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  • Writer's pictureHarjeet Cheema

Health: At Least You Have Your Stats

My last post may have seemed somewhat pessimistic, although it was designed simply to speculate on the changes that may be on the horizon. With this post, I’m hoping to strike a more positive note and discuss a couple of areas that are important to me personally, health & well-being, and analytics. It’s fair to say that a significant amount of the world’s population has been given a check on their own mortality, whether they were aware of it or not. So, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is interested in analytics and indeed increasingly so my personal health.

I certainly see the area of personal health to grow even quicker in the new normal. Personal health, and by that, I mean at an individual level has become increasingly accessible in recent years. This is down to the availability of data at an individual level, companies and apps taking the vast quantity of data that’s out there and making it sense for the consumer’s circumstances.

The proliferation of diets is a good example of this, 25 years ago, you either ate too much or too little. Now people have the subtle option of going for Atkins or Keto, or even a combination of diets, such as Keto combined with intermittent fasting. All of these are based on perceived individual needs and context, people are happy to drop entire food groups off the basis of an article or a rudimentary allergy test.

It’s become accessible to map your genes for pre-existing conditions in the comfort of your own home and receive results in a couple of months. This is something that was probably unimaginable for most of the population 10 years ago, and now an individual has the ability to place a wider context on their day to day health, nutrition, and fitness.

Like many, I have taken advantage of the one-hour outdoor slot to do some running during the lockdown. Something I always considered a chore. Despite regularly partaking in exercise and classes at my gym, the run portion was always the bit I loathed and needed to get out of the way. However, it’s much easier to get through these days facilitated by a combination of hardware and software. Lightweight headphones to play my favorite music, a plethora of apps to provide coaching programs, motivate, and guide me during my run. I can find meditation apps to calm me during my run if I so wished.

However, for me personally and I daresay others, the single most motivating factor I get is my stats. How long did my run take? What were my 1km splits? Where was I pushing harder? Where was I struggling? These can all be provided during and at the end of the run. Crucially they can be shared via social media. The tradeoff here? I’m letting the app monitor my movement and location so that I can see whether I am improving and getting fitter. Incidentally, the app is made by Nike, and I imagine as I hit a certain mileage I'll be 'recommended' a new set of trainers. Again, I am fine with that.

As much as the viral social media lockdown challenge 5km has been about donating to the NHS, many have been posting with a secondary nod to their times, as is human, with one user's 'world record' 12 minute 5km going viral for the wrong reasons. You can see a similar trend with regards to individual stats at elite sportsperson level, with stories of footballers contacting EA, disappointed in their individual ability stats on the game FIFA. Stats are becoming increasingly important in our personal fitness stories.

Serious cyclists and runners have been using tracking apps since the early days, and some now have years of data and breakdowns in their accounts and are working their hardest to shave off a half a second. Something that 10 years wouldn’t have been possible, has everyday runners and cyclists in the general population working to shave off 1 second from their personal best 5km. Why? Because they can measure it now.

This is a part of a trend where more ‘advanced’ analytics are making it down from elite sportspeople down to the everyday man. I think it’s likely that people will take more care of their health following the come down in the virus. I’d imagine there has been an increase already with the one-hour exercise window being made explicit to the population and one of the few things you can actually ‘do’.

While gyms are struggling at the moment, many have switched to virtual workouts. Some free provided by social media platforms others have taken their training and classes to zoom with coaches still providing guidance and getting feedback via video conferencing. Certainly, in the medium term, these are here to stay as gyms will face capacity challenges even as lockdown eases with social distancing here to stay to some extent. So how to stay in touch with members beyond video conferencing and social media likes? Data and measuring. One gym that has always had this ethos at heart is Foundry in London. Taking into account client goals from the outset and then providing regular individual measuring and plans on that basis, they’ve always used MyZone (A heart rate monitoring tool) but are now able to set challenges virtually to ensure that clients are still accountable for their goals, and the gym also for aiding deliver them, even with social distancing in place.

