Fitness trackers do more than count steps, doctor says

With Cyber Monday just around the corner, a fitness tracker is on many holiday wish lists.

For most people, the main reason to get a fitness tracker is to figure out how much activity they’ve done in a day — and to encourage themselves and loved ones to exercise.

But the new devices can do so much more.

“From the medical side, it also provides a wealth of information about people’s heart rate,” said Dr. Ameya Kulkarni, an interventional cardiologist at at Kaiser Permanente.

“[And], depending on the type of device, other information, like EKGs [electrocardiograms] and whether there’s an abnormal rhythm. So we can really learn a lot about a patient’s everyday activity from this device you wear on your wrist.”

The most common medical use of fitness trackers is to monitor skipped beats, heart palpitations and other irregularities.

“Somebody says, ‘You know, Doc, once every few weeks, my heart does something funny, and I’m not sure what it is.’ One of these fancy fitness trackers is a good way to figure that out relatively quickly,” he said.

Some of the fancier devices, such as Apple Watch, can also monitor the oxygen levels in your blood or capture a pared-down version of an EKG.

“What that tells us is whether the electrical system of your heart is working as it should,” Kulkarni said. “It’s the top chamber talking to the bottom chamber. Are there any funny rhythms going fast –like atrial fibrillation, for example — or anything more insidious or more dangerous than that?”

These trackers, he said, have become especially useful during the pandemic, when people have been leery of going to the doctor’s office. Using these devices, he said, lets clinical teams keep an eye on patients without frequent visits.

He believes fitness trackers are opening the doors for doctors to take care of patients in a more meaningful way than the periodic episodes of care when a patient is in the office.

In a way, Kulkarni said, these new devices take us back to the days.

“You imagine that old village doctor,” he said. “What they would do is, they would walk around and you’d sort of see them at the market. Fitness trackers give you that chance.

“You can let your doctor know what’s going on when you’re at the supermarket or just in your home, rather than just in those moments when you’re in the doctor’s office.”

If you get one of these devices and see anything that concerns you, he said, you should take action. Don’t worry alone: Reach out to your doctor or medical team so they can see what’s going on.

“The worst thing that could happen is that you have something that is serious that we miss out on,” Kulkarni said.

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