Will wearing a fitness tracker improve my heart health?


A common resolution many of us make every year is to do more exercise, whether that’s joining a gym, going for a run, or simply taking the stairs. A popular way to keep track of our physical activity is through fitness trackers. You may have decided to download a new health tracking app on your phone, or received a Fitbit as a gift, either way, you’ve now got the tools to get active. But how do these fitness trackers work? Can they benefit our body’s most vital organs? With the help of Dr Matthew Wright, we’re investigating how fitness trackers can improve our heart health.

Heart health

What are fitness trackers and how do they work? 

Fitness trackers come in all shapes and sizes. Modern fitness trackers are usually worn on your wrist, but traditional pedometers are commonly found clipped to your waistband. Most of the fitness trackers you’re likely to have seen are the thin, watch-esque bands wrapped around the wrist. 

The trackers are great for monitoring your step count; something they’re all capable of. Traditional pedometers calculate steps using a mechanical pendulum that swings in synchrony with the movement of your hips as you walk. Nowadays, fitness trackers tend to require the help of a smartphone or another device to accurately measure your steps and keep a record. They sense the motion of the body on a 3-axis accelerometer. Data is recorded at all times while the tracker is on and can determine whether you’re standing still, walking or running. Most smartphones track your steps using a built-in motion processor. They can calculate your ascents and descents too through an embedded barometer.  

Additionally to counting steps, a common feature found in many, but not all fitness trackers is a heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor works by shining an infrared light onto your skin. The technology, called pulse oximetry, measures changes in the colour of your blood. These colours represent the oxygenation of the blood, which increases with each heartbeat. It’s all pretty clever, but how can it benefit your heart?

Fitness tracker for heart health

The good 

Fitness trackers are great at encouraging you to get active. A popular way of getting started is to set yourself the 10,000 step challenge. The challenge is pretty simple: use your fitness tracker to monitor how many steps you take every day and aim for 10,000. This can shake up your routine too: it may encourage you to walk into town to get your lunch, or hop off the train, tube or bus a stop early and finish the journey on foot. It’s an interesting place to start as, unless you’ve worn a fitness tracker before, it’s very hard to know how many daily steps you’re taking (it’s likely to be less than you think). Always check with your doctor if you have any concern about taking up new exercise, or want to know more about this kind of challenge.  

Being active means keeping your heart active and that’s crucial for good heart health. Regular physical activity can strengthen your heart muscles delivering an improved pumping efficiency. As a result, more blood flows to your muscles and oxygen levels in your blood rise. Additionally, the tiny blood vessels in your body, known as capillaries, widen which increases oxygen flow and disposal of waste products. 

Living a more active lifestyle is also essential for preventing coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD claims roughly 73,000 lives every year in the UK and research suggests that inactive people are more likely to be at risk. If you have been diagnosed with CHD, regular aerobic exercise may help your condition and improve your heart’s defence against heart attacks

Heart health

The bad  

Although it is a great starting point, be careful not to get too immersed in the 10,000 step challenge. Achieving 10,000 steps every day can be tricky – especially if your job involves lots of sitting. Focusing too much on hitting your step target could lead to daily feelings of anxiety. If you’re struggling to reach your step goal, consider joining a gym, playing team sports with friends or taking regular trips to the swimming pool to compensate. Walking in itself, though beneficial, is only a moderate-intensity activity and should be paired with high-intensity exercise to effectively better your heart health. The amount of physical activity you should aim for differs from person to person. You can find out more about different types of exercise and how much you should be doing, here.  

Similarly, try to avoid an obsession with your heart rate monitor. Constantly checking your heart rate through fear of irregularities and unnatural behaviour may lead to exactly what you’re fearing as your heart rate changes through anxiety. Incidences of anxiety can cause rapid heart palpitations that may look alarming on a heart rate monitor. Constant worry about your heart rate can create a vicious circle doing far more harm than good.

Additionally, the function of the heart rate monitors found in fitness trackers do draw up some limitations. Many other things can impact blood oxygenation and change the appearance of blood vessels. For example, contractions that come with lifting weights alter the amount of blood reaching the limbs, as do changes like vasodilation. This means the heart rate data from your fitness tracker may not be entirely reliable and should perhaps be used as a guideline rather than a definitive.

  

What should you do? 

Well the overarching goal is improving heart health and, as previously mentioned, physical activity is imperative in achieving this. Fitness trackers are excellent at giving us an indication about how much physical activity we’re doing. Do remember, however, that it’s you not the fitness tracker that’s doing the exercise. If you’re feeling tired, unwell, or too busy don’t feel obliged to exercise for the sake of your fitness tracker’s data. Keep yourself active in a way that you’re comfortable with and you’ll be on the right track to a healthy heart.

DR MATTHEW WRIGHT
Consultant Cardiologist

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