Say Goodbye to Back Pain with this Posture Correcting App: Zen CEO Daniel James on the Power (and Privacy) of Health Tech

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Good posture helps you breathe, keeps you alert, and protects your spine. But sitting all day in an office job can wreak havoc on your alignment, causing long-lasting back pain and ailment.

Founded in 2020 in California, Zen is a program helping people to sit up straight and develop healthy work habits so they can work hard without jeopardising their wellbeing. Using a webcam and tracking software, the app alerts people if they are slouching and compromising their bodies. It can help workers improve not only their health but also their productivity.

But privacy is important to people and has become a touchy issue over the past few years as apps and companies have more access to people’s private data than ever before. Health apps are no exception, often tracking your most personal information.

Zen is a ‘privacy-centric’ application that promises to deliver health benefits without undermining people’s confidentiality. We spoke with co-founder and CEO, Daniel James, to find out more.

Q: Health tech can make a huge difference in people’s lives. What inspired you to enter this space?

A: I went from being a very active NCAA Division-One college football player at Yale University that could do a gymnastic-style split, to living the typical sedentary corporate lifestyle of sitting in front of a computer for over eight hours a day while working at Adobe in San Francisco. Eventually, this led to me developing severe low back pain and carpal tunnel.

Adobe offered great ergonomic resources, like a free ergonomic consultation, a stand-up desk, and I used my wellness stipend to purchase different devices that claimed to improve posture. Despite these efforts, my pain levels continued to rise.

I eventually reached out to the Director of Global Wellbeing at Adobe, Mary Kay Gilhooly, and she shared some surprising insights that inspired me to conduct independent research. I interviewed ergonomists at other leading tech companies, like Apple and Microsoft, and leading physical therapists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My investigation ultimately made me realize that billions of people are suffering daily from back and joint pain and a plethora of other problems due to unhealthy workday habits. [Many people] spend hours upon hours sitting and standing in front of screens with detrimental posture.

I found out that low back pain is the leading cause of global disability, and back and joint pain leads to health costs of $600BN in America. That’s more than heart disease, which is $309BN, and cancer, which is $243BN, combined.

I was even more shocked by how back and joint pain impacts businesses. U.S. employers spend over $300BN a year on employees’ back and joint medical treatments, which leads to 150M of lost workdays.

Diving deeper, the insights that I found on how back and joint pain impacts mental health literally brought tears to my eyes. Chronic back and joint pain increase the risk of developing depression and vice versa. This feedback loop is known as the depression-pain dyad. Studies show that 95% of people who have depression that does not improve after 12 months of treatment have an underlying chronic back and joint pain condition.

Continuing my research, I found that extended periods of sitting and standing also increase the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, memory loss, heart disease, and the list goes on. And while heart disease, memory loss, and even back and joint might not be immediate concerns for some, I believe that most people would be shocked by how their daily posture and movement behavior impacts their productivity.

As I concluded my research, I began to think about new approaches to improve workday health and productivity, starting with posture. Luckily for me, one day after work, my roommate at the time and now Co-Founder/CTO, Alex, told me that he developed a posture correction software for himself in college to help with his kyphosis, which is an excessive outward curvature of the spine, after long hours of coding during his summer internships at Adobe and Intuit. We ultimately decided to join forces and build Zen alongside top ergonomists and physical therapists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Q: Why did you focus on correcting posture? What are the health benefits?

A: Posture is at the core of everything we do from sitting to standing, walking, and all other human activities. Alex and I realized this in our personal wellness journeys. No matter how much we exercised, improved our diets, and optimized our sleep schedules, we still had back and joint pain and felt tired throughout the day because we didn’t get at the core issue, which is our daily posture.

As we improved our daily posture awareness, we began to see great health benefits. Studies show, and we’ve both experienced, that posture impacts how you feel, think, look, and act. Better posture leads to better back and joint health. Upright posture enables you to breathe better, which improves focus and energy levels. You feel and come across to other people as more confident when you are in an upright posture. Personally, I find new health benefits weekly, and more and more clinical studies are being published that showcase the plethora of health benefits.

Q: When I practised meditation daily for a period (and sat with a comfortable but long spine for a few minutes daily), I ended up being more aware of my posture and fixed it throughout the day. What is the long-term aim of the software? Is it to change posture over time through habit or to reduce back pain and the like, or both?

A: Definitely both. I believe that every great habit formation starts with awareness. Furthermore, I believe that you are more likely to fully adopt a habit if you practice that habit daily for relatively short periods of time. Although you can set Zen to run in the background all day, most people actually complete short 10-to-30-minute posture awareness sessions two to three times a day. This is very similar to how most people practice meditation.

One great power of routinely practising meditation is that when you encounter a stressful situation, you are more likely to find your center and approach that situation with logic so that you can make an effective decision, instead of acting with pure emotion.

