Regardless of where you look, wellness trackers and smartwatches are everywhere. Watches have become more than an accessory or a way to tell time. Nowadays, you’re wearing a small computer on your wrist that works as a communication device, time keeper, and even a wellness tracker.
These wellness trackers have become a key tool in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They can track your fitness, sleep patterns, heart rate, calories burned, and even run basic health screenings such as an electrocardiogram (EGG). The added benefit is that you can share this information with your doctor straight from your watch in most cases.
While the technology is impressive, it’s helpful to know the full scope of advantages and disadvantages that a smartwatch provides when it comes to wellness tracking. On the upside, I truly believe that smartwatches with wellness trackers are encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
Personally, I wear an Ōura ring which essentially works the same way as a watch. It helps me track my sleep quality and activity level each day. If I’ve had a particularly sedentary morning, my ring encourages me to get up and move my body, while the sleep tracker offers valuable feedback on my quality of rest each night.
I’m going to tell you all about the benefits of your smartwatch wellness tracker, the many ways it can give you insights into your health, and review some of the more popular ones on the market. Before I do that, let’s talk about how the smartwatch has changed healthcare.
Smartwatches and Healthcare
Research on how smartwatches influence our lifestyle is promising. If you’ve purchased your first smartwatch in the past couple of years, you’re not alone. Sales for smartwatches increased to over 60% in 2018, and for good reason.1 Consumers are not only buying smartwatches for convenient notifications or entertainment, but for the insights they provide on heart health, activity, and sleep.
Your smartwatch is doing more than just tracking your steps. It can detect heart abnormalities like atrial fibrillation through an electrocardiogram (ECG). Apple watches have this feature that keeps the date on an app that you can share with your doctor. Studies show those with irregular heartbeats who use smartwatches are more likely to be treated with an ablation, a lifesaving heart procedure that corrects abnormal heart rhythms.2
Smartwatches have encouraged users to advocate for their health in other ways, too. If you have a smartwatch, you will have insight into more personalized health data than ever before—including your heart rate during runs, how much water you’ve consumed, and even how many minutes of the day you’ve spent standing. You may even use your device to see if you’re achieving quality sleep or tossing and turning throughout the night.
Let’s get deeper into the features smartwatches have in regards to wellness tracking.
Health Features on Wellness Trackers & Smartwatches
Depending on the brand and series of your wellness tracker smartwatch, it can offer a variety of features you can use as feedback on health status. Here are some of the wellness tracking features on your smartwatch.
An electrocardiogram records the electrical signals in your heart. Your doctor may use an electrocardiogram to determine or detect an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmias), if blocked or narrowed arteries in your heart are causing chest pain, or whether you have had a previous heart attack.
Some newer versions of the Apple Watch and Fitbit offer an electrocardiogram, or ECG, to measure heart activity and detect any abnormal rhythms.3 ECGs on smartwatches can detect atrial fibrillation (a leading cause of stroke) and other abnormalities, but they cannot check for a heart attack. As I mentioned, the results are saved on your phone and you can share them with your doctor.
One of the newer features on a smartwatch is its ability to measure electrodermal activity (EDA). What is electrodermal activity? It’s a way to measure stress and mood by using droplets of sweat. An EDA can detect whether your body is in fight or flight mode and disruptions in your sleep pattern.
Chronic stress is public enemy No. 1. Some stress is necessary to keep your immune system sharp and help you stay alive in dangerous situations. Yet, prolonged, relentless stress can contribute to leaky gut, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and a plethora of autoimmune conditions.
Using the sweat level of your skin, the built-in EDA detects small electrical changes and data on heart rate, sleep, and activity to assign stress scores. The lower the score, the more stressed your body is.
If you find that your body is always in stress mode, adaptogens are a natural way to support a healthy stress response. ZenAdapt™ is packed with adaptogens such as ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and other compounds to support your body’s response to constantly being “on.”
Smartwatches set the standard for sleep tracking. Mamy wellness trackers on a smartwatch include sleep tracking as a feature. These trackers keep record of your sleep patterns, how many hours of REM sleep you get, and the number of hours you are asleep. The more advanced ones can also track brain activity.