It would be surprising to find most gyms don’t follow up on this approach, beyond discussing your goals at the initial sales pitch you are left largely to your own devices. So, as we train from afar and possibly a blend in the future, this data led approach will be the way to go. Whilst at the moment we are at a stage we can monitor rudimentary stuff like the number of repetitions’ and maximum weight lifted and heart rate, there may come a time you can monitor movement data, power output and more to ensure technique is correct also. The quantity of hardware is likely to increase and come down in costs. How long before you see tracking vests that premiership footballers wear come down to your school or 5 a side level? The only challenge at the moment is cost and availability, the more insight you can glean the more you’ll want.

Vitamin and supplement sales have soared during this time also. When you have a virus with no known cure affecting different people in different ways there are very few controllables. But a sense of control is something that calms the human mind, so its natural people gravitate to improving their immune systems.

Taking vitamins these days isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago, people, have an understanding of what they need at an individual level. You can align this to diet, people are conscious of foods that may not be good for them but just fine for everyone else. This comes down to the wealth of information and data that is available out there, and there are companies now making sense of that and delivering that as a packaged tailored blend of vitamins to individual customers. Those genetic tests I mentioned at the outset are still perhaps just beyond the early adopter stage, but with the time and focus on health people have at the moment they are likely to become more mainstream.

At the top of this tree, you have health insurers and private health companies who have the ability to collect the largest number of users, through corporate relationships. One, for example, is Vitality, who for years, has been offering rewards and discounted gym memberships in return for steps and activity. in turn, lowering premiums for 'healthier' users courtesy of the data from an Apple watch. Again, delivering data to the everyday person. These wearables are only going to become more sophisticated, more accurate offering better quality data and a bigger variety. Everyday people will have access to their ‘stats’ and the motivation and ability to improve them.

The elephant in the room is the looming introduction of the proposed contact tracing app. It's proving controversial here in the UK, although other governments have planned to introduce something similar. Singapore was held up by many as a successful (initial) approach to Covid, app or not. This is a country with significant amount of information and control over its citizens. No-one is throwing a dart at a map and getting lucky, there will have to be some give on both sides.

There is a tradeoff here, to avoid a second spike and unfortunately, to guard against future pandemics, this may be something that’s here to stay. For the time being this app will offer the ability to report symptoms and recent movements. Its largely reactive, but over time and perhaps with other hardware innovations these types of apps will become more proactive, but the contract between government and user is critical in its adoption and subsequent evolution. Crucially the third parties that the government will have to involve have to be carefully selected and vetted. They must have the highest ethics and restraint as from a data perspective they will be getting the keys to the kingdom, an entire populations movement and interaction data.

One of the challenges we’ve seen with more serious health conditions, in the age of social distancing and lockdown people either haven’t been able to see their doctors or don’t want to go. Although in person diagnosis is still the mainstream, this is an area that AI has been looking at increasingly in recent times, using the wealth of data available in country health systems to aide doctors with diagnosis. A recent example being a report published this year showing that an AI augmented approach showed good results in diagnosing breast cancer. The vast quantities of people that dangerously google their symptoms to self-diagnose shows that it’s not a user behavior challenge, the tech just needs to provide a better ‘doctor’ at the back end and that’ll happen in time.

In time maybe the ecosystem will converge, and we may find people signing up to lifestyle services based on their individual backgrounds and goals. Perhaps it’ll be gyms that become platforms offering tiered services, from group zoom classes at an introductory low cost level to one on one in person classes at the top end, offering supplements and diet plans based at an individual level. Tying this together by providing the requisite hardware and software for clients to measure their progress no matter where they are. Or indeed the healthcare providers will push further to working at a government and corporate level on the health of its population and wrapping up all these services accordingly. If it wasn’t something you were aware of before, health will be something that you probably begin to check on a daily basis or is checked for you on an hourly basis.

As health rightly moves to the front of more of the population's mind, more people train, watch their diets, and get context on their wider health background the proliferation of data and information will increase. It’ll be up to the existing actors in this space, and new entrants to make sense of this and deliver it back to the individual and therein lies a great opportunity.

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