Do wearable devices make us healthier? Yes, no and maybe
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Technological advances in fitness and medicine have transformed how much we know about our bodies and how they are functioning at any given moment.
Wearable devices allow us to track every step and heartbeat, monitor how we sleep and test blood glucose levels without breaking skin.
Devices prescribed by doctors, like pacemakers, have also come a long way. Now, they can communicate wirelessly day and night.
Knowledge is empowering, right?
Well, according to the most recent data into whether more data equals a healthier outcome, technology — particularly the wearable fitness tracker devices we prescribe ourselves — is not necessarily improving health. Some studies are even showing the opposite.
All the new and improved technologies have a place, said Dr. Will Baker, a cardiologist with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig, “but we have to figure out what that place is — and the appropriate place.”
It is important to distinguish two categories of devices, Baker emphasized. “True medical devices” are ones given to a patient by a doctor, like a pacemaker.
Now that they can communicate data without a patient having to make an in-person visit to that doctor, patients can be anywhere in the world and still know their doctor is closely watching for any irregularities in their heart’s rhythm.
Pacemakers are now MRI-compatible, tiny and take just a few minutes to implant without needing anesthesia.
For people with diabetes, blood glucose monitors are another example of advanced technology that is “enhancing patient care and allowing patients to communicate with their doctor without having be seen frequently,” Baker said. “They are really valuable for managing diabetes.”
Over the counter blood pressure monitoring devices can play an important role, Baker said, as long as they are used correctly.
“Bad information isn’t helpful,” he said. “Bad information can make things worse.”
Self-monitoring “doesn’t take the place of seeing a doctor,” Baker urged. “I would never recommend a blood pressure monitor to self-diagnose.”
There is always a potential for misinformation, Baker noted, and misinformation can be harmful. If your Apple Watch tells you that your heart has a rhythm issue, for example, “don’t self-diagnose — take the information to your doctor.”
With ever-developing technology, there is “great potential to improve care,” Baker said, and cut costs for patients with fewer visits to the doctor.
“But it’s all about how we use the information,” he added.
Testing your blood pressure every five minutes and anxiously fretting over results that may or may not be accurate and may or may not be reason for concern — is probably not helping.
When it comes to devices like the Fitbit or Apple Watch and their impact on overall health and fitness, the available data doesn’t suggest much improvement.
Does monitoring how many steps you take in a day motivate or make you depressed, Baker asked as an example.
Carried out by international researchers, the study gave some of the participants a cash reward if they stuck with the device. Others were told that money would be given to charity if they met certain step targets, and others had no added incentive.
During the first six months, only those with the cash incentive recorded an increase in physical activity. After a year, the cash-incentive group returned to the same levels of physical activity as at the start of the experiment.
The group without incentive increased aerobic activity by an average of 16 minutes a week, but that did not provide sufficient evidence to show “that the device promoted weight loss or improved blood pressure or cardiorespiratory fitness, either with or without financial incentives,” according to lead author Professor Eric Finkelstein from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
“Wearable activity trackers are becoming increasingly popular. However, our results show that they are unlikely to be a panacea for rising rates of chronic disease,” according to the study.
There is some inherent irony in needing technology to attain mindfulness and disconnect from technology and using electronic devices to monitor sleep when those devices themselves may be a disrupter.
Baker contends these devices — minus the ones prescribed by doctors — aren’t good or bad. “We just need to be careful how we utilize them,” he said.
If setting a goal for steps each day is a motivational factor, and you are meeting that goal without adding a ton of stress to your day, all the power to you. That’s undoubtedly beneficial.
For those devices that can alert users to concerning symptoms, Baker stresses it is important to keep in mind they are not always 100% accurate, and while they can be helpful, they can also be wrong and miss things.
“They shouldn’t be considered a replacement for discussing things with your doctor,” he said.
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