I have spent the past four months writing down by hand almost every single thing that I eat and drink.
I keep these notes in a diary that’s thick and heavy, one I haul from the bottom of my bag every day. Its pages are messed with my own thin, almost cryptic scrawl: words and numbers that record what I’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They look like spider legs mashed into an ancient runic language.
In an age when health is digitally quantified, where the electronic streams from our daily lives are collated and analysed in the cloud, my pen and paper seem old-fashioned – even to me. But I’ve kept this tome precise: I match each yoghurt, bowl of soup or glass of wine with a calorie count, and at the bottom of each page, a calorie total for the day.
Not everyone chooses to go old school with their tools for health. When I exercise, and I head out into the hot Melbourne sun, my body rising and falling with each strained push-up and goofy burpee, I notice others working up a sweat. Those with Fitbits tap at their tiny screens on their wrists, dutifully checking how much they’ve walked, their heart rate, or number of calories they’ve burned. The mobility of these kinds of devices, and their ability to track what we do with our bodies, can help us understand and change our habits in real time. When it works, technology closes the gap of space and time to make a human experience easier, more efficient.
Watches, bands and other wearable devices can track your every move. Photo: James Withers.
Apps like Better Health Channel are popular for tracking health. Photo: James Withers.
There is a growing fan base for this form of digital health. In Australia, the
Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) reported recently that “health and fitness” and “medical” app categories are some of the most popular smartphone applications. In Canada, clinicians and patients are increasingly using pedometers to encourage increases in physical activity in the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases. An American study found that smartphones and similar technology can provide more regular feedback on weight management information to better support the self-regulation of behaviour.
Yet these studies also find there are issues with determining the effectiveness of smartphone apps, the accuracy of physical activity monitors for some people, and whether the type of device matters for helping self-regulation. Broader social and economic conditions shape our health, as does our ability to use technology in effective, equitable ways. Australians unable to afford good-quality smartphone or internet plans can be limited in how they use electronic devices to improve their health.
The smartphone I carry with me every day is all about speed: buying songs, using Twitter or tapping out a quick email. While I could write more slowly on my device, when I write down by hand in my diary the detail of everything I eat, I slow myself down and become more aware of how much I am consuming. This has made it easier to stick to my daily calorie plan.
On a deeper level, my diary connects my health experience with how I work as a writer – those techniques of careful observation, reflection, persistence and documentation. No matter how indecipherable my handwriting might seem to others, it reflects how I see the world and the way I use tools within it. I am similar to Andrew Brown, who wrote:
"Handwriting is what I turn to when I need to discover thought – the pen, like a divining rod, moves in my hand towards something I can only feel and not yet see."
I better manage my eating and drinking because of this process. It has helped me lose 6kg in weight.
People who make small, healthier changes to their eating and exercise habits, ones that are maintained as part of daily life, are likely to shed the body fat. But they find this success in different ways. For some, it is fleeing from the walking dead for their exercise in Zombies, Run! Others like to get fit by dancing Hula and Ori Tahiti. Fitbits can be great for tracking a life, moment by moment.
I choose to ink the pages of my dog-eared diary. It’s the best health technology I’ve found yet.
My dog-eared health diary. Photo: James Withers.
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This story was published in The Guardian on 18 March, 2015. The topic can be further explored, I think. There is ongoing tension between older and newer forms of technology. I'd like to know more about what handwriting means in this day and age, as well as our emotional relationship with technology.
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