- only 500 calories. Yikes. I grabbed an RXBAR on my way (another 200 calories), and hoped for the best.
The app also lets you know when you'll be sober again, and this was telling me not until 4:22am.
Here's something you probably didn't need an app to tell you: Drinking on just 700 calories is less than wise. IntelliDrink estimates your blood alcohol content based on which alcoholic beverages you drink, how long you take to finish them, and the contents of your stomach: empty, half, or full, which, like so many of the descriptors used by other apps, seem wildly imprecise. There's also an alarm to alert you when your blood alcohol content reaches a certain amount that you decide, which I skipped because I like to be surprised.
After a little over an hour and three drinks total, my BAC reached almost the legal driving limit: 0.076%. I wanted to stay somewhat responsible, so I slowed down before I grabbed something to eat. In the hands of an evildoer, of course, the app could be used to see just how high that BAC number can go before you get put in a cab, but that is obviously inadvisable for a number of reasons.
My BAC hovered around the 0.08% mark for most of the evening, which is probably the most responsible I've ever been while out drinking. The app also lets you know when you can expect to be sober again, and this was telling me not until 4:22am.
Since I was technically still under the influence, and starving by the time I got back to my neighborhood, I capped the night with a visit to my local diner. This time, I didn't care how many calories my chicken fingers and fries were -- I devoured them, MFP be damned.
Finishing the experiment: Have I become a better person?
While racking my calories, my poops, my pees, my birth control, my exercise, my sleep, my caffeine, my cervical mucus, my period, my fertility, my mood, and my booze may sound like it would reveal the unplumbed depths of my soul, it was more annoying than anything else. Which, writing it out like that, I probably should've seen coming.
Keeping track of your habits may be genuinely helpful to some people, especially when it comes to things like losing weight. But "tracking" doesn't tell you much -- if an app says you slept well, does it change how you feel about your night? If your pee is too yellow, or your poop too hard, can't you assess that on your own?
And then there's the creepiness factor. When it comes to my mood, urine, feces, menstrual cycle, and sex life, well, there are some things better left alone -- out of sight, out of mind, and off my phone.
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