Is the Fitbit Heartrate Monitor Helpful for Health Conditions?
I got a Fitbit Alta HR for Christmas. This is a fitness tracking device that comes with a built-in heartrate monitor. It also tracks your sleep!
For someone such as myself, who is currently healing from mold toxicity and reactivated Epstein-Barr virus, which causes my heartrate to spike on occasion, I was very intrigued to see what my new Fitbit would tell me.
I used to wear the original Fitbit Alta (also a gift some years back), and used it primarily to track my steps. It also had a rudimentary sleep monitoring system, but it did not provide much in the way of in-depth information.
Still, the device was useful for getting an idea of how much I was sleeping (or not, since I have a tendency towards insomnia).
That original Alta tracker worked fine for a few years, until the internal Bluetooth system died. I could no longer sync it. What a great excuse to get a new Fitbit Alta with a heartrate monitor! (Thanks, Santa, errr, Mom!)
The Fitbit Alta HR is not the only version of the wrist device that monitors heartbeats. The larger Fitbit Charge 3, Versa, and Ionic models also offer the feature. The question is, is the heartrate feature that useful? Should you upgrade?
My short answer is yes, with some caveats.
How the Fitbit Heartrate Monitoring Tracks Heartrate Zones
First off, the Fitbit heartrate tracker is not intended for medical purposes. It is really designed to help people measure their fitness levels and track their heartrate during exercise.
The Apple Watch goes a step further and provides a full EKG reading, but that requires not just the watch but an iPhone as well, making it very expensive if you are in the Android ecosystem.
The Fitbit HR watches gives you a simple pulse reading, using blinking green LED lights that penetrate the skin to measure the blood flow. (Don’t worry, these are harmless, and given that people use LED light for healing, maybe it’s even good for you, who knows?!)
The Fitbit Alta HR is designed for working out, primarily.
It will tell you, for example, when you are in certain heartrate “zones” designed to help you “optimize” your workout. The zones will show up on your tracker with a little icon next to your heartrate display, and they are also noted in your app logs. These heartrate zones include:
· Peak Zone — where your heartrate is more than 85% of its maximum, for high-intensity (short duration) exercise.
· Cardio Zone — where your heartrate is between 70 to 84% of your maximum, which is the ideal zone for cardio exercise.
· Fat Burn Zone — where your heartrate is between 50 to 69% of your maximum, which is where you burn more fat for your workout but don’t burn as much in total calories.
You can also set up custom heartrate zones depending on your fitness needs.
If you are a fitness buff, these tools can be extremely helpful. But what if you are sick? Can it also be helpful?
How the Fitbit Heartrate Monitoring Can Be Helpful for Health Concerns
Personally, I’m not that interested in the exercise tracking at the moment. My main purpose was to monitor my pulse to see if I was having tachycardia — especially at night, when I’m having fitful sleep.
When I first put my new Fitbit Alta HR on, I was almost scared to see what it would say. Thankfully, since I’ve been on my regimen of health supplements, my tachycardia symptoms have been improving and the Fitbit is showing that.
The heartrate monitor is very helpful for me in tracking what my pulse is doing throughout the day. My general pulse rate is in a healthy range, and my resting heartrate is at about 63 to 64, which is excellent.
I will notice I get spikes in my pulse at times — these are times when I am not feeling as well and/or my anxiety is rising.
For example, I was driving yesterday and feeling a bit “off.” This was making me feel anxious. My heartrate while driving was averaging 96, going as high as 107. Was it the anxiety causing my pulse to quicken? Or was my body processing something at the moment, causing me to feel weaker, my pulse to quicken, and my anxiety levels to rise? (Or a combination of the two?)
One of the potential benefits of being able to see that your pulse is fast is that you can consciously try to calm things down using mind/body techniques such as deepening the breath. While this is hard to do while driving a car, it is certainly an option at other times of the day, depending on where you are.
And, if you need help with this, the Fitbit Charge 3, Versa, and Ionic trackers offer “guided breathing sessions,” which the Alta HR does not. I’m a trained yoga teacher — the day I need a watch to tell me how to breathe is the day I need to hand in my yoga ID card. So I’ll stick with my streamlined Alta. But for beginners, the guided breath feature might be helpful and a reason to go for a bigger Fitbit.
