When it comes to fitness-tracking watches and wearables, constant hypervigilance in real-time for heart rate and sleep information may be putting a burden of knowledge on its users that is creating an unintentional problem: anxiety.
Recent research from the University of Copenhagen noted this response in a recent study which found adults with pre-existing conditions initially benefited from the motivation fitness watches provided. Over time, however, positive feelings were overshadowed by feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and fear. Even in healthy individuals, those striving to make their 10,000 steps a day often experience negative emotions when they do not meet their goal. Likewise, fixating on the fact you didn’t get enough uninterrupted sleep can keep you up even more at night.
Activity data has become a new part of healthcare because it can put the user in touch with actual metrics and also gives the doctor numbers to reference. Researchers in this study wanted to see how this is changing the doctor-patient relationship and patients' relationships with themselves.
Twenty-seven patients, aged 28-74 with cardiac conditions, were invited to utilize fitness wearables as part of their treatment regimen. For an average of more than 4 months, the participants wore the watch while they were asked to record their experiences related to step count, heart rate, and sleep. Experiences about the activity data collected were categorized between knowing, feeling, and evaluating.
Eighteen out of the twenty-seven patients felt that their heart disease was directly related to the information they saw on the display; when, in fact, it was not an adequate measure of their cardiac disease progress. As the time went on in the study, the users became more anxious. At first, having extra information about their physiological status presented in numbers provided the users with a sense of calm. Then as the users tried to interpret the data without their doctors, feelings of uneasiness began to surface.
Linking the status of their heart conditions to the numbers on their watches is a skewed perspective, but it’s one that’s really easy to do, whether you have heart disease or not. For instance: if the watch tells you that your heart rate was low while you slept, it can provoke worry. Without a doctor to guide you through your results, that anxiety can start to snowball. Some cardiac patients, striving to become healthy and become more active, felt the information about their heart rate caused them to anticipate that an adverse event, like a heart attack, could be imminent.
The easy access to metrics about health created problems for the users in the study when it came down to the interpretation of the data. Without collaboration from a doctor, even the smallest deviation in metrics can cause doubt and anxiety, especially in people who are predisposed to worry about their heart rate (such as cardiac patients and even in patients with panic attacks or anxiety disorders).
Most people benefit from the motivation and accountability that fitness watches provide; but for some, the problems start when the user starts interpreting the data as medical data. Few people are required to check in with their heart rates throughout the entire day. It’s likely if you have one of those conditions, you’re working closely with a doctor who is giving you a numeric range of what’s normal for you.
For the rest of us, maybe it would be less stressful if we only checked in on our data at a few set points of the day, rather than seeing it displayed constantly.
Andersen TO, Langstrup H, Lomborg S. Experiences With Wearable Activity Data During Self-Care by Chronic Heart Patients: Qualitative Study. J Med Internet Res 2020;22(7):e15873