Note to startups: Don’t forget the ‘skinny jeans’ health trackers

Just a minority of people may use smartphone apps and gadgets to track their activity, heart rate and diet, but that doesn’t mean many more aren’t going old-school when it comes to benchmarking their health.

Some keep track of their diet, exercise or health conditions with notebooks and journals. And, said Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, others may measure their wellbeing in even more simplistic but still very tangible ways — like the fit of their favorite clothing. As the gadget- and app-enabled self-tracking trend grows, Fox’s observation shows that the distance between what people may do already and the new tools that could help them do it better isn’t as long as some may think.

In a post this week describing presentations she’s recently given, she said:

I don’t think of myself as a self-tracker. I don’t own a FitBit or a Zeo. I run, but I don’t track my mileage or my pace. I don’t even own a scale, relying on that time-honored measurement – do I fit into my skinny jeans?

Giving a sneak preview of an upcoming study from Pew and the California HealthCare Foundation, she said that 7 in 10 Americans could actually be considered self-trackers.

Specifically, the survey found:

  • 60 percent of Americans track their weight, diet or exercise routine
  • One-third of American adults track health indicators or symptoms, like blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches, or sleep patterns
  • One-third of people caring for a loved one track a health indicator for that individual
  • Half track on a regular basis and half track when something changes or a need arises
  • One-fifth of self-trackers use an app, device, spreadsheet or website and one-third use a notebook or journal

Self-tracking can lead to real results

After a 2010 Pew study that included a few questions about using online tools for self-tracking, Fox told me that she listened to feedback from others in the health field who pointed out that, defined broadly, “self-tracking” isn’t a new or fringe phenomena.

The so-called “Quantified Self” movement, which celebrates the measurement of an individual’s each and every micro activity, may be male dominated. But citing health science strategist Carol Torgan, Fox said every woman who tracks her menstrual cycle is a self-tracker, as are men and women who monitor, even casually, their blood pressure or weight.

The Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands (s NKE) and other health-tracking apps and devices are certainly gaining traction (see disclosure below), but many people still see that kind of self-monitoring as needless naval-gazing or just a plain hassle.  The challenge for health innovators isn’t just to target analytics junkies eager to track every bodily function, it’s to show average people, as well as those with chronic health conditions, how new tools can enhance the tracking that they’re already used to. There are certainly apps and tools out there trying to do this – apps for weight loss, fitness and women’s fertility, for example – but there’s still plenty of room to get even more people engaged in tracking their health.

For those who are healthy, and those who have chronic conditions but don’t take advantage of health monitoring tools, self-tracking can have very real benefits. The Pew Internet/California HealthCare Foundation survey found that 34 percent of self-trackers said data collection affected a health decision, 40 percent said it prompted them to ask a doctor new questions or seek a second opinion and 46 percent said it changed their overall approach to health.

“At the top of the pyramid are the Quantified Selfers and that’s a fine, lucrative market — there are businesses being built on that small percentage of pioneers. But if you want to build a broad-based business, then you need to be able to understand and segment the broader base [of people],” said Fox. “It’s a question of can we inspire people to upgrade their engagement.”

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Image by VictoriaCartwright via Shutterstock.