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How Data Can Help Women to Take Ownership of Their Health Journey As Athletes

Staying on top of your health data allows anyone to take ownership of their health journey.

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In the past few years, “trackers” have become an essential part of the health fitness world. It’s not just about digitally logging your workouts with wearables like Garmin or COROS; you can also stay on top of your menstrual cycle with apps like Clue or Flo; track your sleep—down to how long you spend in each stage—via an Oura ring; quantify your recovery with a WHOOP; and check blood biomarker levels with InsideTracker (without ever stepping into a lab).

It’s enough to overwhelm you with data—so much so that you’d be forgiven for asking why exactly you’d want to track it all if you’re already fit and healthy. You certainly don’t have to! But there’s a reason all these tests, apps, and devices are so popular: “They have essentially democratized access to things that were, from a sociocultural perspective, previously only available to more elite athletes—mainly, men,” says Sian Allen, Ph.D., research manager of the Innovation Team at Lululemon, who studies wearable technology and human performance.

Staying on top of your health data, via tracking tools, blood tests and bone scans, and even keeping your own journal where you can track the condition of your physical and mental health allow anyone to take ownership of their health journey. The more you know yourself, the more you will be aware when something goes awry—but with that comes the responsibility of understanding what you’re tracking and how to use that information.

RELATED: How Whoop Is Pushing Forward Women’s Health Research

What Are You Tracking?

Whether you’re wearing an Oura ring 24/7 or getting your blood tested via InsideTracker once a quarter, what you’re really doing is establishing your baseline—i.e. what’s normal for you—and tracking trends from there.

“There’s a level of error associated with a single data point, and that’s different for every test, device, and metric,” says Allen. “From a research perspective, we look at trends over time.” Wearables and apps aren’t diagnostic (meaning they can’t tell you if you have a condition or disease), nor are they lab-tested, so patterns are likely more informative than single data points. Plus, focusing on the larger picture instead of a single snapshot in time can serve as a powerful reminder that progress isn’t linear. During a bad workout or on a bad day, it’s easy to convince yourself that everything’s going wrong; but when you look at trends over time, you can see how the positive days outweigh the bad.

“I’ve done over 13 tests with InsideTracker over the last five years and having those trendlines has been really neat to see,” says Grayson Murphy, a Saucony-sponsored professional runner and InsideTracker partner. “There are some biomarkers of mine that may be classified in the ‘not optimized’ zone but having five years of data to compare to, I know that my personal optimization zones might look a bit different and that’s OK. ‘Healthy’ can look a bit different on everyone!”

A tracking tool isn’t going to do all the work for you, though, says Allen. Once you have the data, “you need to dig into what’s going on in your life and what’s the context that goes with that data,” she says. “Is there something in your life that could be contributing to it?” Some devices are internalizing that approach, like Whoop, which allows you to log specific choices, behaviors, and other variables on a daily basis to see how they affect your metrics, but you can go old-school and keep a paper or digital log yourself depending on what tool you’re using.

An easy example of this is sleep (researchers say sleep may actually be the single most important factor in exercise recovery): “I’ve been using the Oura Ring this year, and I’ve found it helped me set up a good bedtime routine and keeps me accountable,” says Flora Duffy, an ASICS-sponsored triathlete and Olympic gold medalist. “I’ve found on nights that I read before bed, I actually fall asleep faster and sleep better, whereas on night I’m on my phone until late…not so much.”

Tracking your menstrual cycle can also connect the dots between what’s happening in your body and how you feel on a given day. “I started using a cycle tracking app to see if there were any correlations between the days that I felt extra emotional during runs or physical symptoms and my cycle,” says Murphy, who uses an app called FitrWoman. “Sure enough, there were! I also have an IUD, and one side effect is that I often don’t get a period. But with the app, I noticed that I had other symptoms recurring monthly (i.e. PMS symptoms) and that reassured me that it was indeed the IUD causing the loss of periods, not something much worse like RED-S or athletic amenorrhea.”

One of the symptoms of RED-S, AKA relative energy deficiency syndrome, is increased risk of stress fractures and early onset osteoporosis. Younger athletes may benefit from a DEXA scan, a kind of imaging test that measures bone density (or strength); you can get them at some health and fitness facilities, as well as imaging centers. Blood tests track biomarkers like calcium and vitamin D, which are important to bone health, but DEXA scans—which can cost anywhere from $150 to $325 without insurance—can help you track bone density over time. According to John Hopkins, past the age of 50 bone breakdown outpaces bone formation. For runners, knowing your bone density can serve as a baseline data point for comparison over the forthcoming decades.  This is especially relevant for athletes who have experienced RED-S.

How Does All That Data Help You?

Information is power. “For me, it all comes down to optimizing performance,” says Murphy. “I’m tracking all of these things so that I can push my body’s limits in training and get that extra one percent of advantage wherever I can.”

But you don’t have to be a professional athlete to chase that edge. If you take your fitness seriously or you have a challenging job, you probably want to wake up feeling awesome more often than not—which can be a big motivator for seeking out the things that make you feel awesome.

“By tracking your data, you start to understand how your body works—and then you start to understand that some of the things you’ve probably chalked up to random daily variation are actually very much explained,” says Emily Capodilupo, the Senior Vice President of Data Science & Research at Whoop. “That randomness is actually a logical result of how those behaviors affect you. And once you realize that, you can control some of those behaviors.”

Case in point: Duffy, using the Oura ring, notices that her resting heart rate is much higher and her sleep much worse after even just a glass of wine. That may not be enough to make her go totally sober, but it may make her rethink drinking the night before a big workout.

When you understand your baseline for any given metric, you can understand what a meaningful shift from baseline might look like for you, says Allen. But “to do that, you need to have at least a month of data in order to know what your baseline is and to know what a variation from that might look like,” she says. Outliers in your data could signal anything from overtraining or a common cold to life changes like pregnancy or menopause or even more serious health issues. And if you do spot outliers, the best way to handle them is still in collaboration with a professional, adds Allen.

What If You’re Already Fit and Healthy?

Well…don’t you want to stay that way? Data generated by apps, wearables, even blood tests may not be diagnostic, but it’s informative, and having access to that kind of information can empower you to take charge of your health.

“Tracking my own biomarkers and symptoms helped me make the decision to go on a statin [a cholesterol-lowering medication],” says Renee Deehan, VP of Science and Artificial Intelligence at InsideTracker. “As I got older, my lipids were creeping up on my InsideTracker tests, which prompted me to start having more conversations with my doctors. I ended up seeing a preventative cardiologist, and we made the decision together because, combined with my family history, she could see the upward trend in my data.”

Prevention is the name of the game here, and these new health-tracking tools allow consumers to practice preventative medicine without completely relying on their doctors (although your doctors should be a part of this process; if your concerned by your data in any way, you should always run it by a professional before doing anything about it on your own).

That said, it’s easy to get caught up in all the data. Before you even start using tracking tools, you want to have a question in mind that you’re trying to answer, versus the “let’s collect everything everywhere and then get lost in the noise” approach, says Allen. Whatever you’re tracking, there’s no one magic metric that determines health, just like there’s no algorithm that can interpret how you feel. These tools are just that: tools. They’re not meant to control your life or training.

Murphy understands that the mindset of looking for that one percent advantage isn’t for everyone, “and to be honest it probably won’t be my mindset either when I am done competing professionally. These health tracking tools are there if you want them—and they can help you understand your body better and help you make connections in ways you may not have previously—but they’re also not something you must use.”

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