Using a fitness tracker to boost your health? Today’s wearable health trackers have evolved far beyond step counting. Some newer devices bring the doctor’s office to your wrist, chest or head, with features that can measure your heart’s electrical activity, monitor blood sugar levels, calculate blood oxygen, detect irregular heartbeats and even catch sleep apnea.
In the past, electrocardiogram (ECG) machines lived only in medical offices and hospitals. Now a small device can measure the electrical rhythm of your heart using optical sensors on your wrist, a strap around your chest or a sensor embedded in a headband.
Can you trust a digital health hack to monitor your heart or catch irregular rhythms?
Julie Dominguez-Jones, M.D., a family medicine doctor at Sutter Medical Foundation, believes you can, alongside guidance from your healthcare provider. “My patients really like the heart rhythm features,” she says. “But if it goes off and they don’t understand why, it can be nerve wracking. Luckily they can contact me or come to the office.”
For people with existing heart conditions, Dr. Dominguez-Jones gives them precise instructions for using the devices.
“If we want to monitor something, I give them very specific guidelines as to what I’m looking for,” she says. “So if it does send an alert, they know what it means and what to do.”
If you have heart disease, work closely with your doctor to manage your condition in conjunction with any personal health devices. If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.
People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can integrate a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device with a fitness tracker to better manage blood sugar levels. The CGM device has a filament that goes under your skin and communicates with an insulin pump and fitness tracker device wirelessly.
Dr. Dominguez-Jones uses this setup herself to monitor her glucose levels in a more effective and discreet way.
“My watch alerts me if my glucose levels are low or high, or if I’m running out of insulin,” she says. “This is helpful because most of the time I don’t have my phone in my hand, but I can see an alert immediately on my watch.”
A sleep monitoring function, available on many wearable devices, gives data about the quality and quantity of your sleep. The device monitors movements and heart rate to estimate wakeful periods and time spent in different sleep cycles. It can also alert you to major sleep disruptions, which could indicate conditions such as sleep apnea.
Getting enough quality sleep is vital for cognitive and emotional functions and can even be helpful for people who are trying to lose weight, according to Dr. Dominguez-Jones.
Sleep monitors can help you identify patterns so you can make changes in your routine. If you suspect you may have a medical condition, get a medical sleep study for diagnosis.
Motivation to Move
Using a basic pedometer or smartphone app can raise awareness of your activity throughout the day. Some apps remind you to move and let you set personal fitness goals.
Elite athletes can invest in a higher-end device geared toward a specific activity, such as running, with advanced GPS functions and data about cadence and stride length. Some devices let you geek out on workout recovery metrics, such as breathing rate, heart rate variability, VO2max (a measure of aerobic endurance), skin temperature and how sleep affects your workouts.
If it helps you stay healthy and motivated, great. But Dr. Dominguez-Jones warns about the dangers of getting overly consumed with health and fitness trackers.
“If you get too caught up it can raise anxiety levels,” she says. “There are times when you need to unplug. You don’t need all apps reminding you all the time. There has to be a balance.”