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Are Fitbits Better than Low-Carb Sliced Bread? The Truth About Health Wearables

Fitness Tracker

Pop quiz: What's your heart rate—right now? What initially appears as a foolish question limited to overzealous health nuts is surprisingly easy to answer for almost 100 million fitness band users who diligently monitor their health and body functions. The expanding technology in wearable fitness devices enables users to monitor sleep patterns, track heart rate, count calories, mark active versus stationary movement, all while counting steps and looking like a Trekkie. But from a healthcare perspective, can health wearables be helpful to healthcare providers?

Consumer technology consultant and Time Magazine contributor Tim Bajarin says yes. "I've been studying the market for some time, and I believe most signs point to wearable health tracking having serious long-term potential." In his article, he notes that in 2014, 90 million of these devices were sold, and demand continues to be strong.

When it seems we have a closer relationship with our fitness bands than some members of our family, it makes one speculate the practical functionality of this device. Supporters of fitness bands note that people like to be aware of their health and of what's going on with their bodies. For doctors, that response can be helpful, but is it necessary?

Through a wireless function, fitness bands collect and sync personal data to a computer or smartphone. When it comes to offering a healthcare provider access to data generated by health wearables, most doctors consider this mass of information mostly unreliable and overwhelming. Another concern involves watching consumers focus on numbers and data instead of other aspects of life, like spending (unmonitored) time with family and friends. However, one valued feature is the fitness band's ability to pick up irregular heart rhythms—like atrial fibrillation—which proves helpful in alerting users to see their doctor.

Speaking of heart rate, how can tracking heart rate help (or hurt) our overall health and fitness goals? "The main way it can help is by making people more aware of what's happening with their heart," says John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist at University of Utah Healthcare's Cardiovascular Center. "It also gives people a way to measure whether or not they are truly exerting themselves during physical activities." But Ryan cautions that having access to this data can create extraordinary and unhealthy challenges. "Some people can overexert themselves," he says. For example, users see that they are at a heart rate of 120, so they want to raise it to 130. Then they want to reach 140. That's when it gets dangerous.

With the latest trend focusing on following sleep patterns, how does tracking your sleep (or the lack of it) benefit your health? Ryan says the real advantage of this data is the focus it places on our habits. He says that tracking sleep patterns gives you insight on possible factors that affect the quality of sleep so that we can make necessary adjustments. But an excess of data can literally keep us up at night. "If your tracker tells you that you aren't getting enough deep sleep, you may become obsessed with why you aren't sleeping. Ironically, our anxiety-driven pursuit of deep sleep could prevent us from getting a good night's rest," he says.

Overall, when used in moderation and accompanied with healthy eating and regular exercise, most doctors are fine with a patient's fitness band. But don't count on fitness bands replacing a portion of a physical examination anytime soon. For healthcare providers, the traditional metrics are still valid in monitoring health, with weight being the main factor they track. In fact, if given a choice, most providers prefer that people weigh themselves rather than monitor their heart rates.

There's no mistaking the allure of fitness bands and health wearables. Having immediate access to your health broken down into numbers and percentages is heady. But as the popularity of fitness bands grows, it's important to remember that daily health is more than a number—it's a lifestyle. And the satisfaction we experience in incorporating good health and wellness into our daily routine is something that can't be measured by percentages. The truth is found in the way we feel.