Health Agenda

Physical Health

Do wearables really work?

We look at the trend of wearing fitness devices to find out whether they’re worthwhile, and how to make the most of them.

Health Agenda magazine
January 2018

Thanks to fitness trackers, you can now access everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your health: your heart rate, fitness level, daily exercise achievements, weight, mood, sleeping patterns and even risk of health issues. And while these fitness trackers may not make healthy choices for you, they could point you in the right direction.

More than just fitness

Fitness trackers have reportedly saved lives by picking up unusual data. For example, sudden and unexplained changes to heartbeat have sent wearers to see medical professionals, potentially preventing heart attacks. While these instances have been rare, keeping a close eye on your health, whether it’s normal or not, is the exact reason these devices were invented.

“Personal fitness trackers are a great step forward in being able to track your physical fitness and emotional stress levels,” says GP Michelle Groves. “Wearable body measurement devices can now pick up changes in your body, such as raised heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, before you’ve even realised that you’re under pressure.

“New devices will also be able to connect with blood sugar monitors,” she adds, which will assist in diagnosing and managing diabetes.

And wearables are making a difference to the health of Australians. A 2015 survey by consumer research company Pureprofile found 70% of Australians with activity trackers said their fitness had improved as a direct result. “The subtle changes, real-time tracking of their vital signs and creating progress logs enable people to become more aware of their lifestyle choices,” says Dr Groves.

Buddy up for healthy competition

A 2016 PWC study says almost half of Australians own a fitness tracker, using them for improving their health and recording medical and dietary information.

Another common way we use them is in a group fitness setting, such as taking part in the fitness challenge 10,000 Steps. According to research conducted by the University of Western Australia, this usage means we’re more likely to get out and get moving.

This is a scenario exercise physiologist Jacci Allanson often sees with her clients.

“People become engaged in doing more exercise when they can compare numbers and results,” she says. “They buddy up and want to increase their goal, which means they’re ultimately exercising for longer, and more often. It’s a great motivator to aim for a daily number, and to increase it by 10% each week. It turns it into a game.”

The best thing about fitness trackers is that they needn’t cost you anything. “If people are looking to be more active, they can download a basic, and free, pedometer app onto their phone,” says Allanson. “Even at the very basic and simple end, people can see how much they’re moving.”

Fitness trackers and your doctor

By sharing your data – such as pulse rate and blood pressure (and blood sugar levels if you have this connected) – with your GP and understanding when measures are abnormal, you can work with your doctor to improve your health, says Dr Groves.

“You can also see changes to your heart rate from rest to during exercise and how quickly you recover after exercising – this is an important indicator of physical fitness. A normal pulse rate can range from 60–90 beats a minute. Your respiration rate should be between 12–20 breaths a minute.” However, athletes can have a lower normal pulse rate.

Find your motivation

Are fitness trackers the answer to Australia’s obesity problem? Although we see some fitness benefits from wearables, we may still struggle to stick to our health and wellbeing goals, since research shows 40% of people stop using their activity tracker within 6 months.

Eric Finkelstein from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore studied 800 workers over the course of a year to table their habits and motivation through wearables.

“After a while they cease to provide new information,” he says. “That’s the case with all measurement tools. The key is to convert them into intervention tools.” Finkelstein says that fitness trackers alone aren’t enough to encourage people to exercise.

Wearing fitness trackers to help you lose weight and lower stress levels may have an unintended opposite effect, says Dr Groves. “Some people may feel under pressure to constantly track their wellness, causing undue stress. There can also be a psychological toll and guilt as wearers feel as if they’re being controlled by their device with poor understanding of what the numbers mean in reality.”

There’s no right or wrong way to use a fitness tracker; it’s about using it to improve your motivation to exercise.

“You still need to put the hard work in that will get you fit,” says Allanson. “Fitness trackers are just a tool – it’s not going to change your health, but is a tool to help you reach your goals.”

HCF Thank You members may receive a discount on BioConnected wireless earphones that boast a heart rate monitor and in-ear coaching. Visit HCF Thank You for details

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