Fitness Bands & Passive, Continuous Health Tracking

Last week I upgraded my beloved Garmin Vivosmart to one of their newer models, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+. The main difference between the two is that the HR+ has a heart rate monitor. Particularly interesting is that it doesn’t just track heart rate during a workout, it tracks it passively all day long. It’s super simple to pull up a quick graph on the device or get more details within the app.

The thing with wrist based heart rate trackers is that they’re known for not being super accurate. They’re getting better, but they still fall into the “mostly right, most of the time” category, which is actually incredibly useful. I have a heart rate strap that I’ll wear occasionally for a workout because those are very accurate, but it would be uncomfortable to wear one all day long, meaning I (and most people) use it for a quick snapshot but don’t get 24×7 data.

Just as a phone can be a better device to read a book than a Kindle simply because it’s what’s always available, a wrist activity tracker can be considered better for heart rate monitoring because you’re always wearing it. The passive tracking means that I can go back in time if something happens. I can ask myself what happens when I work at a standing desk all day vs sitting, or what happens when I swim in a cold pool, or workout after a bad night’s sleep. The shear amount of data, even if not entirely accurate, makes it useful. And, eventually, these devices will become more accurate.

Your doctor’s office probably takes your pulse once per year and uses that as a barometer of your health. Now that it’s becoming a standard feature on activity trackers, many people will have 100,000+ readings per year that they can use or share with their doctor. Same goes for sleep tracking – you can use a fitness band to help diagnose sleep problems that would have required a sleep lab or expensive equipment in the past.

Now, I realize that neither of these are really that ground breaking. But 10-15 years ago continuous sleep tracking and heart rate tracking synced to the cloud for under $200 would have sounded insane. The thing that excites me is that if people keep supporting this technology it will keep innovating and eventually become incredibly useful at diagnosing and preventing disease. It also puts your health and your data in your control, which is a trend I fully support.

The real breakthrough will be continuous blood monitoring, which again sounds crazy but might not be that far away. It’ll likely start with blood glucose monitoring for diabetics, because that’s where the largest need/demand is. Right now you can already do this with an under-the-skin chip like the Dexcom. There are some major hurdles to making it as convenient and ubiquitous as a Fitbit, but I would wager that it’s available in some capacity in the next 10-15 years. That’s when the fun really starts. You know that blood work you do each year at your doctor’s office? Now it’s done every day, multiple times per day.

Update 1/31/17 Abbot Labs now has the FreeStyle Libre and FreeStyle Libre Pro, which allow for continuous blood glucose monitoring and can be self installed. My 10-15 year estimation might have been an overstatement – these might be readily available in less than 5 years!

2 comments on Fitness Bands & Passive, Continuous Health Tracking

  1. Tim says:

    I Totally agree Adam! While consumer electronics have touched nearly every aspect of the life of first world nations citizens, beyond somewhat limited quantified-self gadgets there haven’t been the huge breakthroughs with consumer electronics as it relates to our health as individuals, and as a society as a whole. Let’s be honest, do you see a fat, lazy people wearing fitbits? So the subset of society that needs the most help/attention with their health and well-being is getting the least tracking. The more passive it can become, and the broader it is used the better it will be for everyone. As with everything, early adopters will shape the future 🙂

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good point Tim! I wonder at what price point these devices would become ubiquitous? Or maybe, doctors/insurance providers will eventually give them away for free to keep health care costs down.

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