Back when I was in college, the Internet was a relatively new thing. Personal computers were still somewhat rare, and cell phones were about the size of a brick. They did pretty much one thing: make phone calls. I still remember calling a friend and telling her that I was talking to her from — wow! — my car.
Today, of course, all that has changed. The personal technologies that surround us are ubiquitous and automatic. They have come, in many ways, to define our lives. We interact with screens all day long, and our interactions with each other have come to rely on those digital portals.
Naturally, there are good and bad sides to all of this.
On the bright side, fitness trackers, monitors, health-promoting apps, virtual communities, and online coaching programs have made it easier for many people to access valuable information and support.
On the dark side, the rhythms of our lives have been profoundly disrupted by our always-online, plugged-in dependencies. And the same technologies that help support healthy choices in one context can utterly undermine them in another.
Being notified that you haven’t moved in two hours; seeing that you’re just 1,000 steps shy of your 10,000-step goal; being reminded that it’s time for a break, your vitamins, or a glass of water; getting an encouraging text from your health coach or fitness buddy; being able to Google a new kale recipe while you make dinner — these are all helpful, life-enhancing supports.
But research suggests that when we become too chained to our smartphones, tablets, TVs, PCs, and other digital devices, our moods, metabolism, mental acuity, and sleep patterns all suffer. We move less; we multitask more; we lose track of our physiological needs and natural appetites. We become less present to those we love, and to the present moment.
In a world of predictive-adaptive offers and invitations (“If you like that, we think you’d also like this!”), we’re forever enticed, tempted, and catered to — but rarely satisfied in any deep way.
Even as we’re deluged with real-time information, interaction, and entertainment, we remain hungry, bored, and anxious. Even as we’re bombarded by likes, comments, blips, badges, notifications, and alerts, some essential part of us remains lonely and alienated.
The digital realm can be a great source of insight and discovery, but it can also spew out all manner of misinformation, manipulation, and garbage (see “Turf Wars”).
Similarly, the realm of personalized health and medicine is evolving faster than most of us can make sense of. There are all sorts of lab tests that promise to tell us incredible amounts of information about our current health and fitness, our nutritional status, and genetic vulnerabilities (topics we address in “Making Sense of SNPs“, “Individualized Weight Loss“, and “The Functional Medicine Matrix“). But there are comparatively few experts who feel 100 percent confident in interpreting all that new data or making professional recommendations on the basis of it. There’s just too much new information emerging every day.
For all these reasons, my personal approach to integrating all this new stuff into my own life is cautious and evolving. I’ll try almost anything once, but if I’m not finding my life significantly improved by something, or if it demands too much of my time, money, energy, and mental bandwidth, I’ll let it drift to the wayside.
Over the past few years, I’ve test-driven all sorts of cool gadgets, apps, and online programs designed to support my health and happiness. I’ve found a lot of them incredibly helpful. In most cases, though, the experience I have with them resembles my first experience using a heart-rate monitor more than a decade ago: a combination of “gee whiz!” amazement and “hey, this is helpful” appreciation, followed by a gradual decline in interest.
Once I’d used my heart-rate monitor enough to correlate its readings with my own perceived exertion, I found I just didn’t need it much anymore.
In some ways, I think that’s the best possible experience one can hope to have in the high-tech age: Use health-supporting science and technology in whatever ways you find helpful, and then get back to being your best, most essential, unplugged self.