By Dr. Frank Lipman
Though 2023 is now well underway, it’s not too late to get started on making a few lifestyle upgrades—and when it comes to your health, sooner is definitely better. The more tweaks you can make—and stick with—the easier it will be for your body to sidestep the common diseases that wreak havoc on your health span and shorten your life.
The unavoidable fact is, the classic life-altering conditions—obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers—are all associated with poor lifestyle habits, so smarter choices now can save you a world of trouble later. The good news: The troublemakers are far more avoidable than you might think, which is why you’ll always find me banging the drum for making as many positive changes as possible.
OK, so let’s say you are working on those upgrades, but get disheartened when the mirror or the numbers on the scale don’t seem to be reflecting the effort you’re putting in. How to stay motivated regardless? Wearable health tracking devices provide a great boost. Not only do they show you the stuff below the surface that you literally cannot see, but they provide both doctor and patient with a clearer picture of what’s going on with your physiology before the real ills can get a toehold—that is, if you start monitoring early enough. In this way, wearable health trackers are literally life-changing, not to mention potentially lifesaving—and it’s why I’m encouraging my patients to start using them. Here’s why I also encourage you to do the same:
1. There is a right time for tech.
While I always encourage everyone to lighten up their technology load—as in, exposing yourself to much less screen time, social media and late-night scrolling—taking advantage of wearable health tracking devices is one exception I’m happy to make. Health trackers (also known as activity trackers) are great for helping you to better manage your activity levels, sleep habits, nutritional needs, optimal workout performance times and so on. They also keep you honest. While virtually all of us know that plenty of movement, quality sleep, little alcohol or sugar and healthy, non-processed foods are the key to fending off a litany of chronic diseases, according to one Mayo Clinic study, in America, less than 3 percent of us are consistently hitting the mark. Not great news for our collective health as we all age—danger, bad biomarkers ahead—and all the more reason to put tech to work for you and get tracking.
2. Your estimates are off the mark—by a lot.
One fundamental problem with tracking your health without a tech reality check is that humans are simply not very good at accurately keeping track of most anything related to our health—how much we’re sleeping, how much we’re moving, how much and what we’re eating, the list goes on. For example, when it comes to food intake, most of us miscalculate by a fairly significant amount, with one Cornell University study reporting underestimates of roughly 20 percent for people of normal weight, and 40 percent or more for overweight folks—a daunting margin of error. Even if we’re tracking our health as best we can, old school—pen and paper, blood pressure monitors, heart rate monitors, annual blood tests—most of the time we just don’t have the right data at our fingertips when we need it. And that’s where wearable devices come in.
3. Health tracking devices put the power—and the data—in your hands.
What tech-driven health tracking makes possible is a real-time flow of information that tells you how your body is reacting to and impacted by your everyday behaviors, habits and lifestyle choices. What is making the key numbers associated with good health go up or down? Are your efforts getting you to a healthier place? Are you hitting the goals you’re shooting for? Health tracking—particularly with wearable devices—gives it to you straight, in real time, the improvements as well as the missteps, so you can stay pointed in the right direction, and learn more about what’s happening when you’re headed in the wrong one. In short, when it comes to immediate, honest feedback and data, health tracking is the next best thing to having a medical team at your side 24/7, and a whole lot more feasible.
4. Health trackers + your doctor + you = great partners.
As a health warrior for over 40 years, my mission is to share with patients every possible tool to enable them to transform and optimize their health. As far as I’m concerned, any device that helps patients do the work, more accurately and more mindfully, represents an important step up from mainstream medicine’s disease and crisis-focused care. Though it’s taken a while for health tracking devices to evolve from da Vinci’s 15th-century drawings of mechanical pedometers into the sophisticated wearable tools they’ve at last become, I am really excited by their life-changing potential and I urge everyone who is committed to their health to take advantage.
5. Knowledge—and data—is power for both patient and practitioner.
Whether I’m working with a newbie patient looking to get a handle on a health problem, a high-level business type looking to gain an edge, or simply a healthy person looking to stay that way, health tracking has become an important part of my diagnostic and therapeutic package. When I can integrate information gleaned from face-to-face consultations with a patient’s health history, test results and their most up-to-date health tracking data, true health transformation is well within reach. Being able to grasp the totality of a patient’s health readout and develop a custom plan that can change the course of their lives is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do—and I look forward to doing it every day!
6. Health trackers benefit every aspect of health.
Health tracking functions, in effect, as the “canary in the coal mine,” picking up clues to health irregularities long before they may make themselves known as troublesome symptoms or get picked up on an annual physical. Let’s say diabetes or heart disease runs in your family. Yes, there is a genetic component here, but by making better lifestyle choices, and tracking how your body responds, you may well be able to postpone or circumvent these diseases completely. It’s about giving yourself a sense of control over diseases that might otherwise control you. During the pandemic, health tracking showed its value and opened a lot of eyes, by enabling patients to keep a close eye on their health—and respond accordingly—despite the challenges of obtaining in-person health care during that time. Score one for the trackers (and the self-monitoring benefits few of us might ever have imagined back in 2019).
7. Think first, then shop around.
When it comes to buying a wearable health tracker, be it a fitness tracker or smartwatch outfitted with the latest operating system, there are a few pointers to keep in mind:
Not unlike buying a laptop or tablet, with wearables—which are, in effect, small computers strapped to your body—things like price, speed, battery life, compatibility with your other devices, what kind of health tracking apps can it handle and ease of data storage and transmission will be key factors.
From there, you’ll also need to consider what you want it to monitor, and the actual capabilities of the wearable—as in what it can track and what it can’t—think heart rate, oxygen levels, heart rate variability (HRV), activity levels, sleep quality, blood pressure and whatever else is most important for your particular health profile. For example, are you a healthy person training for an Ironman, or prediabetic and needing to monitor your glucose levels—and choose accordingly.
Remember that needs will vary, and wearables can be as simple or complex as your budget allows, so think through how much you need your wearable to monitor for you, as in: would a function-specific wearable cover the basics, or are you looking to cast a wider net over several categories?
And, if you are working with your doctor to address a particular health concern, you may also consider asking them to ascertain which types of wearables are compatible with the platforms your doctor is familiar with.
Finally, ask yourself how much you’re willing to wear your wearable? Will you be wearing it a few hours each day, or 24/7? Is it comfortable? Do you prefer a rugged, tactical look or something more elegant? Is it waterproof enough to handle a quick shower or long swim?
As with many devices, keep in mind that health tracking devices aren’t perfect—but they’re close, and infinitely more accurate than tracking done by hand or without technological support. There are more and more practitioners and companies helping you use multiple data sources and wearables to improve your health. Check out the one I am involved with, at joinhearty.com. drfranklipman.com