What Are Different Types Of Wearable Tech?
When Fitbit released its wrist-mounted Flex tracker in 2014, pedometers had been on the market for fifty years. But the Flex was different. In addition to being one of the first wearables, the Flex came with a mobile app and a website. Users could keep track of their weight over time, log calories in and out, and set goals for the day and for the week. And, oh, yes, they could track steps, as well.
Wearables have come a long way in the intervening years. They’ve become smarter, with touchscreens and connectivity, and have added a dizzying number and variety of functions, from calorie crunching for dozens of activities to monitors for heart rate, blood pressure, sleep quality, and more. Users can pay for goods and services by tapping their NFC-enabled wearables, and even use their wearables to channel music. And that’s just the beginning.
The consumer market for health tracking wearables is booming, and it’s poised to explode, as the medical uses of these devices expand and diversify, and as the medical and insurance industry realize their predictive and cost-saving potential.
Types of Wearable Tech
The original Fitbit was a clip-on device, and there are still clip-on, though watch-type wearables have eclipsed clip-on in popularity and use. As for function, each device has its own set of sensors and measurements. Here are some of the most popular ones.
It’s not just pedometers anymore, though most activity trackers do have a pedometer function. In addition to counting steps, today’s activity trackers can help the user to log one or more of the following:
- Calories burned for a variety of activities
- Effort exerted
- Distance covered
- Running, walking, swimming, or cycling pace
Fitness has more dimensions than it did even five years ago. Though different devices may calculate fitness parameters in several ways, resulting in readings that can vary from device to device, the number of different ways in which to measure physical fitness is a positive thing, overall.
Some of the fitness parameters that wearables currently measure include:
Many fitness wearables measure the user’s heart rate throughout the day and can sound alarms in case the heart rate goes above or below normal levels. Many can also calculate the user’s resting heart rate, which is an important measure of general health.
VO2 Max measures how efficiently the body uses oxygen during activity. The greater the efficiency, the higher the overall level of cardiovascular health. Because increasing activity and activity intensity can also increase VO2 Max, this parameter can encourage users to engage in more activity, as well as more intense activity.
“Fitness Age” is an estimate of the positive and negative effects of combined factors such as weight, activity level, resting heart rate, and VO2 Max. This measurement can incentivize users to increase their activity levels and adopt or increase other healthy behaviors to have a “younger” Fitness Age.
Many trackers also monitor various aspects of general health, such as:
This is the body’s blood oxygen level. Knowing one’s blood oxygen level can give users and their doctors information about various medical conditions, the effects of any medication the user may be taking, and more.
Sleep tracking monitors the duration and quality of sleep throughout the night. This can provide useful information for users and their physicians regarding potential sleep disturbances and disorders.
Some trackers also monitor the user’s stress levels, providing the user with visual feedback regarding the times and activities that resulted in stress.
Female Health Tracking
Many health trackers have the option for users to log menstrual cycles and symptoms.
In 2019, the Move ECG by Withings won the Best Wearable at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. In addition to being a stylish, attractive analog watch, the clinically validated Move ECG can produce a medical-grade electrocardiogram reading at the press of a button. This can be invaluable for detecting atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm irregularity that can lead to heart failure or stroke.
That same year saw the release of Omron Healthcare’s HeartGuide, a watch that can measure the user’s blood pressure.
Wearables with glucose monitoring use a Dexcom transmitter to take continuous glucose readings throughout the day. The wearables can notify the user of high or low glucose levels and can provide records for use by the user and/or their physician. It can also help diabetic and pre-diabetic patients to take more precise control of their health.
An exciting new feature is incident tracking, which detects potential safety and health incidents. In case of an incident, some trackers will notify people designated by the user, while others will notify local emergency services. Combined with the GPS capabilities of many smartwatches, this could mean the difference between life and death, whether for a runner injured on the trail or for a cardiac patient who has had an event.
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What Could We See in the Future?
In the years since the first Fitbit hit the market, the number, types, and capabilities of health and fitness trackers have proliferated. What does the future hold? Here are a few predictions.
More Personalized Fitness Advice
Higher-end fitness trackers already offer suggested workout programs for various fitness goals. A few also make workout intensity suggestions based on the user’s heart rate variability, sleep quality, and other factors. In the future, we could see more precise and personalized suggestions based on other measurements, such as:
- The user’s menstrual cycle
- Stress level patterns
- Logged dietary patterns
- Recent exercise levels
And so forth.
Doctors already use certain factors, such as weight, heart rate, and blood pressure, to predict a patient’s chances of developing certain illnesses. Most fitness trackers already track many of these. Is it only a matter of time before a fitness watch offers users similar predictions? That could be the motivation that many users need to make changes.
Medical Wearables for Specific Purposes
There are already wearables that can monitor blood pressure, glucose levels, blood oxygen levels, heart rate and rhythms, and so forth, on a consumer level, as well as one device that can provide a medical-grade ECG reading on-demand. Expect more medical-grade wearables for specific diagnostic and predictive purposes.
Wearable Tech and Insurance
Some years ago, medical insurers realized the power of prevention. Encouraging healthy behaviors translates directly and powerfully into savings on hospitalizations and care for preventable chronic health conditions. As a result, many insurers now offer incentives for subscribers to join health clubs and embark on smoking cessation programs.
Wearable technology can incentivize exercise, mindful eating, stress reduction, and other behaviors that can reduce hospitalizations and help to prevent chronic disease. In addition, feedback from wearables can provide doctors with high-quality, real-time measurements of patient health markers, leading to more precise, focused, and personalized patient treatments.
A few intrepid health and life insurers have begun to offer subscribers credits and other inducements in exchange for wearing health tracking technology. It may not be long at all before the practice becomes widespread, and before more employers discover the benefits to their own bottom line of providing employees with the latest fitness watch.