Could fitness trackers cause unnecessary anxiety?

Fitness trackersCC: Tim Gouw at Unsplash

There’s no denying that fitness trackers serve an excellent purpose. Many models, regardless of their price, will encourage you to get up and move if you stay stationary for too long. A lot of fitness trackers now also monitor our vital signs.

According to recent research, this isn’t always a good thing. The vital signs, that is. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AOMRC) in the UK has warned that fitness trackers don’t benefit the “Worried Well.” For those who aren’t aware, the “Worried Well” are patients who don’t have anything wrong with them, but always find symptoms to panic about.

The AOMRC’s warning comes following anecdotal experiences from GPs in the UK. Although anecdote isn’t the plural of data, when a group of professionals raise such concerns they’re worth listening to. And, there’s no reason to disbelieve the idea that these experiences could appear in other countries.

How could fitness trackers spark anxiety?

It’s worth acknowledging that fitness trackers probably do more good than harm. If they’re encouraging you to move around when you’re usually sedentary, that’s excellent. And if you have a condition such as an arrhythmia and you want to track your heart rate, that’s empowering.

Problems can arise if you have a tendency to worry unnecessarily about your health. In an age of fitness trackers and the Internet, too much information could be a bad thing. Your health data could become easy to misinterpret.

For example, let’s say you’re aware that tachycardia (a high heart rate) is one sign of sepsis. On its own, it doesn’t usually mean much. You could be anxious, sitting down after walking fast, or surfing the wave that comes after too much caffeine. In the context of a fever and low blood pressure, it should sound alarm bells. To the Worried Well who don’t hold medical qualifications, giving context to tachycardia isn’t quite so easy.

When you do notice such symptoms, you may command the attention of a medical professional. Unfortunately, their efforts to reassure you probably won’t benefit your health anxieties in the long term.

Who are the Worried Well?

As this article from the BMJ highlights, the Worried Well usually have a good educational background. Because of this they’re excellent at researching and understanding information.

Although they may be trailblazers in their own academic or professional fields, that doesn’t mean the Worried Well are good at interpreting their fitness watches in a sensible way. In fact, their tendency toward confirmation bias may mean they see their vital signs and apply them to a condition they’re already panicking about.

Is there any harm in worrying too much about your health?

If you to lean toward an anxious mindset, ironically you can worry yourself into ill health. Although you’re probably using fitness trackers to keep conditions such as heart disease at bay, over analyzing the data could achieve the opposite. One study from Norway found that the Worried Well have a greater risk of coronary events.

Although there’s no study linking fitness trackers with poor health among these individuals, it’s worth taking a cautious approach to the data they present. If you do notice a slightly lower or higher heart rate, try to place it into the context of what the rest of your body is doing before panicking.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.