Wearable activity trackers show promise in rheumatic disease

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Wearable activity trackers reportedly enable passive data collection that patients can use for educational, motivational, and self-monitoring purposes.

  • Research shows that trackers can detect patterns of physical activity associated with flares in patients with rheumatic disease, which may pave the way for improved disease management.

  • These trackers have limitations, such as low patient adherence to the trackers, and the influence of health literacy and physical literacy on the interpretation of data collected by trackers.

In the age of digitization, wearable activity tracking devices are all the rage. After all, they are easy to use, smartphone-compatible, and able to record several types of data in real time, according to a study published by Arthritis Research & Therapy.[]

What’s more, researchers state that wearable activity trackers may improve health outcomes among patients with rheumatic disease. Physicians may also find that trackers aid in time management, while helping to prioritize patients who require more immediate attention.

Related: Beyond the joints: Unraveling the psychological effects of arthritis

Wearable trackers and disease management

In recent years, researchers have taken to investigating the medical uses of wearable activity trackers.

What they’ve found points to the possibility that these devices may improve the health of those living with rheumatic diseases.

According to an article published by Sensors, patients with rheumatoid arthritis may wear activity trackers in order to detect flares—as well as patterns of physical activity that precede the flares.[]

The Sensors authors conducted a 3-month pilot study in 2018 to explore this. The study involved 157 patients—83 patients had rheumatoid arthritis and 74 had axial spondyloarthritis.

After being prompted by their smartphones, patients in the study completed weekly self-reports documenting their flares, categorizing them as none, short (1–3 days), or persistent (lasting more than 3 days).

All the while, an activity tracker (identified as Withings Activity Pop watch) continuously gathered data on each patient’s physical activity over the 3 months.

The results revealed a link between physical inactivity and flares. 

Among the participants, researchers identified a relative 12%–21% decrease in physical activity throughout the weeks they experienced flares.

The absolute decrease amounted to 836–1,462 fewer steps per day. The authors elaborated on the clinical significance of this finding.

“​​We found patient-reported flares were strongly linked to physical activity and that patterns of physical activity could be used to predict flares with great accuracy,” the authors wrote. 

"Automatic monitoring of steps may lead to improved disease control through potential early identification of disease flares, with high convenience for patients since the data collection is passive."

Authors, Sensors

Limitations of trackers

Although wearable trackers have great potential to influence health outcomes and increase physical activity among patients, there are a few obstacles to note.

According to an article published by Zeitschrift für Rheumatologie, low adherence to activity trackers may negatively influence the tracker’s effects on patients.[]

A study among undergraduate students found that over 50% of participants stopped using their activity tracker after just 2 weeks. That percentage jumped to 75% at the 4-week mark.

In addition to the issue of low adherence, health and physical literacy may affect the interpretation of data captured by the tracker.

“The concept of health literacy refers to the personal and relational factors that affect a person’s ability to acquire, understand and use information about health and health services,” the study authors wrote, noting that people who are active tend to have higher health literacy. “In addition to providing monitoring of activities to increase physical activity, a comprehensive approach could also focus on health and physical literacy.”

Related: Unmet need: What precision medicine can do for rheumatology

Lastly, the long-term effects of wearable activity trackers are still unclear.

The Zeitschrift für Rheumatologie authors note one study in which participants wore activity trackers during the active study period, but once the study ended and the participants stopped using the trackers, there was no evidence to support an increase in steps.

Despite these challenges, the Sensors authors believe that wearable activity trackers have much to offer. Between tracker-related improvements in disease management and physician time management, both patients with rheumatic disease and doctors may benefit from their use.

What this means for you

Wearable activity trackers may improve rheumatic disease management and health outcomes by detecting flares and their potential associations with activity levels. Experts say the implementation of wearable tracking devices may also support physician time management by reducing the burden on clinic time, while helping physicians to prioritize patients based on who is in need of further medical attention.

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