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7 ways to manage your chronic disease with a fitness tracker

Man looking at his fitness tracker

These devices do more than count steps. If you’re managing a serious condition, they could help steer you toward better health.

Hallie Levine

By Hallie Levine

Fitness trackers have come a long way since the first Fitbit® hit the market just over a decade ago. By 2020, the market for fitness trackers was worth about $35 billion.

Whereas the first trackers were little more than fancy step counters, newer versions are more advanced. They’re packed with sensors that help monitor your heart health, sleep quality and more.

These devices may even help you manage a chronic condition. Research from the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that when people with diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease wore fitness trackers, they logged an average of 2,123 extra steps per day. As a result, they also saw improvement in blood pressure and a reduction in waist size.

“These devices can be very effective because they help people realize how sedentary they are,” says Pamela Peeke, MD. She’s a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and author of Fit to Live. “Many of us overestimate physical activity and underestimate eating.”

If you’re new to fitness trackers, you might not realize all they can do. They won’t cure your condition, notes Dr. Peeke. But they may keep you accountable and help you fix poor behavior patterns. In some cases, they may even alert you to a problem you didn't know about.

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It all goes to show: Today’s technology offers many ways to manage your health. If you have a chronic condition, here are some of the best ways to use your tracker.

Detect an irregular heartbeat

Wearable trackers such as the Apple Watch® look at your heartbeat to check for an irregular rhythm. This could suggest atrial fibrillation (AFib). It’s a common form of irregular heart rhythm where the upper chambers of the heart beat out of sync with the lower chambers.

AFib can be dangerous. It can increase your risk of stroke or heart failure, according to the Mayo Clinic. So spotting it early can help you head off a bigger problem.

It’s worth noting that AFib detection, as with other fitness-tracker features, is only a tool. You’ll still need to see a medical doctor for a proper diagnosis, says Brannon R. Hyde, MD. Dr. Hyde is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons in Austin, Texas.

If your tracker raises a flag, you may need an EKG (a test that records the electrical signal from your heart) or a Zio® (a wireless EKG patch you wear at home).

Keep stress at bay

Another popular tracker feature is heart rate variability, or HRV. This is a way to measure stress. A low HRV signals that you’re in fight-or-flight mode, according to Harvard Medical School. And it’s associated with depression, anxiety and heart disease.

If your HRV is low, you may want to try some strategies for destressing. “HRV is a really cool feature because it gives you a chance to see how well your meditation and stress management plan is going,” says Dr. Peeke.

You can find HRV in devices from Fitbit, Apple, Oura Ring® (a titanium device you wear on your finger) and more.

Monitor your blood sugar

If you have diabetes, you may wish there were an easier way to measure your glucose, or blood sugar. As of now, there isn’t a fitness tracker that can do the job on its own. But companies are working on it. And in the meantime, Fitbit will help you keep your data organized.

By pairing your tracker with a compatible glucose monitor, you can track your glucose trends alongside your sleep and exercise data. Fitbit’s app allows you to set a personalized range so you can see how often you stray. And it can send you daily updates to remind you to take your glucose reading.

Similarly, a device such as the iHealth Smart Wireless Glucose Monitoring System pairs with its own smartphone app. With daily testing, you can use it to track trends and identify behaviors that put your blood sugar outside the healthy range.

Call for help after a fall

More than 1 in 4 older adults take a tumble each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And of those, 3 million will end up in the emergency room.

Often these accidents can be partly attributed to medication you’re taking to treat a chronic condition. (Shocking stat: 94% of adults over 65 take at least 1 medication that increases the risk of falling.)

The fall risk is serious enough that Apple Watch has a fall detection feature. If the device’s sensors detect that you’ve fallen, it begins a 30-second countdown, while tapping you on the wrist and sounding an alarm.

If you don’t respond (by tapping “cancel”), the alarm gets louder so that you or someone nearby can hear it. If you’re still unresponsive when the countdown ends, it automatically calls emergency services for you.

If you’re not ready to spring for an Apple Watch, you can find less expensive fall-detection devices that don’t come with all the bells and whistles.

You can also download smartphone apps that perform a similar role. Dr. Peeke points to FallSafely Home, which alerts emergency contacts if it detects a fall. But tracker apps have a downside: They have to be on you to work. Your phone won’t do any good if it’s hooked to a charger in the next room.

