Self-monitoring is a new trend in personal electronic health where computing tools such as wearable sensors and mobile apps collect, process and display a wealth of personal data to help you keep track of and manage all aspects of your health. These tools monitor and record details of your everyday activity, from counting steps or miles walked, and floors climbed, to monitoring calorie consumption, and even daily patterns and hours of sleep.

Spurred by movements like the Quantified Self (QS), an increasing number of people are using gadgets to monitor exactly how they use their time, and in some cases, take action, not only in order to improve health and personal efficiency, but also because, as personal productivity and health blogger Ari Meisel puts it:

“Optimizing your life can help free up time to enjoy more activities”.

At the start of January 2013, Alexandra Carmichael of QS listed over 200 tools for self-trackers.

The emergence of the smartphone is also helping to link together sophisticated processing tools with mobile sensors, enabling users to do more unusual things like track mood alongside physical activity and consider how the two might be related.

Software developers are now building mobile self-tracking platforms that allows the smartphone-based app to collect data from a tracking device worn by the user (for instance movement activity, pulse rate, even heart ECG data) and combine this with self-reported data collected on pre-programmed questionnaires filled in by the user (for instance to track feelings and mood over the same period).

Although aimed at researchers, some of this more advanced software is being offered open source, which will spur developers in the commercial personal tools market to offer increasingly sophisticated personal tracking devices at lower cost.

In this article we offer an overview of three self-tracking devices, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone, and FitBit.

The Nike+ Fuelband is a wristband that measures everyday activity.

The idea is to set a daily energy burning goal and then achieve it with everyday physical activity.

The Fuelband tracks each step taken and calories burned and as the day progresses, the lights on it change from red to green as you near your goal.

One Amazon customer says it encouraged him to take the dog out for an extra walk so he could reach his daily target.

The device syncs wirelessly to an app on your iPhone so you can see your results. You can also connect it to a computer via the USB connector which forms part of the bracelet closure.

The device measures “fuel count”, calories burned, steps taken, and shows the time, so you can opt to wear it instead of a watch.

Matthew Miller, who reviewed the Fuelband for ZDNet’s The Mobile Gadgeteer blog, initially chose a daily fuel burning goal of 3,000 calories, which he says “seemed a bit aggressive” as he works in an office. But he managed to reach the goal three times in the week he tested it.

Through the iPhone app you can view your current Fuel status, and activity for the day, week, month and year. You can also set your mood for the day, and connect to your Facebook friends that have the Fuelband setup through Facebook.

There are also motivational aids, such as getting notified when you reach goals, you can earn awards, and you can Tweet your achievements.

Prices for the Nike+ Fuelband start at around $200 or £120, depending on size and color.

The Jawbone is also a wristband device. But as well as tracking movement it measures sleep and eating. It also includes a vibrating silent alarm, which one reviewer says “anyone who shares a bed should at least try”.

The Jawbone does not clasp around the wrist like the Nike+ Fuelband, but has two overlapping ends to secure it in place.

It carries a button that you set to the mode your are in: sleep, active or normal.

Set to normal movement mode the device tracks steps. In active mode it tracks workouts and runs.

You can also set it to vibrate if you are inactive for long periods, say after every 45 minutes of inactivity. This could be a useful way to remind you to get up and walk around if you tend to sit for a while.

The sleep function monitors quality of sleep and distinguishes between light and heavy sleep.

Through the iOS app, which is the only way to interact with the data, you can set a silent alarm that vibrates the band up to 30 minutes ahead of your designated waking up time if it senses you are sleeping lightly around that time.

There is also a “power nap” option that looks at your sleep habits and decides whether you should have a shorter or a longer power nap this time.

The eat function just lets you take pictures of what you eat, and stores them so you can look at them later. The software provides a reference to a a study that shows people who logged what they ate lost more weight than people who did not record what they ate.

The Jawbone sells at around $100 (£62).

The Fitbit One (and the earlier model Fitbit Ultra) is not a wristband but a small clip-on and measures a lot more of your life than the other two devices. (However, there is a wriststrap you can wear it in at night if you want the vibrating alarm to wake you up).

You can clip the device to outer clothing or underwear. Thus if you don’t want the fact you are tracking yourself to become a topic of conversation at parties or at work, you could clip the device onto your bra or underpants, it’s about the size of a USB memory stick.

It tracks steps taken, miles travelled, flights of stairs climbed, calories burned, calories consumed, daily eating, and various information about sleep, including how long it takes you to fall asleep, number of times you woke up, and total sleep time.

You can change the tracking mode (such as jogging or sleeping) by pressing and holding down the mode button.

The device has a small display to show the data, and it also shows motivational statements like “Let’s go”, or “I like you”.

The data uploads to a web account where you can add any data that the device has missed. For example, the device can’t log activities like cycling and swimming so you have to enter this yourself, but the software will incorporate this into the record seamlessly so you can see your activities aligned. (Note the other two devices don’t do this).

If you don’t want all the functions of the Fitbit One, you can opt for the cheaper and more basic Fitbit Zip.

The Fitbit One sells for around $100 (£62).

People who have been self-tracking for a while and are getting something out of it, find that the mindset they bring to looking at the data they collect has a big influence on their ability to make changes in their lives.

If you just keep beating yourself up, “there I go again, always eating the wrong things”, or “not another day without completing my 10,000 steps”, then you are probably going to have a hard time keeping an open and creative mind for problem solving.

It is important to be able to step back and detach yourself from the negative self-talk and see the bigger picture the data is showing.

Accept what you discover, adopt a non-judgemental perspective, and look for patterns in your data: “that’s interesting, it’s usually at the end of the week that I don’t reach my walking target”, or “it looks like my sleep is more disturbed when I exercise less”.

“Long-time self-trackers have an almost insatiable curiosity,” says Alexandra Carmichael, co-author of a Quantified Self book on self- tracking.

As well as curiosity and acceptance, Carmichael advocates developing self-compassion:

“We’ve found that self-compassion is an essential part of maintaining a tracking practice,” says Carmichael, explaining that experienced self- trackers learn to accept that whatever it shows, their data “is what it is, and it’s ok. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about”.

A lot of the time, you probably won’t have a clue as to what the tracking data means, and there’s no reason why you should.

Another thing to bear in mind, is that once you start making changes in your life, as you go along, these changes affect the rest of your life too. So don’t be too rigid, be prepared to adapt plans to fit in with what else is changing, as long as it is all going generally in the right direction.

Hang on to your sense of humour, and above all, remain humble, as Woody Allen sums up well in his famous quote:

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD