An Unwilling Participant: Why Collecting My Personal Health Data Is Annoying

A few weeks ago, I read the New Yorker piece “Stepping Out” by David Sedaris on his obsession with his FitBit. Since getting the device, Sedaris says he’s increased his daily steps taken to 65,000, far above the recommended 10,000 steps a day for good health, thanks to the FitBit’s constant documentation of his progress, reminders, and rewards in the form of badges.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a fan of Sedaris, but after reading the essay I briefly thought I should get a FitBit. If it motivated him, wouldn’t it motivate me? Then I remembered the drawer full of pedometers and Weight Watchers tracking devices I already own and the BodyBugg activity tracking and weight loss arm band I had given away because I never used it. Yes, I was the type of person Sedaris was referring to when he wrote:

“Others I met weren’t quite so taken. These were people who had worn one until the battery died. Then, rather than recharging it, which couldn’t be simpler, they’d stuck it in a drawer, most likely with all the other devices they’d lost interest in over the years.”

Before the quantified self movement (using technology and data to gather information about your daily life) had an official name, I dabbled in its lower tech precursors like old school wearable pedometers and tracking my food intake and weight loss on paper or via computer. But even when I got results, I could never keep it up and I was never sure why.

Well, once again I have been thrust into daily data tracking, this time unwillingly thanks to a recent diagnosis of gestational diabetes. My first pregnancy three years ago was full of complications, but diabetes was not one of them. This time I failed both my one hour and three hour glucose tests, earning myself a trip (along with follow-ups) to a dietitian and diabetes nurse educator.

When the diabetes educator asked me how I felt about being there I had one word, “Annoyed.” With my first baby I had issues with my blood pressure that turned into preeclampsia, a condition that is the leading cause of maternal death globally. This meant bed rest, home blood pressure monitoring, visits to my doctor twice a week, weekly non-stress tests, and biweekly ultrasounds. My blood pressure readings just kept getting worse and worse until I ended up having an emergency c-section. So needless to say I was hoping for no complications with this one, hence my annoyance with the diabetes diagnosis.

The educator reassured me that by keeping close track of my blood sugar and following the diet prescribed to me I could minimize complications. At least there are ways to keep this issue in check, I thought, unlike the preeclampsia, which takes whatever course it wants.

I knew from prior experience that collecting data didn’t always sit well with me. Sedaris mentioned that he thought the FitBit worked so well for him because he’s obsessive to begin with. The FitBit’s constant data collection and feedback inspire him to do better. I can also become obsessed with data, but in a negative way.

After my first pregnancy, I followed up with my primary care physician because my blood pressure had not come down to normal levels. When I showed him my blood pressure log, he took a deep breath and gently recommended I only take it twice a day. I had become so fixated on my blood pressure readings that I was checking them about six times a day. And when they were bad, that would cause me stress, which would cause them to rise, which would cause more stress, which would cause them to rise, etc.

Now I am checking my blood sugar four times a day, and again, keeping close track of those darn numbers. I also have to keep track of how many grams of carbohydrates I eat at each meal and what I ate.

After being given this task, I have come to some realization about why daily life data tracking has not worked for me in the past. Instead of seeing data and numbers as motivation, I see them as a source of stress. If my numbers are “bad,” I often want to give up and quit whatever life improvement project I’m on (except you can’t quit preeclampsia or diabetes like you can with walking or weight loss). Numbers cause all-or-nothing thinking for me.

Instead of looking at the total amount of weight lost or steps taken, I look at how I failed because I did not lose weight that week or reach my activity goals. Now I am wondering how I will feel if my blood sugar is too high at a reading. Will that set off the intense stress that my poor blood pressure readings did? And what will that stress do to my blood sugar levels? It could easily have a snowball effect and raise them along with my stress levels.

I’ve also realized there’s more to making lifestyle changes than just data. It requires time and effort and planning. Instead of just grabbing a snack when I feel like it, I now have to plan my snacks and check my blood sugar two hours after eating in addition to upon waking. I also have to keep a food and carbohydrate log. Data determines when and what I eat. It’s a lot more time and thought than just eating whatever, whenever. It requires being more rigid, which is hard for someone like me who takes more of a easy, breezy approach to daily scheduling.

So far, thanks to all my tracking and obsessing, my blood sugar numbers have been good. You’d think that would make me happy or willing to declare that all this recording of data is worth it. Instead, it makes me wonder, Do I really have gestational diabetes? Do I really have to do all this planning, poking of my finger to get glucose levels, and recording? I still do it because I know I have to for my health and the baby’s. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

If only someone sold a wearable device that could check my blood sugar without puncturing my finger four times a day and plan all my meals for me, I would probably buy it.

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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