Why "Quantified Self" is bullshit

By Dick Talens , written on September 5, 2013

From The News Desk

There’s been increasing chatter hailing "Quantified Self" devices as an easy cure to America’s surging waistline. Devices like Fitbit, Nike Fuel, and Jawbone Up are becoming more advanced and, the thinking goes, going to save us from obesity, which was caused by our voracious appetites and food choices (like chowing down double cheeseburgers and fries).

I’ve been immersed in fitness for a decade and witnessed hundreds (if not thousands) of fitness transformations. As a coach who’s been part of many of these life-altering metamorphoses, including my own, I’m here to tell you that Quantified Self is no solution to America’s weight problem. It's merely a feel good fairy tale, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

Let's take a look at why this is.

First off, most of today’s Quantified-Self devices get users to “move more.” In reality, however, “moving more” does little to affect a person’s weight. One meta-analysis examining cardio concluded that “isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy.”

How can increasing activity have such little impact? After all, it’s often said that obesity’s rise can be attributed to a more sedentary America, and our burning fewer calories is responsible for our collective double chins.

As it turns out, this is not entirely true. When you account for increases in body mass, Westerners today burn just as much energy as indigenous hunter-gatherer populations.

A lack of caloric expenditure is not the issue; devices that focus on helping people “move more” don’t address the right problem.

Okay, here’s another perhaps surprising truth. "Getting fit" is not a data problem. Technologists seem to reduce obesity’s solution to a codified program of eating less and moving more. One VC went so far as to tell me that, with enough advancement in technology, we’ll get a perfect view of "calories in" vs. "calories out."

After all, weight loss is as easy as creating a caloric deficit, right?

Unfortunately, human beings are not static equations. Our bodies have a remarkable way of fighting to remain the same weight.

"If weight loss were as simple as eat less, move more, the world would be skinny," says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of one of the largest behavioral weight management programs in Canada and author of the upcoming book "The Diet Fix."

From a pure physics standpoint, losing weight is about creating a caloric deficit. In reality, though, there’s endless complexity around psychology, environment, and physiology at play.

Let’s look at the example of Jane, a New York entrepreneur currently traveling to the West Coast to raise a round of venture funding for her company’s Series A. She’s on a diet and simply trying to eat fewer calories than she needs. She’s hungry (she only had a salad all day), stressed, and finds herself sitting at a restaurant.

Luckily, the restaurant’s menu has all of the caloric information available, and Jane has been tracking calories today. She knows that she needs 400 more calories to hit her target of 1,600 calories.

She spots a delicious, decadent piece of “Molten Chocolate Cake” on the menu, worth a total of 1,000 calories. Jane knows how many calories she needs to hit her day’s target and sees how many calories are in that cake – 600 more than she needs.

Do you really think that Jane will automatically make the right decision, just because she has perfect data?

You see, perfect data is often useless when human emotions are involved. Jane isn’t alone – chances are you’ve attempted a fitness regimen and fallen prey to temptation.

Fitness isn’t an arithmetic problem. Neither is it a technology problem.

Fitness is a human problem.

If I could point to one fallacy that trips up people attempting a fitness regimen, it’s the belief that “every little healthy thing adds up."

Quantified Self adherents claim if we measure and manage our numerous health-related metrics, we can improve our overall health. After all, tracking and maintaining our blood pressure, blood sugar, stress, weight, body fat percentage, steps taken, and exposure to cat pictures, will obviously make us live healthier lives, no?

But health doesn’t work like that. You cannot tally up “health points” any more than you can tally up Starks and Lannisters [NOTE: That was an obligatory "Game of Thrones" reference, because I'm a geek.] Measuring every aspect of your life does not necessarily lead to better health. In fact, the illusion of “healthiness” may be detrimental.

That’s because health is a complex system. Every “healthy activity” has an impact on other activities and the system as a whole. Some activities may be healthy in isolation but make you worse off in the grand scheme of things.

Let’s dive into this a bit more.

You have a limited amount of resources to spend on fitness – your time, money, and willpower, to name a few. Everything you do around fitness is cost constrained by these resources. Additionally, everything you do around fitness also yields a return on investment to your health.

Some of these activities, like cardio, are low ROI for many people. Others, like substituting soda with a calorie-free beverage, yield a high ROI. All of these are constrained by the same “fitness budget.”

Sure, it might seem like a good idea to track daily hugs given to lower your blood pressure. However, doing so will tap into the same resources that it takes to go to the gym. Or to say no to that piece of cake.

You may have heard of a recent study that made waves on NBCand other news outlets stating that “every little bit of exercise adds up.” As it turns out, though, the media widely misinterpreted the facts. NBC, for example, states that one can reap benefits of exercise from everyday household chores like waxing your car and cleaning your house.

I asked the editors of, an independent, non-biased site that often debunks health myths, about the interpretation of this study by the media. In reality, the study states the exact opposite and concludes that lower intensity activity has no impact on improving body mass index or obesity risk.

When I see people fail on their fitness regimens, it’s not because they couldn’t simply “eat less and move more.” Rather, it’s because they couldn’t see beyond the oversimplification of “eat less, move more.”

In my decade of obsessing over what makes people succeed at fitness, I can pinpoint a few common things that successful folks carried. I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t a Fitbit.

What successful people carry are humility, curiosity, and self-compassion. These human qualities allow people to see technology as it’s used best -- a tool for empowerment.

They use technology to join communities, learn about evidence-based exercise and nutrition, track their progress, and create long lasting habits. Technology is not an end but a means to an end.

If you want to succeed in fitness, learn about the basics of nutrition and exercise. Question everything, because common knowledge is rife with bias and misinformation -- such as my example above on cardio and weight loss. Look for people who have succeeded before and find out what they did. For the majority of fitness aspirers that need to lose weight, the combination of a caloric deficit, higher protein intake, and a high-ROI fitness regime, such as strength training, will do the trick.

Succeeding in fitness, as I mentioned earlier, is not a data problem. It's a human problem.

It only makes sense that the solution is a human one, too.

[Image via Vintage Printable]