Health trackers: Helpful or Harmful?

More than 245 million wearable devices were sold in 2018. That's a lot of tech strapped to our collective bodies.

In the Self Healing newsletter, Dr. Weil summarizes the latest research on fitness trackers. In general, the research shows that fitness trackers, in particular, appear to increase step counts and overall physical activity levels; people who wear them often report feeling more motivated to exercise.

While some studies have documented improved health outcomes--such as improvements in BMI and body composition--in individuals using fitness trackers, the evidence isn't overwhelmingly conclusive or positive. A systematic review of six previously published randomized controlled trials on the subject found little indication that wearables reliably confer major health benefits. Of the studies reviewed, only one showed significant weight loss by participants using fitness trackers. None found significant reductions in cholesterol or blood pressure. One study did examine hemoglobin A1C and found a measurable reduction in older patients with type 2 diabetes.

Studies suggest that health trackers have limited or questionable accuracy, especially when it comes to estimating the number of calories you burn during exercise. Many sleep trackers can't effectively distinguish between different sleep stages or accurately detect waking after sleep onset. Some scientists suggest that sleep trackers are more likely to be more harmful than helpful, reinforcing sleep-related anxiety and, in many cases, making insomnia worse.

Trackers also emit electromagnetic frequency (EMF) signals similar to cell phones, and we do not have studies that provide these signals are completely safe.

My take: I am currently using two wearables: the Oura ring for sleep tracking and the Freestyle Libre continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Without question, the Oura ring was instrumental in helping me fix my sleep. Then again, my problem was not insomnia. I think most people with sleep problems don't have insomnia. They are just experiencing the effects of bad habits and bad sleep hygiene. I think a sleep tracker would be beneficial for many people to see how their behaviors affect their sleep each night. 

The CGM provides a wealth of information about my metabolism, and it's the best way to measure the effects of what I'm eating. It's disappointing to see that I am still battling T2 diabetes, but I would rather have the knowledge so that I can keep myself accountable and improve my health. The scary thing about many chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes is that you may actually feel totally fine in the beginning and even intermediate stages of the diseases. High blood pressure is called "the silent killer" for a reason.

As with most things, there is no one right answer about health trackers. You should be clear about the reasons why you are using one, and you should have no qualms about tossing it if it's not helping you reach your goals.

Notes from Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing Newsletter