Health Stats. Fitness trackers are all the rage these days, and they’re more sophisticated than ever, offering users access to streaming workouts on their wrists, tracking sleep, monitoring your heart rate, and even mental health. A decade ago, a smartphone that monitors your sleep quality probably seemed preposterous, yet tracking these and other health stats is now commonplace. According to 2013 data from Pew Research, 69% of adults use a health monitor to track health stats for themselves or a loved one.
But can tracking your personal health stats really lead to better health? Here’s a look at the growing number of health stats you can track with your smartphone and the impact they can have on your health and well-being.
Diet and Exercise
While they rely mostly on self-reporting, there are hundreds (likely thousands) of apps that help you track your diet and exercise habits. With built-in databases with calorie and macronutrient counts for thousands of foods, entering a few bits of information in an app can give you a ballpark overview of your caloric intake and output, which can help users lose weight or meet specific health goals if used consistently. With these apps, you can track some combination of:
- Caloric intake
- Caloric output
- # of steps taken
- # of floors climbed
- Total distance traveled
- Active minutes
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- Type and duration of exercise
- Heart rate
In fact, you may not even need to download an app if you’re just looking for some basic stats. Newer smartphones (beginning with the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy S5) have a built-in motion tracker that collects data on your movements throughout the day. To view your stats, just open the built-in app on your phone (Health for iPhone users; S Health for Samsung phones; Google Fit on any Android device). So, if you want to know how many steps you’re taking each day – experts recommend at least 10,000 – you have all you need in the palm of your hand.
Some apps aim to make it easier to document your dietary intake, such as Lose It (iOS, Android) which offers calorie counts and nutrition information based on photos you can quickly snap with your smartphone, rather than taking the time to look up or type in specific foods. While tracking steps is automatic with your smartphone alone and with many fitness tracking apps, other metrics such as caloric intake, weight, measurements, and type and duration of exercise rely on self-reporting, meaning you’ll have to do some work to make sure your stats are up-to-date and reflect an accurate picture. Much like healthy eating and exercise, developing positive habits is key; once you input all of your information regularly and accurately, you’ll get a good glimpse into areas where you can improve.
If you’re aiming to lose a few pounds, for example, and your caloric intake is consistently higher than your caloric output, you’re heading in the wrong direction. Keep in mind, though, that calories in vs. calories out alone doesn’t paint the whole picture; that’s why it’s important to use health monitoring tools as a supplement to sound advice from your healthcare provider that targets your unique needs.
Quality of Sleep
If you have a fitness tracker like the Fitbit, you already have the ability to track the quality and quantity of your sleep with your tracker’s biosensors coupled with the accompanying app. But sleep tracking is going wearable-free, with apps that can track your sleep with no extra gadgets required and more sophisticated IoT devices that aim to provide more comprehensive monitoring and analytics.
Sleep trackers can tell you:
- Whether you’ve been snoring
- Your sleeping heart rate
- Number of breaths per minute
- # of times and total time spent awake
- #of times and total time spent restless
And you don’t even need a fitness tracker or stand-alone monitoring device; there are several apps that can track your sleep with no additional gadgets necessary. Sleep Cycle (iOS, Android), for instance, relies on your smartphone’s accelerometer to monitor sleep. Users simply place their device strategically on their bed, and in addition to offering some sleep-quality stats, you can set an alarm to wake you up gently at the most ideal time (within 30 minutes of your desired wake-up time) so that you awake feeling refreshed and energized instead of groggy and sluggish.
What role does sleep play in your overall health and well-being? Quite a lot, actually. Sleep is critical for maintaining a healthy immune system, which helps your body ward off potentially harmful bacteria that cause illness and disease. Plus, getting a good night’s rest is important for both cognition and physical energy, enabling you to tackle your day with finesse.
“While these tracking devices may not be 100 percent accurate, they do provide a good overview of how well you’re sleeping and can pinpoint potential problems to discuss with your doctor. Snoring every night? You may – or may not – have sleep apnea,” explains Katie Lynch, blogger for Watchdog Reviews. “Keep in mind that sleep monitors are most accurate if you sleep alone; otherwise, the stats may be impacted by a restless (or snoring) partner. Like most health-tracking tools, sleep monitors should be used in conjunction with professional advice, rather than a replacement for traditional healthcare.”
Specialty Health Stats
While many of the commonly used fitness trackers and apps rely on some measure of self-reporting (and therefore their accuracy is dependent on the accuracy of the user’s input), some new innovations are emerging on the other end of the spectrum that take health tracking to another level. Companies are now introducing smart fabrics – wearables that double as articles of clothing – that can track even more sophisticated details such as:
- Stress (based on how much you’re sweating)
- Muscle activity
- Weight distribution on your feet during a run or jog
- Blood count
- Hydration levels
- UV exposure
Athos, for instance, is a company that develops smart fabrics designed to be worn during workouts. A shirt and shorts pair includes 14 EMG sensors in the shirt and 8 EMG sensors in the shorts, gathering details on how hard your muscles are working. The accompanying app allows you to set targets (the only information you need to enter manually) for toning, fatigue, and muscle building to improve your performance over time. Hexoskin is another example. Designed to be worn as a shirt alone or under other clothing, this smart fabric gathers data on a variety of metrics including:
- Heart rate recovery
- Heart rate variability
- Breathing rate
- And more
Beyond these fitness-focused metrics, there are dozens of other smart gadgets that can be used to track health data related to specific conditions. An emerging field, new gadgets and apps are being developed every day. The capabilities offered by these innovative tools are already quite impressive, spanning solutions such as:
- Pulse oximeters have been around for a long time, but now you can measure your oxygen saturation on the fly. The S Health app now offers the ability to measure your O2 saturation using the built-in sensor on Samsung devices, and iPhone users can use the Pulse Oximeter app available through iTunes (no external gadgets required).
- Smart gadgets like Cue (wait list for pre-orders) measure levels of Vitamin D, testosterone, fertility, and more with just a few drops of blood, saliva, or nasal swabs.
- People with high blood pressure can now take regular blood pressure readings conveniently using connected blood pressure cuffs like the Blip Wi-Fi blood pressure monitor (which relies on Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth), Pyle health monitors and blood pressure cuffs, and the Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor.
- Migraine-tracking apps like iHeadache (iOS) help you keep track of your migraines and identify patterns and triggers that can help your physician improve your treatment, while other apps like Acupressure (Android) walk you through techniques to help alleviate the pain (in this case, pressure points).
“One thing is certain: we’re still on the cusp of the realm of possibilities that smart gadgets hold for better health management,” Lynch explains. “The ‘shiny new object’ phenomenon is powerful, and these tools have tremendous potential for helping people manage chronic health conditions and improve their overall well-being. The most important thing to remember is that no app or gadget should be used as a replacement for professional healthcare. Used under the guidance of a professional – whether a health professional, personal trainer, or therapist – these tools have the potential to transform the way we manage our health, for the better.”