Data is hot right now. We generate tons of it, but most of it sits there, latent, unused and useless. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to health and fitness data, where we strap on our fitness trackers and expect the pounds to melt away with each step passively logged.

But we haven’t seen a dramatic improvement in our nation’s health with the emergence of the “quantified self movement” and the pervasiveness of wearables. We still live in a country where two-thirds of us are overweight or obese and 80 percent of adults do not get the recommended amount of exercise.

We forget that data alone is not the key to solving America’s health crisis. Knowing our step count or flights of stairs climbed won’t change our behavior. However, data with context – data that is proactive, timely and actionable – gives us the opportunity to design our environments for success and can help enable us to reach our health goals.

Suckers for irrelevancy – squirrel!

The human brain evolved to easily receive and parse information. We can walk through a forest filled with sights, sounds and smells and not get overwhelmed. We are primed to constantly and unconsciously decide what is important and relevant – what can I eat and what will eat me? – and discard the rest.

In today’s world, we are presented with more stimuli than ever before. Our digital lifestyles mean that we are constantly bombarded by things screaming for our attention – figuring out what is relevant and important has become much more difficult. How can we focus on work or studying when there is Facebook to check, tweets to compose, puppy pictures to peruse and Netflix to watch? Microsoft came out with a study last year that found that people generally lose concentration after eight seconds that’s less than a goldfish (which, embarrassingly, possesses a nine-second attention span).

We must surround ourselves with digital tools that provide us with the information we need to make meaningful choices about behaviors that impact our health in the short time they have our attention. One example of a tool doing just this is Moov, a wearable fitness device that doesn’t just track movement, it demonstrates tangible ways to make a workout better.

Moov uses the data generated in the moment to provide personalized coaching on how to improve running, swimming and even boxing form, which hopefully leads to better results and fewer injuries for its users. Simple changes in behavior, such as those encouraged by Moov, could be the difference between a trivial step count and actual improved health and fitness performance.

Gluttons for gratification

Like water, people tend to take the path of least resistance. Historically, we had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources. Now, even with many of those constraints removed or limited, our bodies still crave foods high in sugar and fat, and we prefer couch-potatoing to running…because, you know, winter is coming.

This happens because the activation energy – the energy required to motivate us to do something – is very high for things that don’t promise an immediate payoff (for example, one spinning class isn’t going to give us Naomi Campbell’s legs), but very low for things that play into our desire for immediate gratification. Left to our own devices, we eat “just one more” until we collapse in self-disgust and condemn ourselves to green juice for the rest of the week.

The key to responding to this ever-spreading problem lies in designing our digital environments to support data-driven, low-activation energy tasks that promote positive, healthy habits. These tasks must be presented to us rather than making us seek them out, because we all know where the gym is and yet somehow find ourselves there much less frequently than we should.

The problem is that we’ve allowed our environments to be constructed to support deleterious behaviors and discourage positive ones.

Programs like Prevent from Omada Health, which coordinates for people at risk for chronic disease everything they need to embrace lasting change, are successfully bridging this gap between what we “should do” and what we’re actually doing. Omada Health uses trained health coaches to monitor users’ progress and provide timely information on things like dietary choices and activity level, so users are encouraged to make adjustments in the moment, when it matters. These small changes, informed by data and empowered with context, support much larger behavior change that can ultimately lead to improved health.

Making data useful

Adopting healthy behaviors can seem like a battle against human nature; much of the time, it is. Recognizing that fact allows us to approach the problem from a different perspective and design solutions that drive positive outcomes. While the data alone may be useless, the problem isn’t the data itself, it’s how we design the context around the data.

The problem is that we’ve allowed our environments to be constructed to support deleterious behaviors and discourage positive ones. But we have the power to change that, and we are starting to. Because of real – time personalized coaching around everything from how we exercise to what we eat and drink – even helping us prevent certain chronic diseases – we’re starting to see a shift from data for data’s sake to the contextual predictive experiences we’re getting to know and love from solutions like Google Now and proactive Siri.

We have the ability to make health data proactive, timely, actionable and immensely useful. We must design for the fact that it’s not about what we did last week or how much we need for the day; it’s about what we need right now, and what we can do in the moment to get there.

Proactively providing this data in a timely manner that allows for immediate action will provide us with the ability to start becoming the healthy, fit people we want to be – or at least help us be a little less lazy.

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