Hands up if you wear a fitness tracker. From rings that track our sleep to watches measuring steps, we’ve come a long way from the simple pedometer (remember those?). Statistics show that around 82% of active people wear a smart tracker, and post-pandemic, we’re all about knowing how stressed we are. Wearable tech that analyses heart rate, breathing patterns and oxygen levels is taking off, but is it really as good as it sounds?
“Wearables that include a stress tracker function, use physiological measurements to offer an insight into the kind of stresses put on the body through exercise or in everyday life,” explains Dr Rachael Kent, University College London lecturer and author of The Digital Health Self: Wellness, Tracking And Social Media.
“Stress trackers across the consumer market have varying levels of ‘intelligence’ when it comes to monitoring your stress. The majority of exercise-oriented trackers focus on metrics which monitor your heart rate variability (HRV). This measures the time intervals between your heartbeats, and in turn stress trackers monitor small fluctuations in your heart’s function, which may be linked to age, health status, time of day, but also your mental health and physical health.”
Pretty clever stuff.
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What are the benefits of stress trackers?
There’s nothing quite as impactful as seeing your health information in black and white, and having a daily reminder in the form of a wearable device can bring valuable insight into when and why we are feeling stressed.
“Seeing this information on a wearable can be a really useful motivator for behavioural change in your everyday life,” agrees Dr Kent. “Data insights can be really helpful when we’re looking to make lifestyle changes.”
“Using these devices can be a useful tool to help you determine what is stressing you out and how it might be impacting you physically,” explains doctor and personal trainer Dr Aishah Iqbal. “They allow us to see if and how our body is responding to stress-causing stimuli and provide insight into when you might be experiencing stress, especially if you had not consciously recognised you were being stressed out by a situation.”
What are the downsides of wearable stress trackers?
“I’ve been researching the impact of these wearables on mental and physical health for a while now,” says Dr Kent, “and research shows that the line between these trackers being insightful and provoking increased stress can become really blurred and challenging to navigate, both emotionally and in terms of our mental health.”
Put simply, for some of us, knowing exactly how stressed we are leads to more stress and anxiety.
“Imagine if every time you felt stressed, someone pointed that out to you. How would that make you feel?” challenges Dr Kent. “Or even if you weren’t feeling stressed, [if] someone said that you looked stressed or were acting stressed out. On the one hand, it might be helpful, empathetic and supportive; on the other hand, you might feel even more stressed, visibly anxious or perhaps think that maybe you are stressed when internally you don’t actually feel it.”
How can we use stress trackers more effectively?
If you still like the idea of being more aware of what’s going on in your body but don’t want the stress, there are ways to wear a tracker without spiralling into anxiety.
“My advice is everything in moderation when it comes to wearables,” suggests Dr Kent. “While useful, they can also prompt these stress-inducing emotional and physical responses. But if you are able to spot red flags and ditch the device if you recognise any of them regularly when you use your tracker, you’ll be more able to keep fit and healthy and have a fit and healthy relationship with your device.”
Don’t follow the tracker over your own instincts
It may sound obvious, but don’t focus on what your tracker is telling you and overlook how you’re actually feeling. “Stress trackers reduce your body and stress levels to data,” explains Dr Kent. “While this can be a useful visualisation, it can be over-simplistic and reductive. The power of suggestion is real and can cause increased stress, so it’s important to focus on human instinct and how you feel – not what the device tells you you’re feeling.”
Don’t over-police yourself
We all know people who fastidiously check their sleep patterns and step counts, and stress trackers certainly draw our attention into a cycle of self-analysis and (sometimes useful) behavioural change.
“[This] can lead to comparative exhaustion, where your continually benchmark your own behaviour against yourself every day,” warns Dr Kent.
“Examining the minutia of your daily habits to draw conclusions about stress can be insightful, but it can make you over-police or self-regulate your behaviours, which might over time feel coercive or controlling. It’s important to remember that data insights do not show the whole picture of your body and all the unquantifiable elements that make us human.”
Be mindful of the data you’re sharing
Most of us as pretty savvy when it comes to privacy settings on our phones or computers, but don’t forget your wearable device.
“Many health apps sell your data to third parties,” explains Dr Kent. “Be aware of only sharing data that you think is absolutely necessary for your fitness routine and keeping personal information sharing to an absolute minimum to enable privacy, just as you would with any other device.”
And remember – simply wearing the stress tracker won’t magically improve your health. “It’s important to highlight that not all devices are 100% accurate and there is a degree of error when tracking heart rates using such devices,” advises Dr Iqbal. “The data we can gather via wearable tech is simply a snapshot. Ultimately, the key is to think about how you can improve your lifestyle to feel less stressed, rather than trying hard to get the numbers down.”