Data, when collected and analysed correctly, tells you the truth. The truth about your environment, the air you breathe, the water you drink; the truth about your body, your weight, the health of your heart; the truth about your diet, the nutritional value of the food you eat, the impact of the choices you make on your personal health. With truth comes the ability to understand, to take control and to change.

More than 36 million people die annually from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), mainly heart diseases, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), better health systems could prevent most of these premature deaths. Additionally, influencing public policies in sectors outside health can help to tackle the main risk factors, namely smoking, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s Charter for Healthy Living initiative brings together relevant organizations from business, government and civil society to come up with ways of enabling people to lead healthy and active lives, reducing the risk of NCDs. So how can we empower people to understand and manage their personal health? A large part of the answer lies in prevention.

Most NCDs are considered preventable, because they are caused or maintained by risks that can be modified. A healthy lifestyle, addressing not just diet and exercise but also the environment a person lives in, cuts the risk of becoming ill.

Making positive behavioural changes is difficult for most people. We all know we should get up off the sofa and go to the gym, but it is hard to follow through, especially if you don’t see an immediate impact. How can we enable people to do the right thing?

The emergence of wearable sensors and digital tools that measure heart rate or the number of steps taken provides one part of the solution – but not always enough to deliver the change required. Today, there are approximately 100,000 health applications available to download in major app stores, with many of these focused primarily on measuring activity.

Field research from Philips suggests that solutions that not only measure, but also monitor over time and motivate people, offer the best hope for real behavioural change. Our data can intelligently guide our coaches to intervene just when motivation is waning. Our experience also shows that digital tools are most effective when the consumer is already motivated and committed to positive change.

Consider someone whose weight is negatively impacting their health: beyond calculating the calories burned through physical activity, adding the guidance and motivation of a coach, who can help to understand the data and chart a personalized and achievable course, significantly increases the potential for success. Philips has teamed up with Weight Watchers to create a solution called ActiveLink. It helps Weight Watchers’ members meet their goals by providing the right technology, but also the guidance of an experienced virtual coach.

The same approach can also be tailored to groups who need special support, like elderly people who are inactive. A recent study from the Leiden University Medical Centre used the same Philips technology in a three-month online physical activity intervention for elderly people. Participants were encouraged to increase their daily life activities, for example walking and gardening, with the solution again proving effective in increasing daily physical activity and improving metabolic health.

In addition to unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, the WHO also tells us that exposure to environmental hazards, such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, are associated with NCDs. Speaking to consumers in megacities like Shanghai and Berlin, Philips has learned that today’s families want to be able to understand and control air quality in their home. Here again, measuring, monitoring and motivating behaviour is key – solutions like smart air purifiers help people understand the trends in air quality inside and outside their home and empower them to act in a timely manner to ensure clean air.

We see that people are increasingly looking for smart, personalized solutions to support them in leading healthier lives. Working together across governments and industries enables us to present individuals, families and communities with smart solutions that monitor, measure and motivate people to make the right decisions – decisions that will improve lives.

Author: Pieter Nota is CEO of Philips Consumer Lifestyle.

Image: A jogger runs past a stock index board outside a brokerage in Tokyo, 8 August 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon