18 mins read

The essential guide to health tracking

Health, focus & fitness can be improved by tracking things like your sleep, activity and meals.

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Given how many deleterious effects the average person’s life can have, it is not surprising that the majority of common chronic diseases are rooted in poor health habits or lifestyle-related diseases. This is a relatively modern phenomenon that came about as we created medicines to treat infectious disease and created food abundance to solve starvation in most parts of the world. 

That includes diseases that account for almost 80% of all deaths in the United States, such as heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory illnesses, and stroke. And according to some of the leading healthcare organizations in the world, these illnesses are between 40% to 80% preventable with better health habits (CDC, WHO). 

Some reasons for that (all of which are modifiable in our individual lives):

  • Lack of adequate physical activity.
  • Lack of adequate sleep. 
  • Chronic over-consumption and bad nutrition.
  • Increasing impact of psychological stress and the resulting hormonal imbalance.

In short, the impact of negative health habits compounded daily over decades is at the root of a of the majority of chronic disease and suffering globally.

Only 2.7% of Americans meet the basic qualifications for a “healthy lifestyle,” according to a new study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.The other 97% display one or more features that indicate they have lifestyle related health dysfunctions. The study authors defined a “healthy lifestyle” as one that met four qualifications:

  1. Moderate or vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week (Only 46.5% got enough exercise)
  2. A diet score in the top 40% on the Healthy Eating Index (Only 37.9% had a healthy diet)
  3. A body fat percentage under 20% for men or 30% for women (Only 9.6% were within range)
  4. Not smoking (71.5% were non-smokers)

Overall, meeting more of these qualifications was associated with having fewer risk factors for cardiovascular disease—things like high cholesterol, high white blood cell counts, and high blood pressure. The researchers looked at 13 such biomarkers in total. Being active and having a healthy body-fat percentage were associated with favorable outcomes in nine and 10 of the biomarkers, respectively, while not smoking and eating well were associated with just two and one.

You might think that improving your health with better lifestyle choices is a straightforward process:

  1. Get your 10k steps in
  2. Don’t eat junk food
  3. Get enough sleep 
  4. Get your annual exam
  5. Don’t smoke 
  6. Drink minimal alcohol

But despite this ‘common sense’ health plan, we do a horrible job of naturally estimating our health habits. 

For example, on average, we under report how many calories we eat by 28%!

The WHO recommends no more than 10% of your calories should come from sugar. But If you were to reflect on your day yesterday, what % of your calories came from sugar? What about how well you’ve slept over the last month? Or how many active calories you’ve burned over the last week?

It’s difficult for us to properly estimate these things on a regular basis, let alone the compound impact of these behaviors.

And to make matters worse, the negative consequences of bad health habits can be both clear and subtle.

Bad health can look like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

But it can also look like any of the modern person’s daily pain points that keep us from reaching our full potential such as low energy, brain fog, infertility, depression, anxiety, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, skin problems, and more.

By tracking our health, we can identify how our lifestyle choices are directly impacting our health, with a closed feedback loop that fosters rapid learning and the ability to modulate.

What does health tracking entail?

Health tracking can take many forms.

Some people use it to track how much and how well they sleep, others to track their heart rate and others meticulously record the quantity and nutritional breakdown of all the food they eat.

No matter which techniques and tools people use to track their health, the intention is similar.

Ultimately, it’s to gain a better understanding of the unique impact your individual health habits have on your body. Health tracking is a technique for passively identifying the impact of these health habits so we can prevent the deleterious effects of prolonged negative behaviors.

Health tracking is used by researchers, clinicians, nutritionists, athletes, and increasingly by everyday folks. 

  1. Athletes and those looking to optimize their health for peak performance track their nutrition in order to meet high goals and stay with narrow windows for specific nutrients, like protein, determined beforehand.
  2. Researchers use health tracking to understand how health habits influence our biology at a cellular level.
  3. Nutritionists routinely begin their work with clients by having them log their dietary behaviors to better assess their client’s baseline eating practices to personalize their guidance.
  4. Everyday people use health tracking to improve their health, increase their healthspan or improve their fitness.

What are some of the benefits of health tracking?

Continuous health tracking allows you to:

  1. Personalize your health planning
  2. Catch irregularities WAY BEFORE your annual exam ever will 
  3. Optimize your health habits based on your lifestyle
  4. Figure out what makes YOU feel healthier, happier and more energetic.

