The Examined Life

Clue appThe New York Times had a piece this week on the way women are using apps such as Clue to track their periods. The Guardian had a similar one on fertility trackers.

Some years back, before the rise of apps and such, I did something similar using a chart I made on notebook paper. I catalogued such things as my menstrual cycle, my mood, my weight, my emotional state, and the like to understand how my cycle affected my life.

It was very useful to me. Among other things, I discovered that my outlook in the days leading up to my period was negative and distorted, which taught me to avoid making decisions then. I also figured out that in mid-cycle, when I was probably ovulating, I felt generally good and very creative.

One other key thing: I discovered that if I had to do something important – like, say, pick a jury – during the throes of PMS or while suffering from cramps on the first couple of days of my period, I could do it. It made things more stressful, but not impossible.

I would have loved an app that registered much of the data automatically and provided me with a chart of this information.

As with the information gleaned by fitness trackers and similar devices, this data can be valuable to others beyond the individual user. The Times article points out that women can gather accurate information on their cycles and provide it to doctors and to scientists studying menstruation and other aspects of women’s reproductive health.

Not only will that prove useful in developing reasonable treatments for some problems associated with menstrual cycles, it will also help in developing social policy. For example, several states are now looking to remove sales taxes on tampons and pads, recognizing that they are a necessity. And schools are starting to provide free ones in restrooms. Even prisons are rethinking their attitudes about providing women with necessary items for their menstrual cycles.

I am a Fitbit user. Despite debates over the pros and cons of fitness trackers, I find it works very well for me. Though I now have a good feel for what I need to do to get in 10,000 steps a day by running errands and enjoying the outdoors in my neighborhood, I still use the device, because I know I’ll fudge things if I don’t.

Upping my walking to that point has made a difference in my life, just as charting my cycle made one. Understanding what my body is doing and what it needs is very important for a healthy life.

It occurs to me that someone should develop an app that tracks hot flashes and similar systems during menopause. Given that different women respond very differently during menopause – just as they do during their periods – a base of data showing the effects on different people could go a long way to developing reasonable treatments. And, as with the period trackers, it would enable individuals to figure out what’s going on in their own bodies.

Old fashioned charts, like the one I made (and, in fact, like the ones I keep in spreadsheets these days) are useful, but they rely on self-reporting, which is not always accurate. And software developed to work with the app can generate reports automatically. In the olden days, I had to add up my hours of exercise and count the days with PMS to get any kind of pattern.

But I confess to finding one drawback with the current system: It all puts the data through the Internet and is reported on a page run by the company that makes the tracker. That means it’s not just my data and that it can be shared with others whether I want it to be or not.

I like fitness apps, but I wish they were sold with a software package that didn’t require me to use the company’s website to keep my data. I’d like to have a piece of software that was only on my computer (and/or my phone) to read the device every day. That way I could decide whether to share it with a doctor, or a friend, or even to provide it to a scientific study. It would be my decision.

A right-wing university is requiring its students to wear Fitbits and collecting the data. That’s a great example of the abuse potential of such devices. Imagine what that institution would do with devices that deal with reproductive matters.

I’d pay extra for a device that keeps my data offline. That may not be much of an incentive, given that data on people is so valuable to companies, but perhaps it will encourage some tech types to think about it as they are coming up with new ways of measuring our lives.

I want to know about my life, but I don’t want to tell the whole damn world about it.



The Examined Life — 2 Comments

  1. I *love* my fitbit tracker. Have had it for years. It keeps me honest, particularly on those days when I don’t feel 100%, but yet can still keep walking.

    One of the apps I’ve been using recently is one for tracking my migraines. And like the other connected stuff, it’s providing the medical community with a lot more solid data about when and why migraines occur.

    Mind you, I know that it’s all self-reporting data, so it is subject to some level of criticism. But they are finding some interesting things. For example, though dark chocolate is a known trigger, it’s a much less common trigger than previously thought. Sugar, on the other hand, is a much more common trigger.

    • It’s probably a higher level of self-reported data, just because there’s a system and migraine symptoms are so obvious and severe. I don’t know if there’s a physical symptom of migraines that could be registered and read by some kind of reader. It would be nice if someone came up with something that picked it up, though. I don’t think we have near enough data about migraines.

      With menopause, you could probably make something that picked up a change in body warmth and counted the number of times that happened. It would be nice if someone could do a study of hot flashes that didn’t rely on self reporting. I suspect that there is a huge variation among women, just as there is in reactions to menstrual cycles.

      I’m with you about the Fitbit. I know my patterns well enough so that I can guess about what walk I need to take to get all my steps in, but I know I’d guess on the short side on tired days without it. And I love getting exercise while running errands or enjoying walks through my neighborhood.