Skip to main content

Are smartwatches and fitness trackers making us more anxious?

In a recent Apple Watch ad, one of the protagonists is shown taking an electrocardiogram (a test that can be used to check your heart’s rhythm and electrical activity) on his watch while riding a bus, working at the office, and even while hanging out at a kids’ pool party. The commercial’s message is clear: The latest Apple Watch is so powerful that you can run advanced medical tests anywhere in seconds. The question is: Do you need to?

Although smartwatches have made health insights more accessible than ever and motivated many to adopt fitter lifestyles, their rise has come at a cost. It has sparked a wave of anxiety among users who have become pathologically fixated and prone to over-diagnosing every alert from their wearables.

The rise of smartwatch-induced anxiety

Dr. Lindsey Rosman, a clinical health psychologist and an assistant professor of cardiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says her clinic has observed a growing number of patients with concerns about the information they receive from their smartwatches.

For example, in one particularly extreme case that Rosman wrote about in a recent research paper, a 70-year-old woman suffering from atrial fibrillation performed a staggering 916 ECGs on her watch in a single year, resulting in “12 ambulatory clinic and emergency department visits and numerous telephone calls to health care providers.”

Apple Watch 6 fitness monitor.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The smartwatch data led to no alterations in the woman’s existing medical treatment, but she was ultimately diagnosed with health anxiety since her constant worry and frequent health care visits had a “profoundly negative impact on her mental health, relationships, and quality of life.”

Part of the reason why cases like this are increasingly common is that the avalanche of health data smartwatches dump on you is usually ambiguous and served up without any context. If your smartwatch tells you you may be suffering from a health condition and presents a few charts to go along with it, it’s easy for your mind to jump to conclusions.

The trouble with tracking everything

More importantly, while the latest wearables are capable of detecting certain health issues, they’re still no match for professional health care devices. Even a slight wrist movement, for instance, is enough to trigger an “inconclusive” test warning on an Apple Watch — which can easily be misinterpreted as a problematic reading.

In the case of patients who are already diagnosed with an unpredictable health disorder, the fear and uncertainty is even more acute. That tendency to engage in hypervigilant, obsessive self-monitoring via wearable devices comes as no surprise to Rosman.

Another study from the University of Copenhagen evaluated the wearable experience among over two-dozen chronic health patients and reached similar conclusions. While some participants reported that the constant nudges from their Fitbit tracker motivated them to engage in self care, the notifications were reported as a source of stress for many others.

The ‘datafication’ of the human body

Consumer fitness devices follow a one-size-fits-all model, and that’s not how the human body functions. It also partially explains why they sometimes end up doing more harm than good.

If, for someone, a goal-oriented atmosphere works best, it can induce a sense of failure in another. In the Copenhagen report, one of the patients emerged more distressed than before. The reason? Their tracker kept pushing them to accomplish an eight-hour sleep schedule even though they felt perfectly rested without it.

WatchOS 8 Respiratory Rate data.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Should the patient stick to their existing routine or switch their habits to follow what the tracker suggests? The fitness device has no answer, and that highlights another shortcoming of wearables.

Smartwatches have powered the “datafication” of bodies with extensive monitoring and tracking, but they offer little actionable advice for what to do with all that information.

Dr. Emma Rich, a professor of physical activity and health pedagogy at the University of Bath in England, found that an obsession with raw data alone can especially lead to body dissatisfaction issues in young people. And the fact that the data is often at odds with how they feel can spark tension.

Reducing a person’s health down to arbitrary figures like step goals without a proper understanding of one’s personal health, she adds, can lead people to engage in forms of “self-monitoring that has been linked with disordered eating and/or exercising.”

Working toward a less anxious future

To prevent smartwatch-induced anxiety, experts believe there’s a need for greater collaboration between manufacturers and medical organizations. Patients and users, in general, need the education to understand the mountains of data their wearables are gathering, and to know when they should (and shouldn’t) contact a health care professional

Dr. Shikha Anand, the chief medical officer at Withings, a French wearable maker, agrees and says the company plans to launch a clinical partnership next year “that provides integrated clinical visits for concerning measurements.”

Smartwatches have saved lives, but as they gain more professional medical abilities, their makers have to be more aware of how people might perceive and utilize them. If their latest ads are any indication, unfortunately, they’re far from realizing the grave consequences such features can cause.

“More work needs to be done to provide this important contextual information to patients to prevent anxiety and potentially unnecessary health care utilization,” Rosman told Digital Trends.

Editors' Recommendations

Shubham Agarwal
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India. His work has previously appeared in Firstpost…
Polar’s newest smartwatch could be a Fitbit and Garmin killer
An athlete running up a hill wearing the Polar Vantage V3.

The latest sports watch to hit the market, the Polar Vantage V3, is designed to cater to the needs of both athletes and everyday users. This new offering from Polar replaces the previous model, the Polar Vantage V2, released in 2020.

The market for fitness trackers and watches is a competitive one in 2023, but based on everything Polar has shared about the Vantage V3, we could be looking at a solid alternative to the likes of Fitbit and Garmin. Here's what it's packing.

Read more
Apple is done with the $17,000 gold Apple Watch Edition
how to buy an apple watch edition 18 karat gold cases

The 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition. Apple

Apple recently classified its first-generation of Apple Watches as obsolete, according to an internal memo seen by MacRumors.

Read more
The Fitbit Charge 6 is a fitness tracker and smartwatch hybrid
A Charge 6 being used on a wrist.

Fitbit has finally embraced what it means to be owned by Google with the Fitbit Charge 6. Not only is the Charge 6 an impressive-looking fitness tracker with a more accurate heart rate tracker, but it's also the first Fitbit device to really lean on the vast data resources offered by its parent company, Google. These additions have moved the Charge 6 toward becoming more of a smartwatch, thinning the barriers between the two device types.

Fitbit was purchased by Google in January 2021, but outside of Fitbit's tech being front and center in the fitness section of the Google Pixel Watch, it hasn't meant too much change for the fitness tracker brand. That ends with today.

Read more