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How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self”

Xconomy San Diego — 

Larry Smarr is one of the people who had a vision in the 1980s for a high-speed computer network that grew to become the Internet of today. So sharing data is important to him. Now he has found a new source of data that he believes has great potential if shared widely: information from his own body.

Actually, Smarr is just using himself as one example in the coming trend he sees in using information technology to regularly monitor wellness. I heard Smarr speak in Seattle last week when he joined a panel with biotech entrepreneur Leroy Hood and University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska, at the OVP Tech Summit. This trio of visionaries all talked about how they see the healthcare system switching from a reactive mode that attempts to treat illness into a more data-driven science that is proactively geared toward keeping people healthy.

Smarr, the founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, is an early adopter of a lifestyle that attempts to create a “quantified self.” Every few months, he gives blood and has it analyzed for 30 or 40 measurements, which are stored in a spreadsheet to provide “biofeedback” on his state of wellness. This is still time-consuming and cumbersome, and nowhere near more futuristic visions of people giving daily pinpricks of blood that send their daily wellness data into a database stored in the cloud.

While many people are afraid that insurers will use genetic data to discriminate against them, Smarr is hopeful that people will want to openly share data on the quantified state of their wellness. This information could spread and create a positive form of peer pressure, as people will compete with their friends and family to improve their heart rate, blood pressure, triglycerides, etc. to a healthy balance. The data will be shared widely via social networking sites, and people will carry it around with them everywhere on their smartphones, Smarr predicts. (It should be noted that Smarr’s group at Calit2 gets federal research grants to study how people’s behavior changes in the new era of quantitative health.)

“The counter-revolution to obesity is centered here. People will be able to tune their bodies,” Smarr said.

I followed up directly with Smarr after the panel to ask him some more about his personal experience with becoming a “quantified self.” By looking at the data, and adjusting his diet and exercise accordingly, he’s already put together some impressive wellness statistics. Without going too deep into his medical file, here are some health statistics he volunteered:

Age61
Height6-foot-1
Weight177 pounds
Resting heart rate45 beats/minute
Blood pressure130/70

Here’s what he had to say about how he achieved those goals.

Xconomy: You talked about these early adopters who are taking deep quantitative measurements on their health, much more so than standing on a bathroom scale every day.

Larry Smarr: Although that’s not a bad start.

X: OK, but can you explain what you see happening with this group of scientists. What are they looking for?

LS: Well, it is a much larger group than just scientists. And it’s not just San Diego, but in Silicon Valley, too. There’s this whole site, the Quantified Self, which is the more extreme version.

For instance, I’m going in tomorrow to get the latest readouts from my last blood test that I’ll talk about with my doctor. The problem is we find that very few doctors are really knowledgeable enough … Next Page »

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13 responses to “How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self””

  1. David says:

    Almost everything Mr. Smarr says is true. But I also believe that more adults actually know these things than our obesity rate would indicate. The problem is motivation and ease ease of use. People have no desire to sit in front of a spreadsheet and calculate this stuff every day. The company that comes up with a device that calculates all these things with no more interaction from the use than to look down at their smart phone and know their metrics for the day, will be the one to win the prize. The missing piece is a calorie counter that accurately measures intake, without the user having to type anything. Some sort of bioelectronic device that knows, in real-time, what you’ve just eaten.

  2. David is correct that it is discouraging to have to keep track in detail of everything you eat. Even just counting calories is a pain. Fortunately, there are a lot of new iPhone and Android apps that are very helpful in this regard. The reason I did the detailed counting for a fixed number of days, like taking experimental data, was to get insights into my normal eating habits. I found that I was eating too much fat and so that was the sector I cut the calories. I now know to take a teaspoon, not a tablespoon of olive oil, or to limit the number of fat-rich nuts I eat for a snack. So the quantitative “deep dive” once in a while is to sharpen your intuition for eating and come up with some “rules of thumb” for guiding your daily eating routine. I havent spent any time since my 12 day detailed look counting calories, but the results of that experiment have changed my eating habits and allowed me to lose weight.