“Quantified Selfers” use phones, journals, gadgets, and apps to record things like sleep, air quality, stress levels, heart rate, and mood. The idea: gather data and learn from it. It’s not just about aggregating all sorts of numbers, but about using that info to achieve better health. Here, Greatist takes a look at what makes the Quantified Self Movement so alluring and the possible health benefits of tracking one’s own health.

Illustration by Bob Al-Greene

What is a Quantified Self?

Some quantified self enthusiasts are gung-ho about tracking everything from bowel movements to sex habits. But most people do some simple self-tracking every day, whether it’s counting how many glasses of water we drink or stepping on the scale before bed.

The next step, however, is using these records to improve our quality of life. Using a food diary like MyFitnessPal, someone might notice that he/she always feels tired after eating dairy and can then modify his/her food intake in the future. Other devices, like the Zeo, monitor sleep habits so users can figure out how to get their best rest.

How Did the Quantified Self Movement Begin?

In 2008 Gary Wolf, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, created the Quantified Self site with colleague Kevin Kelly. Starting in the San Francisco Bay area, they held meetings for other people who were interested in self-tracking experiments.

Ironically, today’s Quantified Self Movement can’t really be quantified. The website shows 60 active meet-ups globally and more than 8,000 members, most of them in the Bay Area. But there are many more self-trackers who don’t identify — or register — with the official “movement.” Smartphones and social media have also increased interest in self-tracking, says Steven Dean, the NYC meetup organizer. We can check Foursquare to see how many times we hit up our local fast food joint last month or announce fitness accomplishments on Twitter. And advancing technology — smaller, easier-to-use devices like heart rate monitors — can help make self-tracking more efficient.

A Quantified Culture

A few weeks ago some of the Greatist Team attended the Quantified Self meet-up in New York City, where dudes made up most of the approximately 120 attendees. We saw demos for an app that lets users send Facebook-style updates about their feelings and an app called StudyCure that sends text messages like, “Did you workout this morning?” A series of presenters included Jeopardy winner Roger Craig, who talked about his flashcard system to memorize thousands of facts before the show.

“This is a really passionate community,” Dean says. But self-tracking isn’t for everyone. The point isn’t to be obsessive over numbers, he says, but to make improvements to daily life.

QSM and U

Self-tracking is on the rise with new startups and meeting groups popping up across the country. For anyone looking to jump in, the Quantified Self Movement site and Twitter account give a good starting point. There are also solid apps such as StudyCure and MyFitnessPal (mentioned above) to check out. The QSM site provides a full list of apps with descriptions and details of each.

Of course, tracking health doesn’t guarantee better health, but it may bring a new awareness to our daily routine. The Quantified Self Movement is all about motivating people to taking their health and wellness into their own hands.

Do you self-track? Should health tracking be left to doctors or is it for everyone? Share your experiences in the comments below.