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Wearable Health Trackers: Are They For You?

As a curious person looking at ways of improving how I feel throughout my day and improving my running performance, I decided to buy an Oura ring last year. My hope was that an Oura ring would increase my self-awareness about my movement throughout the day and sleep patterns. I was starting to feel like I was slowly transforming into a sloth as I sat at my desk all day without getting up more than once or twice.

The Oura ring is a relatively new technology designed to track activity and sleep so you can look at your patterns or even get alerts to get up and move - all from an app on your phone. It was exciting and interesting for the first few months; I liked getting a reminder to move but then realized that I was getting more anxious about my sleep (which was already not so great) since I knew it was getting tracked. It became a source of anxiety and I gradually stopped wearing the ring. I can happily say that my Oura ring has found a new home nestled in a jewelry box with my earrings.

I also wear a Suunto brand GPS running watch during the day which has been helpful for me - I am able to track my runs and the watch alerts me as to when the sun rises and sets each day. The pace and distance on my running watch aren't looked at for more than a second and I don’t keep track of that data. While training for longer races, I will pay more attention to it and be aware of my weekly mileage but for most of the year, I am not in that phase of training.

So that comes down to the question - are activity trackers right for you? The short answer is, it depends. They have different impacts on different people and for some (like me), they might even be unhelpful.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Measurements and data are only helpful if they motivate you to make a decision. For example, if I saw that I was waking up frequently throughout the night from my data, I might look at what environmental factors could be contributing - Is there a street light shining in the bedroom? Does my partner snore? What changes can be made?

  • Trackers can lead to people feeling bad about themselves. When we don’t meet our tracker goal, it might cause us to feel anxious and lead to us beating ourselves up.

  • Health trackers can be unreliable. Trackers are known to have variability and tend to overestimate time spent sleeping and underestimate how many times we briefly wake up overnight. GPS trackers, commonly found in exercise/endurance watches, seem to be more accurate but even with GPS, tall trees and hills can decrease reliability.

Who Might a Wearable Health Tracker be Beneficial for?

  • People who love data. They see numbers as only numbers and nothing more. They don’t get overly wrapped up in numbers.

  • People who have high level performance goals such as elite athletes.

  • People who have straightforward goals: wanting to feel or sleep better.

Who Might a Wearable Health Tracker be Unhelpful for?

  • People who tend to have perfectionistic thought patterns. They may feel that even if they reach a goal, they may never feel good enough. These thoughts may cause someone to keep raising their bar higher and higher until they overtrain or injure themselves.

  • People who have a tendency to focus obsessively on food or fitness.

  • People who fixate on or get triggered by numbers.

  • People who start getting anxious or know they get anxious about an activity they plan to track.

It’s important to keep in mind that we as humans do not fall in neat categories; for example, an elite athlete may also have perfectionistic thought patterns. Does that mean that athlete should avoid any health tracker? Maybe, but not necessarily. If an athlete works with a coach, they can still utilize a GPS watch but send the data directly to their coach and not look at it themselves. Or maybe wearing a watch to look at pace and distance while exercising but deciding not to join Strava (an online social platform where you can share the workouts you completed). The best wearable health tracker for you might be none, all the bells and whistles, or something in between.


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