Overall, continuous health tracking has been shown to help with:

  1. Overall better health 
  2. Stable and sustained energy throughout the day 
  3. Sharp memory and recall 
  4. Sustained exercise endurance 
  5. Fat burning ability and healthy weight
  6. Stable mood, decreased anxiety and depression 
  7. Clearer skin and decreased wrinkles
  8. Improved fertility 
  9. Improved sexual health 
  10. A high functioning immune system 
  11. Lower risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, fatty liver disease, heart disease, stroke, and more.

Health tracking is a lifelong behavior

Let’s take the analogy of starting a new job. Your first few days are a bit chaotic. You’re not really sure what you should focus on first and most tasks take a lot longer because you’re still learning the ropes. But, as you go to work every day, observe others doing similar work to yours, create processes and track your progress over time, you see and feel that progress in the form of better recognition, more work satisfaction, and better compensation. You notice small adaptations in your body: your stress levels go down, your mood improves and your ability to take on more challenges increases. 

On the flip side, if you decide to take a few months off from work, it’s likely that your work skills will decline: those hard-earned mental models may diminish, and you’d likely find it more challenging to keep up with your work obligations.

Our health is no different. If we make daily choices that support our overall cellular processes, we will adapt to develop better health, performance & fitness. The impact of these choices may not always be obvious (e.g. 1lb less on the scale), but inside our bodies, things are adding up to create cellular resilience to disease, stress, and other environmental risk factors. Becoming the healthiest version of yourself involves consistent smart decisions about diet (including what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat), sleep, stress management, physical activity, and more. 

We can track health metrics to keep us informed, on track, and proactive about the state of our mind and body.  

With health tracking, we can see in real-time how our lifestyle decisions are affecting our bodies, and over time learn to clearly identify when and how to modify our behaviors to enhance our wellbeing. 

And, just like with work, progress is a spectrum where each small improvement is a win. As with most things in life, there is not an “on-off” switch for health. We are not either “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Rather, we are on a continuum, and our choices — coupled with our genes — determine where we stand each day.

To track or not to track

Your daily health habits are the greatest modifiable risk factor for health and chronic disease prevention in your life. But just as there isn’t a single best diet for everyone, nor is there a single best strategy for everyone when it comes to maintaining their optimal health.

For example, some people do great with scales. Even the simple act of stepping on a scale without making a conscious effort to change their diet will see weight loss over time by bringing a number into your subconscious. Some individuals find the process easy, quickly develop a habit, and see great results that persist. Others, find the process tedious, quickly give up, and see no process at all or might spiral into mental grief, overly fretting over the same numbers.

Health data provides us with the information to improve our lives, and find that right healthy balance that keeps our bodies finely tuned and ready to live the rest of our lives as we’d like.

However, with this responsibility, health tracking can also become a significant source of anxiety.

Health tracking, like many other life management methods and strategies, can distract individuals from the true goal (feeling good) and cause some to become fixated on numbers and metrics to a point to where the mental anguish caused by the technique itself supersedes any positive effects it may provide.

Others may become attached to the numbers more than they do the actual goal of healthy eating habits. Fueling a paradoxically unhealthy habit, their mental health may plunge despite a satisfactory dietary regime and thus continue to defeat their own wellness goals.

When this happens, health tracking’s true role in maintaining a healthy life is replaced as the source of pain. Stable mental health is just as important as stable physical health when it comes to living a happy, fulfilled life.

Ultimately, health tracking is a highly effective and easy to employ strategy to help you align your behaviors so that you can look and feel your best. Some may benefit more than others, but overall, everyone can benefit from tracking their health.

How to track your health

Step 1: Identify your goal

Health tracking should begin first by stating your goal.

Identifying the underlying objective will help align your process for the best results. For example, your goal will help you identify which metrics to track and which tools to use to reach your goal.

Some common goals for health tracking are to:

  • Lose weight or body fat
  • Enhance athletic performance
  • Build muscle
  • Improve mental acuity
  • Manage stress
  • Reduce risk of chronic diseases
  • Manage a chronic disease

Step 2: Key in on which metrics to track

Once your health goal is set, the next step is to decide which metrics you are interested in tracking.

For example, those looking to lose weight may focus on active calories. Others looking to reduce their stress levels, many focus on HRV.

Some benefits of health tracking come from identifying your specific patterns. Quantifying the impact of better health habits can help you learn if you are eating well, getting enough exercise and sleeping adequately to guard yourself against the most common culprits of preventable disease.

1. Heart Rate

It’s clear that the heart is one of the most important organs in your body. Your heart health is often the first thing your physician will check to gauge your overall health and wellbeing. Tracking heart health can also be useful for optimizing performance.