Control your hot flashes

Okay, menopause isn’t a condition. It’s a stage of life. But more than a million women go through it each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. And it can lead to symptoms such as hot flashes that prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.

As it turns out, there’s a tracker for that. The Embr Wave is a wearable wrist device that helps you regulate your body temperature. When you press a button on the device, it delivers a cool or warm sensation on your wrist, activating a natural brain pathway that helps counter the feeling that you’re overheating.

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It sounds too good to be true. But a 2019 study published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that this kind of technology led to real improvements in comfort. It gave women 168% better control over hot flashes and a 21% improvement in insomnia severity.

“It’s fantastic because it’s both an intervention and a tracker,” says Dr. Peeke. It allows you to track the frequency and severity of your hot flashes. Then it helps you reduce the discomfort.

Help strengthen relationships

For some people, patience is hard to come by. It’s all too easy to behave rudely or snap at a stranger or loved one. None of us wants to think we behave this way, but the truth is, few of us are always at our best.

But if you’re routinely speaking with aggression, you may struggle to build new relationships. And that’s bad for your health.

People with weaker personal relationships are 12% more likely to experience cognitive decline, according to research in the International Journal of Epidemiology. And another study found that people with the fewest social connections were 55% more likely to die from any cause over an average study period of 16 years.

Amazon’s Halo tracker has a potential solution. The device analyzes the emotion in your voice to help you understand how you may sound to others. If your voice is annoyed or dismissive, Halo’s app will let you know. Similarly, if you sound warm and friendly, it will tell you that, too.

It’s worth noting that voice devices such as Halo have come under criticism for privacy concerns. So use it only if you’re comfortable with having a device listen to you.

Identify sleep problems

Poor sleep is a liability. It increases your risk of obesity, depression, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the CDC.

Thankfully, sleep tracking is fairly common in today’s trackers. You can find it in models made by Fitbit, Apple, Withings® and others. These devices do more than just tell you how long you’re sleeping. They also analyze your sleep quality.

“They actually read out every stage of sleep so you can understand where you may be short,” says Dr. Peeke. “Some people aren’t getting enough REM [rapid eye movement] sleep or deep sleep, but they wouldn’t otherwise know that.”

If you’re in bed for 8 hours a night, you may be surprised if you learn you never sleep deeply. If that’s the case, you may want to speak to a doctor. You might have sleep apnea, or one of your medications could be hurting your ability to fall into deeper sleep.

To gauge the accuracy of sleep trackers, researchers in the journal Behavior Sleep Medicine compared the Oura Ring to established medical devices. On average, the device underestimated deep sleep by about 20 minutes and overestimated REM sleep by about 17.

Another study on Fitbit’s sleep tracker found similar results. The devices were less accurate than what you’d find in a sleep lab. But the researchers concluded that they were still reliable enough to help users identify any serious sleep problems. And ultimately that’s what’s important.

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Additional sources
Fitness tracker market worth $34.6 billion: Grand View Research
Trackers for managing chronic conditions: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2020). “Can consumer wearable activity tracker-based interventions improve physical activity and cardiometabolic health in patients with chronic diseases? A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”
Sleep and chronic disease: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Oura Ring’s accuracy in sleep tracking: Behavioral Sleep Medicine (2019). “The Sleep of the Ring: Comparison of the ŌURASleep Tracker Against Polysomnography
Fitbit’s accuracy in sleep tracking: Journal of Medical Internet Research (2019). “Accuracy of Wristband Fitbit Models in Assessing Sleep: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Menopause overview: National Institutes of Health
Embr overview: Embr
Trackers can help control hot flashes: Behavioral Sleep Medicine (2019). “Thermal Comfort Intervention for Hot-flash Related Insomnia Symptoms in Perimenopausal and Postmenopausal-aged Women: An Exploratory Study
AFib overview: The Mayo Clinic
Social relationships predict cognitive decline: International Journal of Epidemiology (2016). “Social relationships and cognitive decline: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies
Social connections and all-cause mortality: American Journal of Epidemiology (2017). “Characteristics of Social Networks and Mortality Risk: Evidence From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies
Understanding Heart Rate Variability: Harvard Medical School