Can my smartwatch help me live longer?
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Guest: John Davidson
Are smartwatches all they’re cracked up to be? Can simply wearing a smartwatch make you live a longer and healthier life?
Join our host Val Quinn and award-winning technology columnist and reviewer from the Australian Financial Review, John Davidson, as we explore the capabilities of wearable technology and find out if a smartwatch can indeed make you live longer.
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[Val] Hi, and welcome to the Be Connected podcast. I'm Val Quinn and I'm a technology commentator, broadcaster and publisher. And I'm also the host of the Be Connected podcast. So as technology continues to evolve, we can now wear our smart devices, to support better physical and mental health. Now these are able to keep an eye on blood pressure. They can monitor our heart, manage blood glucose. They can even determine when we've been quiet, hinting that we might need more social interaction with friends and family. Isn't that just amazing? But can technology actually help us live longer? So in this episode, we're gonna explore the idea of whether wearable technology can help us have longer healthier lives. Smart devices, such as phones, watches, bands, rings, brooches, these all can help measure our physical activity. And some studies have shown that those people who wear devices actually exercise more, which is good for health and longevity. So helping me navigate this today is John Davidson. Now John is from the Australian Financial Review, and he specialises in helping his readers understand technology. And I think his column is an absolutely fantastic read. I love it. John just tells it like it is. So welcome, John, great to have you here.
[John] Oh, it's a pleasure to be here, Val.
[Val] So where to begin this chat today, I guess starting off, I mean, I wear a smartwatch and it gives me access to my banking, I can play music, I can send text messages, and it also helps me measure how many steps I take each day. And on top of that, it'll monitor my heart and my blood pressure and say how they're tracking along. And it tells me how well or how badly I've slept. And it even allows me to order pizza if I really want to, not that I do that very often. So why don't we start with just describing John, what a smartwatch is and what it does.
[John] A smartwatch is essentially a battery operated watch that you have to charge. It runs apps, a bit like a smartphone. In fact, it will often need to be paired directly to a smartphone in order to use the apps. For instance, you might get an Apple Watch, and that gets paired with an Apple iPhone. There are different types of smartwatches. Some are more to do with business productivity. They're good for getting notifications and for making calls. And then there's others that are simply focused on health. They'll have good mapping and navigation for if you wanna go for a jog in the forest, for instance. So Val, I've been reviewing smartwatches for, well since smartwatches came out, and I've got a drawer full of them. And I must admit I don't wear one myself. I find having to charge them every day to be just a bit of a pain, and I forget. But what about you? I see you've got one on.
[Val] Yeah, I do, I have an Apple Watch and I also have access to a bunch of different other watches too. I wasn't initially a great fan. I just wore a normal watch, but once I started to use it for exercise, it just absolutely locked in on everything I seem to do. So I now use it to track all of my activity. I use an app to even track the calories that I'm eating in a day, and that all can kinda be viewed through my watch. It sends me reminders about when I should be moving more. I can pay for just about anything without my phone with me just using the tap-to-pay functionality. I can even display my COVID certificate through the watch. The problem I have now is that I've got these nice watches that aren't smartwatches at home, and I just never really wanna wear them anymore because I don't wanna miss out on the tracking that my smartwatch gives me. So yeah, I guess I'm a convert, and I do watch my heart rate and I am curious about, you know, are there any changes over time. So yeah, I'm definitely a fan of my smartwatch, but it also is a source of guilt, and it does make me do a few things that I probably wouldn't wanna do otherwise. So yeah, there you go.
[John] Like you might go for a walk at midnight just to get your steps over 10,000 or something.
[Val] That's sadly true. I mean, I've walked past my house a number of times when I wanted to walk in just to get the step count up. So yeah, it does do that to you as well.
[John] The step count is actually an interesting aspect of smartwatches, Val, because in the science there's no good understanding of how many steps we need to take every day. Samsung sets its smartwatches at 6,000, and a lot of other manufacturers will have 10,000 as the default goal. And I guess a lot of users find themselves competing against those default goals. But if it makes you take more steps, then more power to it. And you mentioned that you use your watch for monitoring your calorie intake and I presume Val, you have to do that by actually tapping into your watch every time you eat something or to have a drink of water, it doesn't actually measure the calories in your blood or anything, right?
[Val] Yeah, that's a good point. It allows me to enter certain preset foods. This one's called My Fitness Power and it tracks your calories. So it's just a little easier to enter it on my watch rather than having to open my phone.
[John] If you've gotta enter it in every time you go and go to the shop and buy a meat pie, and you know you're gonna have to put that into your watch if you're gonna do this thing right, it just makes you a little more mindful of what you're eating.
[Val] Yeah, I think mindfulness is actually a really good definition for, you know, what smartwatches can do for you. It's just a little, it just draws your attention towards that and you're like, okay, I need to walk, or I need to track this calorie that I've just had, or whatever it is, so, yeah.
[John] And they actually have mindfulness apps in them too. Some of them, they'll have breathing exercises that you can do that link into your pulse rate, and you've really gotta settle down and slow your breathing. And the watch will give you feedback on how it's affecting your pulse. And so it's almost like a bit of a game, it's slightly gamified, but it is a good way of settling down when you're feeling stressed.
[Val] I see, and I know they have a lot of sensors in them that can capture everything from movement to, you know, heart-related things too. But I guess it's important to remember too, that, you know, these types of things are no substitute for proper medical diagnostic devices. So, you know, this should be taken with a grain of salt and you should always refer to your doctor for, you know, proper medical measurement.
[John] Yeah, they're not magical devices.
[John] All my reviewing over the years has shown that they can give you an approximation of how many steps you've taken, or what your pulse rate is, but they're not the same as medical-grade device.
