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4 things your health tracker can measure besides steps

Woman measuring steps using a health tracker

That nifty tracking device can help you sleep better, reduce stress and more. Check out some cool features you may not know about.

Health-and-fitness trackers are must-have tech gadgets right now. Most of them are worn around your wrist, like a watch, and count how many steps you take each day. It’s fun and motivating to see that number tick up, especially if you’re trying to reach a daily fitness goal. But have you tried some of the other cool features on your tracker? Here are four you might not know about that can also up your wellness game.

Cool health tracker feature #1: Sleep consistency

Tracking your sleep can be an eye-opening experience. Your device may be able to show you how long and how well you’ve slept. You may also be able to see whether you consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time. This feature is especially worth watching, says fitness coach Justin Roethlingshoefer. He’s the founder of Own It, a company that helps business executives and athletes reduce stress and perform better.

When it gets dark in the evening, the levels of a hormone called melatonin start to rise. Melatonin helps your body prepare for sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. At the same time, levels of another hormone called cortisol begin to drop. Cortisol promotes alertness.

In the morning, cortisol levels rise again, and melatonin levels fall. Cortisol and melatonin are responsible for your body’s sleep and wake cycles.

When your sleep and wake times become inconsistent, those cycles can get messed up, says Roethlingshoefer. For example, if you stay up late on a weekend night and then sleep late the next morning, you can throw off your body’s sleep rhythms. The result: You may have trouble falling asleep the next night and then wake up feeling tired.

Can't sleep with something on your wrist? Consider a sleep tracking pad instead. 

Cool health tracker feature #2: Mindfulness reminders

Most trackers include alerts you can set that remind you to take mini mindfulness breaks throughout the day. Those little buzzes or pings might seem annoying at first, but give them a chance. Small pauses in your day can be a sanity saver. (Shop for a health tracker watch at the Optum Store).

“Activity trackers emphasizing mindfulness can remind a person to take a moment for themselves,” says Seattle-based fitness trainer Andrew Mills. “Because, let’s face it, we can get too distracted to remind ourselves.”

Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present moment and being aware of what you’re feeling. For people juggling busy lives with many demands for their time, these breaks are crucial. “Taking care of ourselves is critical to our well-being and is a high priority,” Mills says.

Maybe you’re balancing a ton of work meetings with your kids’ school events. Or you’re searching for a new job while caring for an elderly relative. Or you’ve got a new baby who won’t sleep through the night. Whatever your situation, you could use a moment to just breathe.

Mindfulness can lower stress, reduce anxiety and even change the way your brain functions. Some quick breaks to try:

  • Breathe in slowly for 6 counts and out slowly for 6 counts. Repeat for 1 minute.
  • Write down 3 things you’re grateful for.
  • Head outside and look up at the sky. Focus on the beauty of nature around you.

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Cool health tracker feature #3: Sitting/standing time

Your tracker can help you monitor how many hours you spend sitting each day. Prepare to be shocked when you see the number.

Americans are sitting more than ever. A new Cleveland Clinic survey showed that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, walking in the U.S. has declined, while sitting is on the rise. In fact, 77% of survey participants said that they sit “often” or “sometimes” throughout the day.

That lack of activity raises your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. And data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 25% of Americans aren’t active enough to protect their health.

“Becoming more aware of the time you spend sitting throughout the day with a little nudge or reminder to move is key,” Roethlingshoefer says. If you don’t want to use these nudges on your tracker, consider setting your alarm to go off every hour, which can be a reminder to get up and get active. Some easy ideas:

  • Walk around the block.
  • Jump rope for 2 minutes.
  • Play with your dog in the yard.
  • Climb a few flights of stairs.
  • Do some leg lifts and squats.

Cool health tracker feature #4: Heart rate variability

Whether you’re exercising, doing daily activities or resting, many health trackers measure your heart rate. And if you look more closely at your tracker, you’ll see something called heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV is the fluctuation of timing between your heartbeats. “This is your body’s way of communicating how it’s adapting to the stress and strain you’re putting on it,” says Roethlingshoefer.

In general, people with higher HRV levels are more physically fit and manage stress better, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Lower HRV levels can be a sign that your body is not handling stress well, and it could mean you’re at an increased risk of heart problems and other health issues.

Your goal should be to increase your HRV number over time by boosting your activity level, eating better and reducing stress. Fitter people generally have higher HRV levels than those who are less active. “And those who engage in lifestyles that sync with the needs of their bodies have greater HRVs as well,” says Roethlingshoefer.

Additional sources
Melatonin: Mayo Clinic (2021). “Melatonin”
Sitting statistic: Cleveland Clinic (2022). “Roughly 40% of Americans Have Experienced at Least One Heart-Related Issue Since the Beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Activity statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). “CDC Releases Updated Maps of America’s High Levels of Inactivity”
HRV: Cleveland Clinic (2021). “Heart Rate Variability”

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