Fitness trackers are wearable devices or computer applications that record a person’s daily physical activity and capture data relating to fitness or health, such as the number of calories burned, heart rate, steps taken etc. These devices aren’t anything new and have been around for many years. There are many reasons for wearing or purchasing smartwatches to track fitness; however, what if your watch could use this data to track and assist with your Mental Health?
The big question is how accurate are these devices at capturing data specifically around Mental Health. A meta-analysis (‘Meta-analysis’ is a research process used to systematically synthesise or merge the findings of single, independent studies, using statistical methods to calculate an overall or 'absolute' effect’) was completed by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 looking at studies into the accuracy of emerging wearable technologies. They found that these wearables varied a lot depending on what technology or data inputs they used to capture information based on which sensors were baked into the device. They concluded that wearables weren’t as accurate as clinical technologies and it did largely depend on the activity type and whether the device used both the heart rate and heat sensing technologies.
Keeping that in mind, wearables could be used for Mental Health – we all know that a common side effect of anxiety is the increase in heart rate and whether using a fitness wearable to track anxiety was possible? Was it possible to set up the device to monitor your body reacting to anxiety? Setting up a Fitbit for example to track the increase of a high-heart rate or putting you into a Zone, could potentially predict high levels of anxiety, or an upcoming panic attack. Which would result in receiving a pulse, a pro-actively letting you know about turning on tools you might have learnt or worked through with your Therapist to help suppress, shut down or manage your increased level of anxiety.
Eric Ravenscraft wrote an article on Debugger about his experience of wearing a Fitbit and how it picked up on his panic attack and told him he was exercising. He is quoted saying “ By 5:55 p.m.— 20 minutes after receiving the rejection letter and well within the anxiety attack — I was in what Fitbit describes as the “fat burn zone.” My fitness tracker thought I was exercising. In reality, my mental illness was acting up again.” He also mentions that a feature of the Fitbit that surprised him was the EDA Scan which is designed to take a current snapshot of your stress in the moment, it requires you to sit for two minutes with your hand on the sensors of the Fitbit effectively mediating. He says the following about discovering this “I’d have been tricked into meditating by my watch. And it was helping me feel more calm and relaxed.”
Barty’s Mental Health Officer Erin also had a similar experience having been testing and wearing the FitBit Charge 5 for the last few months, Erin said “I was in a high anxiety situation and my wrist kept buzzing alerting me. It was trying to let me know that I was in the “fat burn zone”. This gave me some validation that the anxiety wasn’t all in my head and it was in fact impacting me. I was then able to put in practice some of my coping strategies such as a breathing exercise to decrease my heart rate and manage my anxiety better” she continues.
“A breathing exercise I regularly practice is when you breathe in through your nose and hold it for the count of three and then breathe out through your mouth. It helps to reduce your heart rate and ground you during these high anxiety times. I try to do this whenever I notice my heart rate is increasing, however at times I get so overwhelmed that I don’t notice until it’s too late. Receiving a buzz on my wrist alerting me to the fact that my heart rate was increasing and I was in the “fat burn zone” allowed me to get on top of my anxiety sooner and prevent further spiraling” Erin said.
In 2021 Fitbit launched a new model Charge 5 and with it came not just better features but a focus on Mental Health. The FitBit Charge 5 included a readiness score which looks at heart rate variability, fitness fatigue (activity) and sleep. This score allows users to work out how hard they can push themselves when they wake up and whether it is beneficial to go hard on a workout or if they should take it slow.
Each morning users can also look at their ‘Stress Management Score” on the app which is out of 100 with the higher the number meaning that your body is showing fewer signs of stress. It is calculated by looking at the following: responsiveness, exertion and sleep patterns.
Of course, Mental Health or help with defining mental illnesses – can’t always accurately be measured by what fitness wearables track and this leads to the question: What if you don’t have any measurable physical symptoms or if the physical symptoms aren’t hugely noticeable when it comes to your Mental Health?
While there are wearable products on the market for Mental Health, none are designed to be worn all the time and are instead designed to be used as treatments.
That isn’t to say that there won’t be a specific device to track your Mental Health on the market eventually and it might be sooner than we think.
Feel Therapeutics is currently developing a device that you wear on the wrist like a Fitbit and specifically tracks your Mental Health. With the aim that it will be able to bring objective data and measurement in the ways that we treat and diagnose mental illness.
There is also a possibility that an external app could decipher the data from your fitness wearable and help make sense of it in terms of your Mental Health. Be Well Co, a representative and owner of Cycle:WELL 'Ashley Bennallack' explained that this is a secure Mental Health measurement tool that looks into different ways to capture data to help understand a person's Mental Health and more.
Mental Health tracking is definitely on wearable technology companies' roadmap and will continue to run R&D initiatives to increase the accuracy when tracking a users Mental Health along with their physical health.
An example of this is in 2020 Amazon launched the Halo Band which was only available in the US. It claimed that by listening to your voice it could report back your level of Mental Health (you can read about the science behind Mental Health and voice here). The reviews around this feature were not entirely positive and there were strong privacy concerns where the voice feature was later dropped in the newer model, Halo View.
Fitbit lodged patents late last year in 2021 showing that the company is continuing to focus on Mental Health and is looking at incorporating games that take note of your Mental Health, assisting to provide a better overview of your Mental Health on top of their current features.
As for the question, should you buy one to track your Mental Health? It comes down to the person, while these devices or applications like Be Well might or might not be able to track your Mental Health precisely, they do however provide a good overview and allow you to take a holistic approach.
In a study - Acceptability of the Fitbit in behavioural activation therapy for depression: a qualitative study published by BMJ Journals found the following: Twenty-three patients found the Fitbit helpful for their physical activity. Themes of positive experiences included self-awareness, peer motivation and goal-setting opportunities. Negative themes included inconvenience, inaccuracies and disinterest. But overall many found using a Fitbit along with behaviour activation therapy helpful.
The FitBit Charge 5 makes a good effort at combining mental and physical health where these features not only help you to be more in tune with your body physically but also mentally.
From giving you a daily readiness score to a stress management score that you can track and be able to measure your body's current stress with an EDA (electrodermal activity sensor) wrist scanner. This means measuring the perspiration from your hands which can be an indicator of stress. Also, allowing you to access content on the app to specifically help your Mental Health such as guided meditations.
Whether you are struggling with your Mental Health, wanting to be more aware of your Mental Health or are just wanting to take a more holistic approach with your health it might be worth looking into purchasing a FitBit Charge 5.
Wearing a fitness wearable can have many benefits from helping you stay active and allowing you to keep a closer eye on your physical health which in turn assists with keeping your Mental Health at a good level. If your body and fitness are at a place you're comfortable or feeling good then your Mental Health will also be in a good place. With newer fitness wearables such as the FitBit Charge 5 now incorporating Mental Health tracking, this is as good a time as any to try out one. You may be pleasantly surprised by how good you feel both physically and mentally.
Barty has a limited time offer for the next month in line with the Perth All Female Cape to Cape Adventure, a 125km hike with only 6 spaces available in November 2022 which we’re to release full details very soon.
You will receive a FitBit Charge 5 for $197, a 4 week subscription of free specialty coffee.
Be inspired and challenge yourself, buy a FitBit Charge 5, receive some amazing coffee, first 4 weeks on Barty, there's never a good time to start, challenge yourself.
We’re paying it forward, get behind the challenge.
Feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Barty’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish. Or, do not hesitate to leave a question in the comments below any time.
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