Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Can fitness trackers detect heart problems?

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Wearable digital devices that can count calories, steps and heart rate are now an important part of how we look after our health. But should you use them?


Whether they are specialty wrist-worn devices or apps built into smartwatches, fitness trackers are becoming increasingly popular. On this page we look at the pros and cons of these digital technologies and answer some common questions about them.

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Wearable digital devices can count calories, steps and heart rate and are now an important part of how we look after our heart health. Discover whether using such devices can be a helpful tool to lead a healthy lifestyle with Professor Mark Hamer.

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What can fitness trackers monitor?

Also known as ‘wearables’, fitness trackers can monitor a variety of health information such as heart rate, oxygen levels, steps and sleep. These days, most can be connected to apps to help track progress and trends. Some devices also include blood pressure monitoring and single-lead ECGs (a simple type of electrocardiogram with one electrode sensor) which can read heart rhythms and rates. But these are not as reliable as proper medical tests.

Benefits of fitness trackers

They can be useful for tracking physical activity or helping people to get more active. Many people do not realise how little movement they’re typically doing in a day until they start using a fitness tracker. They can also help people set and achieve fitness goals, keep motivation high, and make it easier and more fun to move more often.

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How accurate are fitness trackers?

Accuracy can differ depending on which numbers are being monitored, which device is being used and what level of activity you are doing. 

For example, step count has generally been found to be the most accurate measure. Numbers such as heart rate vary depending on the tracker being used and the intensity of activity. One review that looked at the evidence found that the higher the intensity of exercise, the less accurate the heart rate reading.

You should not pay too much attention to any one-off reading from a fitness tracker. It is the overall trends that are most important. For example, if you notice a heart rate reading that is lower or higher than usual, it is likely nothing to worry about. But if you notice unusual readings regularly, or you see numbers trending up or down in an unusual way, let your doctor know.

Can fitness trackers detect heart problems?

Fitness trackers are useful when it comes to looking after our health, but it is important to remember they are not medical devices. They cannot replace medical tests and are not designed to give a diagnosis. They are primarily intended to help monitor fitness.

However, they can be helpful for monitoring health, so if you start to see numbers or trends that worry you, let your doctor or nurse know so that they can look into it.

Downsides of fitness trackers?

One of the biggest pitfalls of fitness trackers is that they can increase health anxiety. It can be easy to become too fixated on the numbers. Increased anxiety can temporarily raise our heart rate.

It can also have a negative effect on lifestyle choices, leading you to eat unhealthy foods, smoke or drink more alcohol. This in turn can increase your risk of heart and circulatory conditions. Anxiety can also have a big impact on our sleep and overall quality of life. 

For some people, wearing a fitness tracker could be more harmful to their wellbeing than not wearing one. If this is the case, it may be better to get your numbers checked at your GP or pharmacy instead.

Fitness trackers and implantable devices

Some smartwatches and fitness trackers may have the potential to interact with implantable devices, such as pacemakers and ICDs. If you have any concerns about a fitness tracker affecting your implantable device, speak with your pacing clinic for guidance.

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Atrial fibrillation and fitness trackers

Some fitness trackers include a single lead ECG that measures the electrical activity of the heart, which can help pick up abnormal rhythms such as atrial fibrillation.

However, the result can be affected by the position of the wearable and your movements. They can also detect harmless extra heartbeats. All of which can affect the quality of the ECG reading.

Single lead ECGs are not as accurate or detailed as a 12-lead ECG, the type that your doctor would use to monitor you. However, if you see readings that are out of the ordinary, you should get in touch with your doctor or nurse, so that they can advise on whether you need further tests.

Choosing the best fitness tracker for you

There are so many different kinds of fitness trackers on the market these days it can be hard to know which will best meet your needs.

Some questions to ask yourself before buying could include:

  • What do you want to track? And why?
  • Will monitoring be helpful, or will it cause you to worry more?
  • How much do you want to spend?
  • Would you like it to have an accompanying app?
  • Is it user-friendly if you have other health issues such as visual impairment or poor mobility in your hands?

Still not sure? Our online community may be able to help. You can join for free and ask members about their own experiences with fitness trackers and find out which models may suit your needs.

What to read next…

A close up of a person looking at their wearable fitness tracker.

Published 6 March 2024

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