You can continuously monitor your resting heart rate as an early warning sign of cardiovascular disease - the leading cause of death worldwide accounting for approximately 30% of all deaths.

Resting heart rate (also known as basal heart rate) is the simplest biometric signal that can be measured to gauge cardiovascular health. Consumer grade wrist-band based trackers such as Fitbit and Apple Watch have built up a fitness tracking wearable market-place based on this idea. Heart rate can be measured optically using photoplethysmography or using a single or multi-lead ECG. Resting heart rate in a healthy adult ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. A lower resting heart rate typically implies more efficient heart health and better cardiovascular fitness. For example, an endurance athlete might have an average resting heart rate closer to 40 beats per minute. A sudden increase in resting heart rate over a period of days to weeks could signal a cardiovascular emergency.

2. Sleep

Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. For example, sleep is involved in the healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. [NIH]

Most sleep tracking works by monitoring your body movements as you sleep to determine how much time you probably spent awake versus asleep. Some devices also look at heart rate changes during sleeping to estimate how much time you spent in each sleep cycle.

Read about The Circadian Rhythm

3. Activity 

Getting adequate levels of activity is an all-cause mortality preventive measure that everyone should keep track of. Physical inactivity and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability, with myriad adverse effects, especially for the cardiovascular system. Physical activity and exercise training have become among our most powerful tools for the prevention and treatment of noncommunicable disease. Physical activity and an improved cardiorespiratory fitness lessen the incidence and burden of coronary artery disease and reduce the risk of major adverse cardiovascular disease events. The most physically active cohort in middle age has a predicted life expectancy eight years longer than a sedentary cohort; and for patients with established heart disease, undertaking cardiac rehabilitation consistently improves prognosis and quality of life. 

It’s clear that at least half of Americans are not meeting the physical activity guidelines recommendations of > 150 minutes/week of moderate exercise. Importantly, significant longevity benefits are conferred by even just 15 minutes/day of light or moderate physical activity, which is about half the recommended minimum dose of daily exercise, with the steepest risk reductions seen in the cohort going from completely sedentary to just mildly active. [source

Activity tracking can take the form of tracking how many steps you take every day or tracking your active calories. Active calories are an estimate of the calories you burn over the course of the day through exercise or other activity.

4. Nutrition

It’s difficult for us to properly estimate the number of calories we eat on a regular basis, let alone the nutritional breakdown of those calories. And to make matters worse, some foods have hidden sugar or salt to taste better or help with preservation. By tracking what you eat, the amount of each food item, the macros you eat, and the nutrient totals, you can develop a very detailed picture of your nutritional intake. You can even track your body’s tolerance to different foods and identify foods that you are allergic to or that might cause digestive issues or brain fog. Much like documenting your financial expenditures on a regular basis can help some get a hold of their spending, nutrition tracking can keep bringing some people back to reality on their eating habits.

5. HRV

Unlike heart rate which measures the number of time the heart beats per second, HRV is the measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat aggregated over time. People with a healthy heart and a resilient body, should have a high HRV, whereas those with cardiovascular disorders, high stress or other illness should show low HRV. HRV can also be used to detect heart rhythm disorders such as Atrial Fibrillation (AF). AF happens when the top chambers of the heart beat faster and are out of sync with the bottom chambers. Although not immediately life-threatening, AF reduces the heart’s output by about 30% potentially leading to stroke.

Read more What is HRV?

6. Blood Pressure

In order for your body to be healthy and function properly, your tissues and organs need your circulatory system to carry oxygenated blood throughout the body. When the heart beats, it creates pressure that pushes blood through a network of tube-shaped blood vessels, which include arteries, veins and capillaries. This pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces: The first force (systolic pressure) occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries that are part of the circulatory system. The second force (diastolic pressure) is created as the heart rests between heart beats. (These two forces are each represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading.) [AHA]

Measuring your blood pressure is the only way to know whether you have high blood pressure. High blood pressure usually has no warning signs or symptoms, and many people do not know they have it.

7. Blood Oxygen Levels

Pulse oximetry measures the oxygen levels in your blood. It essentially measures how efficiently oxygen is carried to the extremities furthest from the heart, such as your legs and arms. ​​

A level of 95% or above is considered normal for most healthy individuals and a level of 92% could indicate a potential deficiency in how well oxygen is reaching tissues in your body. Typically, more than 89% of your blood should be carrying oxygen. This is the oxygen saturation level needed to keep your cells — and your body — healthy. Temporarily having a lower oxygen saturation level than this does not necessarily cause damage but prolonged or consistent low oxygen saturation levels can be damaging. 

