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The number of wearable devices in the world has tripled since 2016 and now exceeds one billion.dolgachov/Getty Images

Twelve years ago, I bought my first-ever wearable device: a Garmin Forerunner 10. It was a chunky watch that registered and displayed my running pace, distance, heart rate and calories burned. Most people on the high-school cross-country start lines I frequented appeared to have one, but everywhere else in life, the bulky, beeping hunk of tech appeared out of place.

Wearables were still a decade away from reaching their huge popularity. Now, I cannot walk into a room without spotting an Oura Ring, Whoop Band or Apple Watch. The number of wearable devices in the world has tripled since 2016 and now exceeds one billion. It has become customary to consult them for not only our daily steps and running pace, but also for sleep scores, workout readiness scores, training plans and heart rate variability. Some people even say their wearables have helped them detect an underlying health issue.

The idea of having your watch or ring inform you on how well you slept, tell you to stand up or go for a walk, or even suggest you visit your family doctor sounds both convenient and dystopian. Now, users and experts are asking if having all this information at our fingertips helps us make better choices that lead to healthier lives, but also exactly how much we should allow wearables to guide decisions about our health.

“I’m increasingly reminding clients that wearable technology should help – and not dictate – their fitness journey,” said Emily Hickingbottom, a certified personal trainer who leads CrossFit classes in St. Thomas, Ont.

Hickingbottom, who has an Apple Watch and regularly does CrossFit herself, has scaled back on her use of wearables at the gym because she found they pulled her attention away from her own bodily feedback. Now, she often tracks her workouts with nothing but paper and pen to avoid becoming preoccupied by her metrics. When she feels a client is too reliant on their device, she recommends they do the same.

Meanwhile, others credit wearables and their constant feedback with helping them kick old habits and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

“As long as you don’t obsess over the numbers, these devices can really help you prioritize your well-being,” said Jess Bennett, a 41-year-old business development professional who wears an Oura Ring and an Apple Watch.

Bennett began dabbling with wearables more than a decade ago – her first device was a Pebble, a purported stress-meter, which she wore sparingly. But she has become more invested in tracking her bodily metrics over the past few years, as increasingly sophisticated wearables became available and popular.

When she bought her Oura Ring, she embraced the challenge of improving her sleep score, which the ring determined using a few metrics such as overnight heart rate and body temperature. She noticed her score was low every time she drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes; so, she limited her drinking and quit smoking altogether. Those major pivots then led to smaller lifestyle changes, such as ensuring she stands up and moves once an hour in her workday, as per her Apple Watch’s suggestion.

“My wearables have improved the quality of my life,” she said, “and I don’t think I would have come this far without their nudges and all the metrics they allow me to collect.”

As helpful as these scores can be, experts say they should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Dr. Marco Altini, a data and sport scientist and advisor for Oura, said it is important to remember that most numbers fed to us by our wearables – such as sleep scores, recovery scores or stress levels for example – are estimates and inferences based on a handful of measured metrics such as heart rate and body temperature. He said there is still no evidence that these estimates are valid or reliable.

“Is there a sensor in this device that is able to measure this parameter? If not, we are estimating,” he says.

There also comes a danger with internalizing these estimates too much, said Altini, such as developing conditions such as orthosomnia, an obsession with sleep-tracking data, which, ironically, harms our shut eye in the long term. Yet, he thinks wearables are useful in measuring resting physiology such as heart rate, pulse rate variability and temperature – and if we can avoid becoming lost in the weeds with questionable estimates, we should observe what they tell us with curiosity.

Nathan Gossett wholeheartedly agrees that readings can be valuable. The 32-year-old from Ottawa said data from his Apple Watch potentially saved his life. Last November, a few hours after lifting weights, Gossett went to bed with a strange feeling in his chest, which he chalked up to anxiety. The next day, his Apple Watch alerted him to atrial fibrillation – or an irregular heartbeat.

Otherwise healthy and having never experienced prior heart issues, Gossett immediately drove to Ottawa General Hospital’s emergency department, where doctors shocked his heart back to its normal beat. He said his physician told him if the condition had gone unchecked, the consequences could have been fatal.

“I think people take these wearables for granted and don’t fully understand their capabilities,” he said. “It may have saved my life.”

Now, Gossett is back to exercising and, as per his doctor’s recommendation, rarely spends a moment away from his wearable. He is also encouraging his parents to gear up so they can increase their chances of detecting an adverse health condition.

“This is no longer a fitness device for me – it’s become a part of my vitality,” he said. “This is what I need to know if I’m healthy or not.”

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