Don't just track your steps. Here are 4 health metrics to monitor on your smartwatch, according to doctors.

Don’t just track your steps. Here are 4 health metrics to monitor on your smartwatch, according to doctors.

From smart wearables like the Apple Watch or Garmin trackers to the celebrity-sported Oura ring and trendy WHOOP strap, health tech has come a long way from just tracking your steps.

“There’s lots of different metrics now that we can begin to look at,” says Dr. Davin Lundquist, family physician and chief medical officer at Augmedix. “Anytime that we can have a greater awareness of our health and paying attention to it, it tends to influence behavior in a positive way.”

Here are four that doctors say can be useful to monitor:

quality sleep, which research has shown can lead to improved concentration, increased productivity and feeling overall more positive.”

Heart rate

Tracking your heart rate can give you a picture into your heart health. The lower your resting heart rate, within reason, the healthier your heart is, explains Lundquist. 

“If you’re doing more aerobic exercise, over time, your resting heart rate should decline. And that would be an indication that your heart is getting healthier,” he says. 

Respiratory rate

“Certain devices can also provide insight into potential key health indicators – such as your respiratory rates, activity level and more,” Nunez says. “For some users, the data can also indicate how your body is responding to stress.”

Respiratory rate is a metric that may alert someone to other health issues, too. That’s something Michael Snyder, a Stanford School of Medicine professor who has studied smartwatches, experienced firsthand after coming down with COVID-19. Though he took a COVID test that came back negative, his own research app alerted him to sudden changes in his breathing and heart rates.

“I listened to my COVID test, and I should have listened my smartwatch,” he told CBS News in a 2022 interview.

Cardiac rhythm

Tracking metrics like cardiac rhythm may help alert patients to a bigger problems.  

“I had a patient whose Apple Watch told them that they had a run of atrial fibrillation,” Lundquist said. “We got this person into a cardiologist — sure enough, it was confirmed and the patient was adequately treated.”

“Afib (atrial fibrillation) is a big deal,” cardiologist Dr. Tara Narula told “CBS Mornings” in 2018 as Apple rolled out electrocardiogram technology in its smartwatches to help detect the heart issue. “It affects millions of Americans, increases hospitalization rates (and) increases death and heart failure.”

It also increases risk for potentially debilitating strokes by five times, she added.

“The problem with afib is that it can be asymptomatic, so you can be walking around and not know you have it while you’re at increased risk of stroke,” she explained, noting that a tracking device could help empower patients, but could also lead to false alarm: “Anxiety, false positives, flooding doctors’ offices with calls. There are definitely downsides, but I think this has the potential to really be very helpful down the road,”

How accurate is the data?

Health trackers have come a long way, doctors says, but you shouldn’t rely on these devices for 100% accuracy or diagnosis. The FDA has specifically warned against any device that claims to measure blood sugar without needles, since inaccuracies could lead to serious health consequences.

For other types of tracking, “The accuracy of some of the smartwatches is still a little bit in question, although with each generation they’re getting better. So I think overall, physicians are getting more confident in trusting these devices,” Lundquist says. Plus, as he points out, users also have to take off the device to charge, meaning data won’t be recorded 24/7. 

While trackers can be a “valuable tool for many,” Nunez says the data shouldn’t be used to diagnose serious sleep or health issues.

“Ultimately, sleep tracking devices can help to empower users to set and achieve health goals but are not a substitute for formal diagnosis or professional medical care,” he says. 

They can also help physicians partner with their patients, Lundquist says.

“As these applications become more mainstream, the ability to show up in your with your doctor’s appointment, pull up your phone and show them your metrics would be a great way for us to partner with our patients and help them see where there’s potential opportunities or problems,” he says.

Sara Moniuszko