Why wearable fitness trackers hold great potential to prompt positive behaviors.
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How does a patient with type 2 diabetes stay motivated to be active and eat healthy foods? Since the invention of wearable self-monitoring technology a decade ago, exercise researchers have examined the implications of how receiving real-time feedback on activity—steps, heart rate, calories burned—can influence a person’s behavior. But they have yet to reach a clear, catchall consensus.
Researchers recently set out to record the response of a diabetic’s brain to getting instant information on glucose levels and physical activity. More than 30 adults underwent MRI scans and then followed up 2 weeks later to monitor their physical fitness, sedentary time, and glucose levels. The wearable technology showed that the participants had been less sedentary—more stand-ups, more steps—than when the study began. The School of Sport, Exercise, Health, and Sciences at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom conducted the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Although the researchers acknowledged the limitations of the unnatural nature of the MRI machine, the results were promising enough to suggest that “wearable technologies presenting personalized glucose feedback may be useful to employ in future interventions.” Researchers found that participants who had access to their glucose levels and other personal stats were more likely to activate the superior frontal gyrus, the area of the brain that regulates positive behavior changes.
“One key ‘suggestion’ from these pilot data is that people have a desire to understand how their body’s acute physiology changes in response to lifestyle choices,” explains Dale Esliger, PhD, program director of Exercise as Health, MSc, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. “If this turns out to be a solid finding, then it may act to prime the digital health technologies industries (i.e., wearables sector) to invest in the development of hybrid sensors that continuously measure a user’s acute physiology … alongside the more typically measured physical activity behaviors.”
Does this mean that physicians will soon add wearable technology to their diabetic patients’ prescriptions in the future? Maxine Whelan, BSc, who led the data collection on the study, thinks so. “This pilot work relates most directly to the prevention of type 2 diabetes, but in the future healthcare professionals may incorporate wearable technology as a way to help prevent other chronic diseases, as well,” she says. The technology simultaneously empowers patients and appears to encourage them to make positive choices, like taking a stroll after a meal, after viewing and digesting the physiciological consequences of their lifestyle choices, Whelan notes.
“Who knows? One day we may be able to easily and objectively quantify the acute health benefits of washing the car or taking the stairs or parking further away,” Esliger adds. “On the other side of the physical activity continuum, we may be able to overtly see the health risks of too much sedentary time. For example, binge-watching episodes of your favorite Netflix programs.”
But for now, it is clear that wearable fitness trackers hold a great deal of promise, and researchers say the health benefits are worth exploring.