If “quantified self” gadgets are so powerful, why do our waistlines keep growing?

By Tanya Maslach (Founder, GOTRIbal)

In 2000, 1-in-10 people were obese. In 2012, it was 6-in-10. And at last count there were more than 40 separate techno-gadgets (not including the favorite bathroom scale), and tens of thousands of apps, that measured calories burned, steps taken, miles run, hours slept, perspiration dripped, and the precious beating of your heart as you drove in LA traffic.

If you ask Basis CEO, Jef Holove the question above, he’ll tell you “you just need to package the data in a way that changes a user’s behavior.” That’s what he shared at a recent SVForum on Sports and Technology when the question about how wearable technology would help more people lead healthier lifestyles came up. What role will “social” play in changing people’s unhealthy behaviors? At Basis, it is more about getting the “Single player” game right. In other words, give people the data, package it right, and they’ll be well informed decision-makers.

Relationships Beat Data?

Michelle R. (not her real name) would disagree.

She’s a woman whose life wasn’t changed by the wizardy of a quantified-self app or measure-everything-I-do wrist watch, but something more important. But what could be more important than knowing how many calories you’ve eaten, hours you’ve slept or how fast your heart rate is beating?

For most of us, it starts with a very human need – a relationship. I’ve seen hundreds of women (and men) around the world, from Kuwait to San Francisco, ask me more often for a personal introduction to a “person who’s a slow runner who doesn’t have time to train every single day and has a busy full-time job” than someone who asks me what watch I wear.

In Michelle’s case, it wasn’t just one relationship that changed her life’s trajectory. It was many of them. Michelle was 60 lbs overweight, part of the 63% of Americans who are so. She had high blood pressure. She was unhappily married to a man who rarely let her go visit with her friends and didn’t support her new fitness lifestyle.

Michelle participated in agility competitions with her Jack Russell terriers, and constantly suffered from pulled leg muscles, so she joined a gym to get more fit. She reluctantly took on one free personal trainer session and promptly told him not to tell her what to eat, when or how much. She had yo-yo dieted for years, and felt like she could teach Jillian Michaels a thing or two about nutrition. More data was not part of her get-fit-toolbox.

“All I wanted was to get more fit so I could do better running my dogs in their agility competitions,” says Michelle. What surprised her was where she found the motivation to continue her new lifestyle behaviors. “I found the human connections at the gym vital to my success. I never even learned most of the people’s names, but the smile or the wave or the ‘Where were you Tuesday?’ were all so motivating”. When Michelle left to move to another city, it was leaving this supportive, anonymous community that worried her the most.

Healthy Living Is Contagious

Drs. James Fowler (UCSD) and Nicholas Christakis (Harvard), authors of the best selling book Connected, know just how influential these social connections are for healthy living. “When we looked at the effect of distance, we found that your friend who’s 500 miles away has just as much impact on your obesity as [one] next door,” said Dr. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, an expert in social networks. In fact, “If a person you consider a friend becomes obese, the researchers found, your own chances of becoming obese go up 57%. Among mutual friends, the effect is even stronger, with chances increasing 171%.”

Michelle’s story ends happily. She did a handful of 10Ks in 2010, bought a bike and has been doing short and long-distance triathlons ever since 2010. When she couldn’t find the same community in her new city, whether at the gym or at the local triathlon club, she joined my online community GOTRIbal. “That became my support system to continue, a place I could ask questions and look for advice, what I call a safe place,” she says.

She has since taken on an Ironman triathlon – that’s 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running in one event.

Peer pressure isn’t so bad after all. It’s just about being connected to the right peers.

Do you agree that social connections beat data when it comes to getting fit?

Tanya SOMA raceAbout the guest blogger: Tanya is the founder of GOTRIbal, and its flagship product, Activebudz. Her company focuses on making awesome and meaningful connections happen that result in healthier, happier people the world over.