How (And Why) Apple’s Obsessed With Our Health

This post first appeared on the Ferenstein Wire, a syndicated news service; it has been edited. For inquires, please email author and publisher Gregory Ferenstein.

If you want an idea of how the phone in your pocket and watch on your wrist are trying to change you, Apple’s announcements Monday are a great place to start. 

The company will offer new metrics for its expansive health-data monitoring system, Healthkit. Apple will begin tracking behaviors essential for a happy mood and focused mind, including hydration and ultra-violet light exposure. Of all the medical measurements that the world’s richest tech company could have announced at its much-hyped developers conference, it chose to a make a big deal out of little behaviors that the most health-obsessed people among us already do. 

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Apple seems to be inching forward in its pursuit of the perfect human: It apparently wants to make people smarter, faster, and stronger, prodding them along with little Apple buzzes throughout the day. Exactly 10 minutes before every hour, the Apple Watch vibrates on countless wrists across the country to prompt users to “stand up!” 

Now reminding users to drink water or get some sun will become the next iteration of Apple nudges. Consider it the latest step toward the company’s ultimate goal: keeping its users strong and healthy. 

Hydration and Sunlight Matter

There’s a reason why health coaches constantly bark about keeping hydrated during the day: Dehydration can alter our mood and mind. 

“Even mild dehydration that can occur during the course of our ordinary daily activities can degrade how we are feeling,” Harris Lieberman, a research psychologist at the US Army’s Military Nutrition Division Research, explained to UConn Today. It has been associated with “degraded mood, increased perception of task difficulty, lower concentration, and headache symptoms,” he added, especially for women. 

See also: App Makers Now Have More Access To The Guts Of The Apple Watch

Ironically, to date, the best known consumer wearable technology for measuring hydration is not the sophisticated Apple Watch, but the more limited Jawbone Up3 activity tracker. Its metal contacts line the inside of the Jawbone’s black wrist band, meeting skin so it can monitor the body’s H2O levels. 

Ultra-violet (UV) light exposure can influence our well-being too. Though we typically associate UV with evil cancer-causing rays, the body is designed to soak up the sun like a nutritional sponge. Along with Vitamin D, exposure to very bright sunlight boosts the vital neurotransmitter serotonin, which can help reduce the risk of depression and even carb cravings. Research also shows that light therapy (or adequate sun exposure, say, in the winter) can help thwart fatigue. Personally, I like to go outside and answer emails on my phone in the morning, which helps give me a coffee-like mental stimulation from the sun’s rays. 

The iPhone’s built-in ambient light sensor can help determine if users are getting too little (or too much) sun in a given outing. The Apple Watch also features an ambient light sensor, primarily to adjust the screen’s brightness to suit dark or light settings. While it’s no ultraviolet sensor, as early rumors suggested, it could still prove similarly useful to broadly keep track of time spent in well-lit environments. 

Developing Healthy Apple Users

When it comes to tracking the sun, the current Apple Watch may be somewhat helpful, but it will still have a tough time measuring up to rivals. These competitors include a new crop of ultraviolet-sensing devices, like Tzoa, and smartwatches like Samsung’s Gear S. The latter sports a UV sensor and an API (application programming interface), so developers can build apps that hook into it. (See ReadWrite’s API explainer.) 

That may be true for now, but Apple has only just begun. The company is constantly working on its HealthKit framework, the latest updates for which also include reproductive health features for women. 

On the hardware front, Apple may not have produced the super health-monitoring gadget of its dreams just yet. According to The Wall Street Journal, the iPhone maker reportedly wanted to pack its Apple Watch with loads more sensors, but those plans were stymied by a range of issues—from glitchy, inconsistent hardware to overly complicated systems, to say nothing of facing approvals from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They may be typical challenges for dedicated health devices, but for companies entering this arena for the first time, they can be overwhelming. Even for tech giants as large as Apple. 

Not that it has given up. The company’s ongoing development on HealthKit and the debut of its medical research project, ResearchKit, suggest Apple’s not ready to abandon its high-minded health aspirations. It’s still early days for the device, as well as those initiatives. For the foreseeable future, the company will certainly continue inching its way toward its ultimate goal: turning us all into optimally healthy humans, with many more years of Apple usage ahead of us. 

Photos courtesy of Apple. 

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