The best way to get enough sleep is to follow 3 simple steps for optimal sleep.
- Eat foods rich in tryptophan, magnesium, and melatonin. Turkey, chicken, and shellfish are great sources of tryptophan, while bananas, avocados, and green leafy vegetables contain a lot of magnesium.
- Skip fatty foods, rich proteins, chocolate, alcohol and coffee, and over-the-counter medications that could contain hidden caffeine and sugar. Check your labels!
- Get tired naturally by having a regular sleep schedule, waking up early, going to bed early, exercising, and creating a bedtime routine.
If you need added support, Rest and Restore Max™ is a physician-formulated blend of ingredients to maximize optimal sleep and promote a natural sleep pattern. It also features three additional essential ingredients to help those who have particular difficulty falling and staying asleep – melatonin, valerian root, and 5-Hydroxytryptophan.
Activity Tracker & Calorie Counter
A lot of wellness trackers already have an activity tracker that estimates the calories burned during exercise and throughout the day.
Most smartwatches on the market track movement and count your steps. Some brands, like FitBit and Garmin, rank consistently higher on comparison lists for step accuracy and competitions they have with other users.
More advanced activity trackers estimate calories burned and can connect to other third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal to keep track of calories in through the food you eat and calories you’ve burned from movement. The flaw is that these trackers are based on general estimates based on your workout that you select. Everyone’s body is different, so there’s no true way to measure how many calories you have burned.
However, new technology is emerging. Fitbit and Garmin, two types of smartwatches I’ll talk about later, have developed an app that tracks burned calories as you move, breathe, and during regular activities on a daily basis. It’s a little more accurate because the technology works by using your BMR ( Basal Metabolic Rate), which is determined based on age, sex, weight, and other personal stats that you input into the app.
Diet and Calorie Tracker
Just as it can measure activity and calories burned, many new apps are surfacing that can track your diet and calorie intakes. I mentioned how you needed to connect your activity tracker to a third-party app to get an accurate measurement of calories in and calories out. That can get complicated and the results are not always accurate. Plus, I don’t advocate for strict calorie counting as long as you are eating a diet full of whole foods.
The exciting part is that these diet trackers are advancing so much and can give you real insights on your diet such as micro- and macronutrients you’re getting, how much sugar you’re eating, and the amount of fat in your food. Keep in mind, however, that these numbers are estimates and usually based on the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and not optimal levels. If possible, you should personalize your settings to meet optimal levels of nutrients for your sex, age, and body type.
Blood Oxygen Levels
Finger pulse oximeters were at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic when it began. Oximeters measure oxygen saturation in your blood by measuring your pulse rate.4 A number of companies such as Apple, Garmin, and FitBit have developed apps for their smartwatches and wellness trackers that detect blood oxygen levels.
A smartwatch or wellness tracker gives you access to comprehensive feedback on multiple aspects of your health. And in doing so, you have valuable information to share with your functional medicine provider.
Types of Wellness Trackers & Smartwatches
There are dozens of brands on the market, ranging in cost, appearance, and function. It can be hard to choose which one based on the features you are looking for and the cost. Here’s a quick breakdown of the different brands available and the key features they provide.
The Apple Watch is perhaps one of the most well-known wearable devices on the market. There are many generations of the Apple Watch as it has evolved over the years. Apple Watches start at $199 for the Series 3. The newer versions start at $399.
The most recent Apple Watch is the Series 7, which offers a larger screen and traditional wellness tracking features such as a heart rate monitor, steps counter, and distance tracker for walks and runs. It also has newer features such as an electrocardiogram and blood-oxygen sensor. If you have an iPhone, all of the wellness tracker data your watch records is sent to your phone, which makes it more convenient to share with your doctor
I absolutely love my Ōura ring. It doubles as a sleek accessory (since I already have a watch I love!) and a powerful wellness tracker. The Ōura ring starts at $299 for the newest version, however, you have to sign up for a monthly membership that costs $5.99/month.
