Fitness watches are indeed accurate, but they’ll likely ramp up your anxiety


New study shows that fitness trackers may help users pound the pavement more often, but it might be at the expense of their nerves.


COPENHAGEN, Denmark — With more capabilities from technology comes more concerns. It’s a recurring theme in modern life: the gadgets and inventions that do so much to simplify our lives in one area end up complicating matters to no end in another. Now, a new study finds a similar relationship regarding fitness watches and health apps, the popular tools that help people keep closer track of their heart health, physical activity, and sleeping habits.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen conclude that fitness trackers are quite capable of collecting accurate data. Naturally, the technology helps motivate wearers to adopt a healthier lifestyle. However, besides all that, researchers also note a downside to these devices: they almost always make the wearer feel more anxious.

“Our study shows that, overall, self-measurements are more problematic than beneficial when it comes to the patient experience. Patients begin to use the information from their Fitbits just as they would use a doctor. However, they don’t get help interpreting their watch data. This makes them unnecessarily anxious, or they may learn something that is far from reality,” explains co-study author Tariq Osman Andersen, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science, in a release.

Feeling fidgety from Fitbit

A group of 27 heart patients with cardiac arrhythmia and pacemakers (between the ages of 28-74) was asked to wear a Fitbit devices for six months. During that period, the Fitbits tracked each person’s heart rate, sleeping habits, and overall physical activity. Participants also periodically checked in with the study’s authors for interviews.

Researchers say there were some clear patterns among the participants. While patients enjoyed having a better understanding of their bodies, that additional information almost always made them nervous. For example, if a participant noticed that he (or she) isn’t sleeping as well as a month prior, that person would almost instantly jump to the conclusion that their diminished sleep patterns are having an adverse effect on their heart.

Another example is wearers overanalyzing small fluctuations in heart rate. Some participants feared a heart attack was coming just because of a higher heart rate reading from his or her Fitbit.

That being said, more data can also calm the nerves as well.

“Conversely, the Fitbit watch can be calming, if data shows that you are sleeping well and have a low heart rate,” says Andersen. “The problem is that you cannot use data directly related to heart disease because the watch is designed for sports and wellness, as opposed to managing disease.”

Emotional responses from fitness trackers

The Fitbits also can be double-edged swords regarding exercise. On one hand, the trackers motivate participants to exercise more — always a positive. But, on days when participants slack off, the device reminds them of that too, often triggering intense feelings of guilt.

“The Fitbit watch is not designed for heart patients, so they should not necessarily follow the same recommendations for exercise as those who are in good health,” Andersen adds.

So, what can be done? Users of these devices need a better way to interpret and understand the health data they’re reading, the authors say.

“We believe it is time to think in terms of ‘collaborative care’, where both patient and clinicians benefit from the new health data and are thereby able to work together to manage and treat chronic diseases. This requires that we create a digital platform in which clinicians and patients can jointly interpret data from, for example, fitness watches, without creating unnecessary additional work for clinicians,” Andersen concludes.

The study is published in Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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