Did you take another walk around the block just to reach your goal of 10,000 steps? Professor Heikki Tikkanen explains whether it was worth it – and how the self-tracking boom can be made use of in health care and research.
- Text by Ulla Kaltiala | Pictures Raija Törrönen
Professor of Sports and Exercise Medicine Heikki Tikkanen comes in for the interview directly from his morning run. He looks at his smart watch that tells him how many steps he’s taken, how many calories he’s burnt and what his heart rate variation during the run was. Like Tikkanen, more and more people are measuring and tracking their well-being either for fun or to benefit from data. However, researchers and health care professionals, too, are interested in health-related self-tracking data.
Am I getting enough exercise and sleep? Am I eating right? Do I stress too much? How well do I recover from exercise? Smart devices and applications not only measure our well-being, but they also give us feedback and tips on how to change our habits.
“For many, they can give a boost to exercise more, for example. Self-tracking can be motivating, but data from consumer-grade devices shouldn’t be trusted blindly,” Tikkanen says.
Data from consumer-grade devices shouldn’t be trusted blindly.
Heikki Tikkanen, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine
Indeed, the requirements set for consumer-grade well-being technology and for data gathered by such devices are not as stringent as those set for medical technology used in health care settings to support the treatment of patients.
“Yet, they can give a rough idea of one’s well-being. They are also useful in revealing any false ideas many have about their daily physical activity.”
Tikkanen has worked as the team physician for many national athletic teams in Finland, and he still remembers the breakthrough of heart rate monitors in the World Athletics Championships in Helsinki in 1983. Back then, hardly anyone could fathom the multitude of well-being devices one day available to everyone, thanks to advances in information, mobile and sensor technology.
Step count is an easy measure of physical activity. However, the daily goal of 10,000 steps has been invented by pedometer manufacturers – it’s not an official recommendation or a research-based critical threshold for health benefits. Different studies show that taking 6,000–7,000 steps every day can reduce the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome; however, any additional steps will of course help with weight management.
“In addition to the step count, walking speed also matters. Taking those 10,000 steps in one hour is a good achievement,” Professor Heikki Tikkanen says.
Source: 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report
Self-tracker – ideal health care customer?
Could a physician treat me better by making use of my self-tracking data?
“At least the physician should know what the patient is tracking. It is true that people seek medical attention due to abnormalities reported by their smart devices, such as a high heart rate.”
Self-trackers can be seen as ideal health care customers, if self-tracking makes them assume more responsibility for their own health and disease prevention. In the future, more and more health care customers will give health care professionals access to their self-tracking data. This is already being prepared in the Terveyskylpylä specialised health care portal by enabling the transfer of data from specific devices. Primary health care, on the other hand, has witnessed weight management coaching that makes use of self-tracking data on customers’ step counts, sleep and weight.
In many diseases, at-home measurements such as ECG and sleep recordings, blood pressure measurements and peak flow tests for patients with asthma have been in use for a long time already. Today’s remote measurement applications also send reminders to patients and transfer the results directly to the clinic.
“In people with diabetes, we are seeing a shift from blood glucose tests to implanted tissue glucose sensors that provide real-time information. There are already visions of automated dosing of insulin on the basis of sensor data. In other words, a combination of measurement and treatment,” Tikkanen says.
“At-home monitoring provides long-term data on health, which isn’t necessarily possible to get during a one-time measurement in a hospital. There is plenty of potential in this field, and new, increasingly sophisticated measurement methods can become available for at-home diagnostics of neurological disorders, for example.”
However, Tikkanen emphasises that new health technology solutions have a long road ahead of them before they end up in clinical use.
“These new solutions need to prove that they reliably and safely measure what they are supposed to measure, and that their costs to patients and health care systems aren’t greater than their benefits.”
Data for researchers
What are the things someone interested in well-being should keep track of?
“Step counts and daily physical activity in general. Those are easy to measure and change,” Tikkanen notes.
Some studies suggest that activity trackers, heart rate monitors and other well-being devices not only motivate the user to make lifestyle changes, but also increase the user’s confidence in being headed in the right direction. Researchers, on the other hand, are interested in self-tracking not only in the context of health promotion, but also as a tool for collecting health-related data.
Researchers are interested in self-tracking not only in the context of health promotion, but also as a tool for collecting health-related data.
“For instance, when we study the effects of exercise on health, it is important to have reliable data on physical activity and sedentary time. Sensors will reveal whether a person really went jogging, and they also make it possible to collect real-time data from large cohorts,” Tikkanen says.
According to him, by combining self-tracking data with the unique data available in Finnish health care registers and gene and biobanks, it could be possible to gain new insight into the links between lifestyles, genes and health.
“Self-tracking data is at its most useful when combined to other data. We can look at the step count of 10,000 people, but we can’t really do much with that information if we don’t know anything else about them.”
People’s use of well-being applications does, however, generate vast amounts of anonymous data for service providers. As research material, this data could shed light on well-being trends, but without any guarantees of data quality or sample representativeness.
“It is important that researchers study health technology and develop it in collaboration with companies operating in the field.”
New self-tracking devices are introduced to the markets all the time, but what kind of a device would the Professor of Sports and Exercise Medicine still like to see? Tikkanen has an answer ready: “A device that would measure daily happiness and joy. Those are needed on top of everything else.”