Technology regularly revolutionizes healthcare. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) gave physicians a remarkable tool to look inside the human body in a far less invasive way. Online video services have allowed homebound patients to interact with their medical providers without making the journey to a doctor’s office.
Health wearables capture that same transformative promise. Stylish, multifaceted versions are currently the rage, but basic units have been around for decades. The LifeFone medical alert and monitoring pendant was one of the first. That necklace—and now, wrist strap—has saved lives and helped thousands of elderly people in dire circumstances.
Today’s products have come a long way from that modest start. They are available as rings, bracelets, watches, and pendants (and even headsets). Functionality has expanded along with style. The first wearable fitness bracelets, for instance, were little more than glorified pedometers. Modern options are behavioral modification tools aimed at improving not only fitness, but long-term wellness, and even disease prevention. The crucial question to ask, though, is: “Does a health wearable make sense for me?”
The answer involves financial, health, and lifestyle considerations. Many people start with the expense. Insider Intelligence reports that 33 percent of American consumers used a health wearable in 2021. That reflects an increasingly broad acceptance and the mainstreaming of the technology, which will inevitably lower costs. However, the current marketplace features a wild range of prices, from just under $100 to well over $1,000. The initial price is not necessarily the entire expense. Many wearables include features and functionality that can only be accessed through a subscription plan.
So opting to buy or not requires an honest assessment of how, and how much, you’ll use a particular wearable. Generally, these devices should be kept on the body round the clock, to fully monitor health and gather a maximum amount of usable data. If you find it uncomfortable to keep something on your wrist, finger, or around your neck, these devices may not be right for you. If, however, you’re fine with wearing one, and you can afford the price, the next step is to consider which type serves your needs. Here are the basic categories:
- Disease-management. One of the most common wearables is the continuous glucose monitor (CGM). These have been nothing short of a miracle for diabetics, alleviating the need for painful finger pricks throughout the day to measure blood sugar levels. CGMs include a subcutaneous probe that connects to a round transmitter stuck on top of the skin. The user scans blood sugar levels during the day, using a special scanner or, in some cases, a smart phone.
Fancier wearables such as smart watches and health rings also offer disease-specific functions. They can monitor blood-oxygen levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs, making them useful for anyone dealing with COPD or related cardiopulmonary diseases. Most can be set to sound an alert when a cardiac irregularity is detected, making these devices potential lifesavers. Most can also transmit data to a physician or dietician, ensuring real time tracking.
- Fitness trackers. Some of the first health wearables were developed to track workout performance, and fitness trackers continue to be the most popular devices. They’ve evolved to provide exceptional, professional-level training information for athletes. The data includes time in peak heart rate, recovery time, oxygen usage over time and task, resting heart rate, and caloric burn rate. That’s useful to someone who hits the gym or track four or more days per week, for at least 45 minutes a workout. Worth mentioning, as well, that swimmers can buy waterproof bracelets that will track swimming performance. But if you tend toward a brisk walk for 35 minutes a day? Your smart phone likely already tracks time and steps, and you wouldn’t see a great benefit from incredible functions that the current crop of fitness bracelets, watches, or rings boasts.
- Sleep monitors. America is in the middle of a sleeplessness epidemic. No surprise then that sleep-monitoring wearables are second only to fitness products in popularity. These include rings, bracelets, watches, pendants, and headsets. Regardless, they all track stages of sleep and key indicators of sleep quality. Although many all-in-one health wearables include a basic sleep-monitoring feature, dedicated sleep monitors look more closely at sleep quality and stages—including REM, deep, and light sleep. They’ll also map the number of times you wake up during the night. Humans are incredibly inaccurate at judging the quality of their own sleep, so a wearable sleep monitor offers great return on investment for anyone struggling to get a good night’s sleep.
- All-in-one. These include health measuring and monitoring functions as part of an entourage of features. The obvious example is the Apple Watch. But most smart watches allow you to use a variety of different apps to track sleep or monitor other biological functions. They do a lot, but the data for any one area—diet, fitness, meditation, sleep—is not as complex or in-depth as it would be from a proprietary wearable that uses native software developed specifically for that singular purpose. All-in-one devices are only worth the investment (which is usually significant) if you intend on exploiting the full range of features, such as email, web connectivity, and electronic calendar.
Here’s a short list of players in the industry:
- Apple Watch. Chock full of Apple’s renowned style, the Watch is essentially a computer on your wrist. It’s a pricey piece of usable fashion but does allow you to access the full range of health-related Apple apps—including an ECG monitor!
- Beast Sensor. This Italian wristband-mounted sensor is exactly what it sounds like; a fitness monitor for dedicated weight lifters. If hitting the gym is your thing, this could be your wearable—and they ship free to the US.
- Fitbit. One of the original digital fitness-tracking companies, Fitbit offers both smart watches and tracking bracelets. Their devices measure a wealth of wellness and fitness data points—from blood oxygen saturation, to skin temperature, to resting heart rate over time. They also offer a subscription service, but it is not a requisite to use their products.
- Garmin. Garmin makes a diverse roster of smart watches focused on performance in individual athletic pursuits from triathlons, to golfing, hiking, and even swimming.
- Omron. Billed as a “wearable blood pressure cuff,” the Omron is actually a watch-like wrist wearable that monitors blood pressure and other cardio measures, tracks fitness and sleep, and can connect to a smart phone.
- Oura. Offering stylish rings in four different finishes, Oura is primarily meant to be a sleep monitor, but also tracks activity to ensure an ideal amount of rest versus motion, and includes information on “readiness,” covering the max level of stress and activity your current biophysical state indicates.
- Wellue O2Ring. This ring is a continuous oxygen monitor that also tracks heart rate, and vibrates when irregularities are detected.
- Whoop. Whoop offers bracelets and garments, coupled with a subscription monitoring service to track and improve athletic performance, including workout intensity, recovery, and sleep.
- Withings. Offering a line of smart watches and wristbands, Withings’ wearables track sleep, activity, and cardio factors. The company also makes non-wearables, such as an under-mattress sleep monitor.
Talk to your doctor about any health wearable you’re considering. He or she may lead you to the product that works best with the practice’s own monitoring system. Lastly, if you have a serious health condition or are elderly, look for a wearable that includes an alert feature that will call emergency services if the device shows you are unresponsive.
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