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Pedometers, smartwatches, we employ various technologies as indicators of our health. “This provides insights, but it also carries risks,” states Wijnand IJsselsteijn (TUe) at the Preventive Health Congress. “In the worst-case scenario, the numbers may take on a life of their own.”

Author: Annemieke Groenenboom

With a wearable on your wrist, you can gather a wealth of data about your own behaviour, such as your movements and heart rate. Subsequently, through an app, you receive feedback: well done or not. “The advantage of self-tracking is that people become aware of the impact of their behaviour on their health,” says Wijnand IJsselsteijn, professor in Cognition and Affect in Human-Technology Interaction at the Eindhoven University of Technology. “Especially considering the increasing number of diseases related to our prosperity, this is relevant.”


“The flip side is that users believe that with that data, they have a complete picture of their health,” warns IJsselsteijn. “However, self-tracking apps are often one-dimensional – and health cannot be fully expressed in numbers. The data provide a sense of the illusion of control, which can mislead users or even lead to obsessive behaviour.”

“Self-tracking apps are often one-dimensional. And health cannot be fully expressed in numbers”

“A telling example: a man aimed to develop a six-pack and meticulously tracked all his actions in an app, from his food intake to the number of crunches. However, the app had a limited range of food categories, leading the man to only consume what he could register. Otherwise, his dataset would be incomplete. The consequence was that he omitted certain healthy and essential foods, not reaching his goal (a six-pack). The means became an end in itself.”


IJsselsteijn: “This behaviour stems from the human need for systematization. When you aim to lose a couple of pounds, you often sense whether you are gaining or losing weight, but still weigh yourself daily. The feedback provides a sense of control.

“We enjoy being rewarded for good behaviour, and that’s precisely what the feedback loops in all these apps do”

Additionally, we enjoy being rewarded for good behaviour, and that’s precisely what the feedback loops in all these apps do. Social recognition also plays a role. For instance, those who share their cycling achievements on Strava receive thumbs up from others, providing a dopamine boost, a pleasurable feeling.”


IJsselsteijn sees risks, especially for people in vulnerable positions: “Consider, for instance, individuals with low (digital) literacy. Are they capable of interpreting the data correctly? Moreover, individuals in vulnerable positions experience health issues more often. An app can assist them in adopting a healthier lifestyle, but once the technology is in place, it can shift from a nice-to-have to a must-have.”

“For instance, there are insurers reimbursing self-trackers and offering discounts for a healthy lifestyle. This is a slippery slope. What happens if you engage in unhealthy behaviour? Are you still allowed to benefit from this model? There is a sense of social engineering behind this and an implicit accusation: if you behave unhealthily, then it’s your own fault if you get sick. People in vulnerable positions can thus find themselves under additional pressure.”


“As a user, you must always place the obtained data in the right context,” IJsselsteijn continues. “But developers can also build more flexibility into the technologies. Consider, for instance, feedback that is less focused on specific numbers and more on a general impression of users’ health. Or think about setting more realistic goals and comparing users to groups that are a good match for comparison. Additionally, storytelling, for example, can help convey the complete story about health, rather than promoting the notion of use this app, and everything will be fine.”

“Use the technologies to motivate yourself and for a bit of self-exploration, but always be aware of their limitations”

IJsselsteijn concludes with a clear message: “Use the technologies to motivate yourself and for a bit of self-exploration, but always be aware of their limitations. Health is about humanity, so don’t let the data control your life, and listen to your instincts.”


Want to hear more from Wijnand Ijsselsteijn? Then join the annual Preventive Heath Conference on the 7th of december, with insights from 20+ brilliant speakers, interdisciplinary discussions, invaluable insights, and strategies to promote effective preventive health practices.