Besides the importance of tracking possible chronic conditions or preventing acute emergencies, pulse oximetry can be useful to assess someone’s ability to tolerate increased physical activity.


8. Glucose

Glucose is our body’s primary fuel. Our body has a complex system for metabolizing glucose from the food we eat either into fuel or storing it for later use. We can feel the effects of too low or too high glucose levels in things such as fatigue and brain fog, or more concerning lead to a slew of chronic issues such as obesity, diabetes; and even Alzheimer's and cancer. 

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), people fall into three categories depending on their fasting plasma glucose levels: 

Normal: < 100 mg/dL
Prediabetic: 100–125 mg/dL
Diabetic: > 125 mg/dL

Step 3. Identify which tools are best suited for you

Wearable health-tracking devices and health information and networking platforms are maturing, as is the technology that makes them tick, and it won’t be long before doctors are prescribing mobile health apps and devices. 

1. Smartphone 

The first tool in your health tracking arsenal is your smartphone. Smartphones already help you track nearly everything you do and can be a very effective tool in health tracking. From tracking your steps and location to helping you log your food, and activity, a smartphone is required for most health tracking. 

2. Wearable

Wearables are usually wrist-worn or in some cases can take the form of chest worn or finger based alternatives. Wearables are the most important health tracking tool in your arsenal and can automatically and continuously track your steps, heart rate, sleep, HRV and more. There are several great options available today, from manufacturers like Apple, Garmin, Oura, Fitbit and others.

3. Devices

Connected health devices run the gamut from Bluetooth-enabled scales, to continuous glucose monitors and pulse oximeters. They provide health measures and transmit them back to health apps – or in some cases directly to healthcare providers.

4. Health Apps

Health apps, like Basis, are the connecting link between your smartphone, devices and wearable. They help you organize, visualize, consolidate and interpret your health data into the progress you're making towards your health goals or overall health tracking.  

Enhanced health tracking

Beyond the basic tracking of sleep, heart rate, and weight there are many other areas you could explore and track. For example, you can log your caffeine intake and how it affects your mood, energy and sleep. You can record your mobile phone usage to gauge your digital addiction. You can track what you eat, which would be beneficial if you are trying to lose weight. If you are an athlete, it is likely you’ll want to track your workouts like runs, cycling, lifting or even body weight training. You can even track what you watch on TV, music you listen to, or books you read. 

For those who are really ambitious, blood testing services exist for accurate, physiological testing of dietary and nutritional intake. Obviously, these services may be difficult or undesirable to perform on a regular basis, but the snapshot in time may help you know whether you are starting from a solid baseline or whether you have made it to the finish line.

Subscribe to our “Track Everything” Series to learn about advanced health tracking tools and techniques. 

What do you do with all this data?

Once you’ve started tracking your health and behaviors, you begin to create an awful lot of data. This leads to the question: Where should you store and manage this data?

If your data is stuck in a silo, then it is not as valuable as data that can be cross-referenced and mashed together. By aggregating all your data, you can start to see relationships and discover different insights. But without years of training or dedicated time to look at your data each day, it’s really hard to figure out what are these relationships are and how to apply insights to improve your overall health.

That’s where Basis fits in. Basis takes all of these data points and creates a complete picture of your day, week, month, and year. By combining your health tracking activity with your calendar, Basis can provide a very good portrait of what your ideal day should look like. Basis also provides a number of additional bonus features like sleep tracking, exercise tracking, meal management and workout plans.

Basis allows you to integrate data from most activity wearables, your calendar, your Apple phone, smart devices and many other options. After that, Basis does the rest to create actionable health habits and remove the friction out of health planning.

At the end of the day, health tracking is not just about the tools, though they help us get there; it’s about understanding how the data can lead us to personal self-improvement. By collecting all of this personal data and using tools like Basis to apply these personalized insights into our daily life, we can start to see our life in new ways and patterns.

Some of us are closer to our health goals than others, but no one is perfectly healthy. The body is a dynamic machine and health optimization is a daily, continuous process. Basis helps you hone your health and wellness no matter where your starting point is.

Importantly, your health is not a predetermined trait nor a roll of the dice; it’s just a state: constantly in flux and modifiable. With real-time feedback and actionable planning, you can make simple, informed decisions each day that can improve the metrics that define your health and fitness. Your data is the evidence. You can learn and grow.


18 mins read
The essential guide to health tracking

Health, focus & fitness can be improved by tracking things like your sleep, activity and meals.