Is the Fitbit Heartrate Tracking Accurate?
Now, here’s the critical issue, especially if you are using the Fitbit for health tracking. Is it that accurate?
I was told by someone who compared their Fitbit HR with a hospital heartrate monitor that the Fitbit was right on the money in terms of its accuracy. Anecdotal, perhaps, but reassuring, nonetheless.
Now, Fitbit was the subject of a class-action lawsuit regarding their accuracy with measuring heartrates at higher levels during intense exercise. Consumer Reports did their own test and found the Fitbit to be accurate. Apparently, the issue with accuracy is more about whether the device is firmly strapped to the person working out — if it is sliding around or not in the right location, it won’t be as accurate (duh).
To me, this isn’t a huge concern, and either way, I think the Fitbit’s readings need to be taken with a grain of salt.
I have noticed a few discrepancies with the tracking: One, it tends to spike up when you first put the device on. It also might record ghost pulses when it is off your wrist and not being charged up.
Two, I’ve noticed a few times where what showed up on my wrist display was not logged in the app. The app shows your heartrate over the course of the day in a graph, with peaks and valleys indicating your top and bottom pulse readings.
I took a closer look at what is actually logged in the Fitbit app. From what I can tell, the graph only tracks your pulse recordings in 5-minute intervals. So, for example, I had a peak heart rate of 130 during exercise (that I saw while looking at the device directly), but the Fitbit app graph only shows my peak at 111.
This is a little disappointing, as I would like to see more information on when I am having an odd pulse spike here and there, but it’s still better than nothing.
What About the Fitbit’s Sleep Tracking?
Sleep has always been a problem for me. When I was a kid, I used to have night terrors. As an adult, I am prone to insomnia. With my body processing viral and toxin overload, I have very scary nighttime symptoms that include being woken up like my brain is being lit up, and often my nerves will start shaking and trembling along with it. I will be getting a sleep study for this, but due to logistics, not for a few months.
In the meantime, I am using my Fitbit Alta HR to help give me an idea of what is happening at night.
The new sleep monitoring in the HR line of Fitbits is far superior to their previous sleep tracking. You can get an idea of when you are in REM, light, and deep sleep. You can see when you are waking up in the middle of the night.
The HR Fitbits will also track your naps, but because they need three hours of data to do the more detailed tracking, you only get the old version of their sleep system, which basically tells you when you are awake vs. resting.
I find the new Fitbit sleep tracking to be very helpful. Now, you do need to take it with a grain of salt. It is not monitoring your actual brainwaves, which would be the most accurate way to track your REM vs. deep sleep. (I used to have a device that actually did monitor sleep brain waves, called a Zeo, but they sadly went out of business years ago.) However, the Fitbit can give you a good idea of how much quality sleep you are getting.
I also check my heartrate graph and compare it with my sleep chart to see whether any spikes in my pulse correspond with changes in sleep. As you would expect, my pulse does go up when I go from sleep to waking in the middle of the night.
What I can’t really tell from this, however, is whether my pulse is spiking first, causing me to wake up (something I’d like to know in the process of investigating my sleep issues). This inability to tell is in part due to the fact that I have to move from graph to graph, and my pulse readings are kept in 5-minute intervals. It’s simply not granular enough for me.
Even with this limitation, the sleep tracking is helpful and is providing me information on what might be going on with any sleep disruption. It would be even more helpful if the app allowed you to overlay your heartrate tracking on top of the sleep record, to see a one-to-one correspondence.
Overall Verdict: The Fitbit Heartrate Function Is Worth the Upgrade
Despite some of the limitations of the Fitbit HR, I find it to be an incredibly useful heart monitoring device. I also very much appreciate the sleep tracking it provides.
Now, if you want more in-depth sleep tracking, you might want to look into the devices on the market designed to just do that. And, if you have a heart condition that involves an irregular heartbeat, you might want to splurge for an Apple Watch.
However, if you have a “benign” condition such as POTS that might result in spurts of tachycardia, the Fitbit Alta HR may be an inexpensive and useful tool to track what’s going on.