The main problem with tracking physical health is its measurement. How do you formally define health and express it in numbers? What comprises physical health? After years of experimenting with different health metrics, I finally opted for two simple ways to track my health on a daily basis. In this post, I will share some thoughts, findings, and recommendations on what you can use to track your physical wellness and how often.
Tracking Physical Health is Not That Simple
When it comes to tracking health, most of the apps and gadgets out there confuse “health” with “healthy living”. The number of steps taken, calories burned and activity levels, captured by modern fitness trackers are not a representation of your health as a “state of being healthy”. They are simply capturing your attempts at improving your health. But if you are to compare yourself before and after months of long walks, trips to the gym and eating healthy – what numbers would you look at?
What single number would you put on your life’s scoreboard?
Over the course of several years, I have looked at some common and not very common ways to track my physical wellbeing, including:
- body weight
- body fat
- heart rate
- body temperature
- blood pressure
- oxygen saturation
- ph levels
- general blood tests
- subjective rating
- presences and severity of symptoms
When evaluating these metrics, I focused on two most important characteristics: comprehensiveness (how well does this metric captures overall health) and trackability (how easy and affordable is to track this metric continuously and on a regular basis). Some of these metrics I have been tracking for months, others were given a couple of tries or abandoned almost immediately.
Weight and Body Fat as Indicators of Health
When we talk about health, weight is the first thing that comes to mind for most people. Indeed, body weight and its derivatives (e.g., body mass index) have been shown to be significant predictors of long-term physical wellbeing. It is also extremely easy to measure and track on a daily basis, and I have been tracking it for a long time – but as an indicator of physical fitness, not health.
The problem with using weight as an indicator of health is that it does not (at least for me) capture certain nuances of my wellbeing, like the manifestation of specific ailments (e.g., acid reflux or foot pain) or symptoms. If I look at the chart of my weight, will I be able to differentiate between the days when I was down with a bad cold from the days when I was healthy? Not really.
The same applies to body fat and flexibility – metrics that I try to track on a regular basis (but not as diligently as the main set of life indicators), but only as a part of the fitness protocol. I will discuss them in a separate post.
Heart Rate and Body Temperature as Metrics of Health
I have been looking into heart rate as a way to track physical health for a long time. When I just started self-tracking, there were no devices that were capable of tracking heart rate continuously (I used Bodymedia at that time as my main body tracker). So I tracked my heart rate using Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate app and body temperature with the bluetooth digital thermometer. Despite the semi-automatic nature of these tools, my measurements were sporadic and irregular. I did find some interesting links between the heart rate and physical and mental performance while experimenting with the orthostatic test. The heart rate showed also great potential for detecting food sensitivities. But eventually, I abandoned these metrics as inconvenient and time-consuming.
The blood pressure (which I tracked using the Withings monitor) was abandoned for the same reasons.
Over the past several years, trackers have evolved considerably, and it is now possible to track body temperature and heart rate continuously. I recently ordered my Oura ring and look forward to playing with its data and their potential for tracking physical health.
Using Blood Tests to Measure Physical Health
I found blood tests to be expensive, inconvenient and unsuitable for tracking on a regular basis. The most positive experience I had was with Inside Tracker test which gives you stats on a large number of biomarkers. As for Talking 20 – I don’t even want to talk about it (pun intended).
I also looked into oxygen saturation (can be tracked using simple pulse oximeters) and glucose levels (can be tracked using mobile glucose readers) but found both metrics to be too narrow as indicators of overall physical health. The same applies to ph levels (I used saliva-based PH testing strips – you can also look into more advanced urine-based strips that can track changes in glucose, ketones, protein, nitrites, leukocytes and other markers).
Two Simple Ways to Track Physical Health
Ultimately, I settled on two metrics that I take several times throughout the day to capture the current state of physical health at any moment.
The first metric is quantitative. It is a simple 5-point scale in rTracker that rates my current physical health as related to the quality of life and presence of symptoms:
1 = Sick
3 = Distracting
5 = Healthy
In a single number, I can capture the fact that I experienced some symptoms or health conditions. Most importantly, I can capture their effect on my life and productivity. Some symptoms can be ignored, others can be simply distracting, and there may be instances when symptoms are affecting my current state seriously.
Of course, such an approach to measuring physical health is definitely not perfect. There are many illnesses that do not have symptoms and can be only detected by means of blood analysis, MRI/CAT or thorough physical examination. But overall, this is the only way to track physical health that works best for me at this point.
The second metric is qualitative. It’s a text box in my rTracker where I record all the symptoms or conditions that were reflected in the scale:
I can analyze such qualitative data using text analytics software. Some insights (like word clouds) do not require programming skills and can be performed by anyone.
Both metrics are simple, straightforward and take less than 10 seconds to record.
By taking snapshots of health throughout the day and averaging the values, I can get my average daily health numbers. This is, for example, how my February looked so far in terms of physical health:
I can drill further down and look at the relationship between my physical health and other life metrics that I collect on a daily basis, compare health and symptoms by days of the week, months, and slice and dice that health data in many other ways. The possibilities are endless.
Finally, there is a bonus: by tracking my physical health, I am building a habit of constantly listening to my body and maintaining awareness of my physical state. Living consciously – by the numbers!