The same goes for posture. If you practice posture awareness daily, you are more likely to correct your posture during those late hours of the day when you have Zoom fatigue. In fact, our users tell us that when they are using Zen regularly, they find themselves correcting their posture at the dinner table, in the car, and in other various situations more often. They are more aware of [their form] and have got into the habit of moving back into an upright position when they realize that they are slouching.

Boosted posture awareness and healthy habit formation ultimately lead to better back and joint health and many more great health benefits.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about the software and how it works?

 A: [When using] the posture correction software, you can set a time or several times for the app to automatically start-up and complete what we call posture sessions. You can also set the app to automatically start up when you hop on a video conference call, like Zoom or Google Meet.

Image source: www.yayzen.com

To begin your posture session, you sit or stand in an upright position, and the app calibrates you in that position, which essentially means that we will use your upright position as the baseline for how you should be sitting or standing during that posture session. Keep in mind that we do educate you on how to sit and stand comfortably in an upright position so that you are calibrating properly. After you calibrate, the Zen character, which is essentially a small blue avatar, will be displayed in your menu bar or in a small window if you choose. Zen will mirror your posture in real-time and turn red whenever you slouch.

After 30 seconds of continuous slouching, Zen will notify you to move back into an upright position, via a visual and/or audio alert. You can completely customize your settings, so if you would like to be alerted after five seconds or 10 seconds instead of 30, you can make this happen. You can also adjust how long you would like your posture session to run, which camera you would like to use if you have multiple, and more. After each posture session, you receive a detailed posture report with valuable insights.

Here’s a demo: https://youtu.be/ll5UB-bpbic

Q: Tracking software is becoming more and more popular as a way for people to manage and monitor their physical health. Can you speak to the power of this technology to empower people to look after themselves better?

A: I love health tracking software because it empowers people to continuously monitor and improve their health, without significantly interrupting their day.

For example, to improve posture before Zen, you would depend on a back posture strap or a posture correction device for posture awareness. Pulling from my personal experiences and hundreds of interviews with people who’ve experimented with these older methods, I’ve realized that people usually end up throwing away or not using their back posture strap or a posture correction device because it requires too much effort to put on, they feel uncomfortable wearing them throughout the day, and the list goes on.

On the other hand, with Zen, people tell us that they don’t even realize that the app is running in the background until they receive a slouch alert. People love how the tracking software integrates seamlessly into their workday. This leads to more consistent and long-term usage, which thankfully leads to the long-term health outcomes that people desire.

Q: Software access to webcams can be a touchy subject in the world of privacy and regulations. How does Zen make sure that the privacy of customers is protected?

A: Zen’s posture correction feature, which is the only feature that accesses individuals’ cameras, doesn’t run on the cloud. This means we can’t record or store any visuals. Using the posture correction feature without an internet connection can be a great way to see that we are sincere in our privacy-centric pledge. Since data, like photos or videos, can’t be passed to the cloud without an internet connection, we ask people to test the posture correction feature without using the internet. And guess what? It still works because it runs offline, making it technically impossible for us to record or store any visuals.

A few software engineers put our privacy pledge to the test by analyzing our data transfer using a tool called Wireshark, which verified that we in fact do not send any visuals to the cloud.

What’s more, our posture correction software is completely open-source, so users can look into the code to verify we are privacy-centric.

Q: What, if any, challenges did you encounter as a start-up?

A: For us, it’s all about earning users’ trust. We have to emphasize that we are a privacy-centric company. Even though we note that we don’t record or store any visuals on our site and throughout the app, people often overlook our copy due to the simple fact that people are usually in a hurry and are not reading every word that you put in front of them. So, we will have to keep building up our brand until it is synonymous with being privacy-centric. This will take time and consistency, but the end result is well worth the effort.

Q: What is the biggest lesson it has taught you about being an entrepreneur in the start-up realm, particularly in health tech?

A: I’ve learned that building a great company with a trustworthy brand is like running a marathon full of sprints. You have to move fast every day while realizing that you will be moving fast year after year. Earning users’ trust is often a challenge for health tech companies because users provide sensitive data. I’ve realized that we will have to emphasize that we are privacy-centric in every press release, optimize our messaging throughout our site and products, create content about our privacy practices, and ultimately become a thought leader in the space. This effort requires daily execution and long-term consistency.

Back pain is a leading cause of disability. Unsurprisingly, our desk jobs can be a serious culprit. Zen is a health app which can help people monitor, and improve, their posture while they work. While tracking software can ignite fears about privacy, Zen promises to respect it. Health tech can change people’s lives, making it easier to monitor and boost wellbeing with less effort. But handling people’s information with care and confidentiality, and proving it, is becoming a big challenge for the sector.

Sam Van Heerden
Sam Van Heerden
Experienced writer and researcher with a Bachelor of Journalism (Rhodes University), MSc Philosophy (University of Edinburgh), and MA Philosophy (Rhodes University).

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