Fitness & wellbeing

Could wearable tech help you beat stress?

Personal technology tells you more about yourself than ever, but will this help you manage stress or give you one more thing to worry about?

You probably think of fitness wearables as simply that – an easy way to track your fitness day to day. Whether it’s counting your steps or logging your workouts, fitness wearables and smart watches have become another ubiquitous part of our expanding roster of tech, as well as a way to keep on top of our physical health.

But it turns out that fitness wearables can do far more than help us improve our bodies. In fact, they could be a vital part of helping us improve our mental wellbeing, too.

As the mindfulness trend has grown, so has its inclusion in wearables and fitness trackers. Fitbit’s latest wearable, the Charge 2, has a built-in mindfulness function, a guided breathing tool they call ‘Relax’, and the most recent iteration of the Apple Watch has a similar function, ‘Breathe’. Both are designed to increase awareness of the body and how it’s being affected by stress, and subsequently encourage you to step away from your spreadsheets and try to de-stress – whether that’s through guided breathing or boosting your step count.

So: how do they work? Fitness tracking technology has developed quickly – you’re getting much more than the basic accelerometers you’d find in a traditional pedometer or even on your phone. Wearables now have a huge range of features – heartrate monitors, breath trackers, skin sensors and more – that allow you to track stress. Working on a big presentation and noticed your heartrate has severely increased? It’s probably time to give yourself a break.

Many young people are already taking advantage of this newfound ability to quantifiably track their stress levels. Dan, 29, works as a creative director in a London social media agency. He told me that keeping track of his heartrate via his Apple Watch is now a vital part of his work day. 

“I got my Apple Watch to track my runs, initially,” he said. “And also so I could keep on top of notifications and emails without constantly being on my phone. But I’ve actually found the most useful part of it has been the ability to track my stress via an app I downloaded.”

Dan believes the technology has improved his mental health (though he does not suffer from a diagnosed mental illness), especially around stressful work situations.

“I’m definitely less stressed and anxious about my work and home life now that I have a way of keeping an eye on it,” he said. “Before, I would let things pile up. I didn’t know how stressed I really was, I guess, until I really hit a wall.

“Now I have a way of tracking it, I find it a lot easier to keep on top of stuff and not get completely overwhelmed.”

The fitness tracking tools have also helped him keep deal with anxieties.

“I was always into running, but being able to track my progress alongside things like stress has changed the way I look at it,” he said. “Before, I exercised as a way to keep fit – I wanted to look good, basically! But now I’m more mindful of stuff like mental health and stress, I definitely use it as a way to blow off steam and keep on top of things.”

That’s not to say the technology is perfect, though. Stress and anxiety are complex experiences that can’t be reduced to a too-fast heartbeat or an increased rate of breathing – particularly if you have an anxiety disorder, rather than work-related stress.

And some of the features that users like Dan love about wearables – a list of quantifiable data points about your own life – can be a drawback for others. Anna, a 24-year-old designer, told me that she had to stop using her fitness tracker because it was making her more stressed.

“I used to track things like my sleep, my heartrate and how many steps I’d done in a day as a way to manage my anxiety,” she said. “I thought it would be useful to work out where I was going wrong and where I could make improvements when it came to managing my stress, especially around deadlines.

“But I became kind of obsessed with it, and it made me more stressed out. I’d worry that I hadn’t got enough sleep and that it was going to affect my work, I’d be working on a project constantly anticipating a low mood or an increased level of anxiety just because my heartrate was slightly elevating.

“For me, that kind of detail became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My tracker said I was a bit stressed, so I’d feel stressed about it! It was a vicious cycle.”

Mental health professionals acknowledge this possibility – Dr Graham, technology addiction specialist and consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital, told me that users should “think carefully” about the way they use their wearables.

“Make sure it’s not the dominant partner as you seek better wellbeing,” he said. “Use it as part of your programme and remember that it’s not in charge of you.”