It’s a ring you wear on your finger that collects data and sends it to your phone without all the distraction of constant notifications from texts, emails, and social media you have with other smartwatches. The Ōura ring measures my activity levels, sleep quality, and heart rate. One of my favorite features is that it recommends “recovery time” if it detects your body is under stress or after workouts.
Similar to other brands, Garmin offers a wide variety of smartwatches. They can get on the pricey side and range from $350 to $1,300. The more expensive the watch is, the more features it offers.
The more basic Garmin smartwatches display heart rate and step count. You can connect it to your phone to receive messages on it. The more expensive smartwatches offer high-tech GPS tracking and built-in fitness trackers for a variety of movements like swimming, running, cycling, or Pilates.
Fossil® is one of the most famous watch brands in the world and recently launched a series of smartwatches. Fossil smartwatches cost anywhere from $200 to $300. They feature a more traditional watch look, however, they don’t offer some of the more advanced features as some of the other types of smartwatches. Fossil® devices offer the basics of a smartwatch including tracking movement, heart rate, and different types of workouts.
FitBit offers a variety of products ranging from basic wellness trackers to a full range of smartwatches. FitBit is more affordable than other brands and starts at $79 for the basic wellness tracker. Smartwatches cost anywhere from $179 to $300.
FitBit is the original wellness tracker and is simple to use and one of the more accurate wellness trackers. It offers a simple-to-use and accurate way to track steps, heart rate, and different types of workouts. You can connect with other FitBit users for motivation and accountability. It can even track your sleep patterns.
The right smartwatch is the one that is best for you and offers the features you want in a smartwatch and wellness tracker. The important factor to remember is that most of the results are not 100% accurate.
Considerations of Using a Wellness Tracker
There’s no denying that wellness trackers and smartwatches have a positive impact on the way we get information about our health. However, as with everything, there are a couple of factors to consider and I’m going to tell you about those now.
Smartwatches and wellness trackers use a type of radiation known as Electro-Magnetic Frequency (EMF), which is a known carcinogen, a substance that can cause cancer. EMF waves are used by smartwatches to communicate through wireless and Bluetooth® technology. That means the wearable computer on your wrist could be exposing your skin to radiation.
However, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the radiofrequency (RF) transmitters used in smartwatches are low-powered and emit non-ionizing radiation. This means smartwatches expose you to small levels of RF radiation over time.5
Keep Results in Perspective
As with most technology, smartwatches have limitations. This is especially true for newer features that will evolve as they are updated.
Studies show that measurements on steps, heart rate, and movement may be skewed.6 Typing, for example, causes heart rate sensors to be lower than the true number, while walking causes it to be higher. Your step tracker will vary based on the pace and gait of your walk, and your heart rate monitor could read up to 20 beats too high or low. Remember, these measurements are estimates.
I recommend talking about your results with your functional medicine practitioner to get a better outlook on your overall health and wellness.
How Smartwatches are Improving Our Health
One of the important benefits of smartwatches is that they are motivating people to live a healthier lifestyle. Research shows that having access to personalized data and health insights encourage many smartwatch wearers to move more, eat healthier, and advocate more for their own health at the doctor’s office.
Any device or measure you can take to take back your health and get on the path of optimal health is worth it. Mental and physical health are connected. Having insights into your own mental and physical health that smartwatches provide can help you improve your overall well being. I’d love to hear about how your smartwatch has improved your health and motivated you to get moving.
- Smartwatch unit sales up 61 percent in 2018. Change Miller. 9to5Mac. 2019.
- Apple Watch, Fitbit users with heart conditions get more medical procedures. Nicole Wetsman. The Verge. 2021.
- ECG smartwatches explained: How they work and the best on the market.. Michael Sawh. Wareable. 2021.
- So Your Wearable Tracks Blood Oxygen Data. How Do You Use It?. Boone Ashworth. Wired. 2020.
- Wearable Computers and Wearable Technology. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. 2021.
- How accurate are wearable heart rate monitors?. Harvard Health. 2020.