[Val] Well, yeah, I mean, I think I remember reading that article where you tested different smartwatches against each other, and you found that there was differences in what it captured.
[John] Yeah, whenever I've reviewed a smartwatch, or indeed any sort of consumer-grade health device, I've always compared it to either a medical-grade device, or to a whole bunch of other devices in that category. And you never end up with the exact same results. You could wear five smartwatches and it'll give you a different number of steps. It will give you a different heart rate, quite different from a heart rate monitor that I might have had strapped to my chest, for instance. So it's important not to think that these are magical devices that can produce all of this medical-grade information, just by strapping them to your wrist. But what they can do is they can provide you with trend data over time. They can let you know that you haven't been as active as you were last week, or that you're not as active as perhaps some goal that you've set for yourself, and they're good at that.
[Val] I guess also, I mean, it's more of an indicator rather than a, you know, a medical-grade device, and I guess the awareness that it gives you might direct you towards a more sort of healthier outlook. Well can smartwatches actually make us healthier, and even live longer, John?
[John] Exercising will help you live longer.
[Val] Yes, it's not the watch. It's the activity that you do, that's a good point.
[John] It's important not to engage in magical thinking with smartwatches or with any technology that you wear, they can help to motivate you, yes. But ultimately the motivation is gonna come from you.
[John] Well, there are some studies that show that, that people who buy smartwatches end up exercising more after they purchase the watch. I think one study shows that 57% of smartwatch owners increase their exercise immediately after buying the watch. You do have to be slightly careful with that information though, because the question is, why did someone buy the smartwatch in the first place? If they bought it because they intend to exercise, then 57% is not necessarily a very good figure. you might want something like 90%. But if they were buying it for a whole bunch of other reasons, because they liked listening to music, they wanted to be contactable when they're away from their phone, things that aren't to do with exercise, then 57% looks like a pretty good figure, that buying a watch because it encourages you to exercise, because it helps you set goals, and they can access the reward centres in your brain, and make you feel good about achieving things like hitting 10,000 steps, or like drinking enough water during the day, or standing up for enough minutes or hours during the day. So these benefits, they can be side benefits for people who didn't set out to buy a watch for health purposes, but they'll nevertheless find themselves getting a bit more healthy because they own the watch.
[Val] If we look a little bit more into these watches, you know, they're tiny devices, and they've been able to integrate things like, three accelerometers, like you mentioned, gyroscopes, altimeters and all of these types of sensors, I guess, to track this stuff, you know, do you see more of this happening? And have you heard of other things that they're squeezing into these little computers?
[John] Yeah, a couple of the watches have a feature where you use your other hand, so you have to use both hands at once, and you touch the watch with the arm that's not wearing the watch. And as far as I can tell it sort of forms an electrical connection right through your body. And it will tell you whether or not you've got something to worry about. There have been instances where the heart rate variability monitor on Apple Watches have notified people that they might be having a heart attack, and it may have saved their life. But it will also tell you, this is no substitute for having a proper ECG, if you feel you really need one. But it's a convenient way to keep an eye on things, so that you can escalate to a proper ECG, or some sort of proper heart scan, if things start showing up on the smartwatch. One thing some of the smartwatches will measure now is SpO2, the level of oxygen saturation in your blood. And it will tell you whether you're at an unhealthy 90%, or at a healthy 99%. And once again, you've gotta take this information with a grain of salt, 'cause I've reviewed SpO2 trackers, and they've basically told me that I was on death's door when I wasn't. They've told me I had 90% SpO2, when you know another tracker that I wore five minutes later might tell me it's 97. So you gotta remember these are no substitute for a medical device. But SpO2 is one of the things that say, if you have COVID, that a doctor will be interested in knowing about. So if you have one of these smartwatches, it may prove to be a little useful.
[Val] So John, how can a smartwatch help you in case of an emergency, for example?
[John] Well, some of the smartwatches have a feature called fall detection. They can tell when you've tripped over or fallen down. and if you don't respond to the watch's queries within a certain amount of time, they'll call your next of kin. And the Apple Watch also has a feature called medical information where you enter vital details into your iPhone. Things like your next of kin, your age, your blood type, what allergies you might have. And then that will synchronise with the watch itself. So that if an ambo happens upon you, and you're unconscious or something, and you're not able to communicate, they can hold down the crown on the Apple Watch, call up the medical information and see all that information that you've entered into your phone. So they might be able to call your next of kin, or they'll know what your blood type is. So it might help in that respect too.
[Val] Well, that's great, 'cause it's really important to have that information to hand, and it's great that they can access it, even if you're unconscious. What about sleep tracking? I hear that that's possible on smartwatches too. What is that? How does it work and, you know, what do you think?
[John] Well, I'll tell you what I think first, one of the problems with sleep tracking is that it means you've gotta wear your watch at night, and often you wanna be charging your smartwatch at night, depending on the sort of smartwatch you've got, so it's often not the most convenient thing. In all of my reviews, comparing sort of medical grade sleep measuring devices to the sleep tracking devices that you wear on your wrist. I've never found them to be as accurate as having a proper sleep study. So that needs to be said upfront. So the important thing to understand about smartwatches is that they're never actually measuring the thing, that you think they're measuring. They don't measure your steps, for instance, they measure your arms swinging, and the motion of your hands. And they infer from that, that you've just taken a step. And that's also true of sleep. There's only so much you can infer about sleep from the way someone moves their arm when they're sleeping. You might have unusual sleep patterns where you stick your arms up in the air at night, and that could affect the results you get on these smartwatches. But that doesn't mean they're not useful though, you've gotta remember that too. That they can show you trends over time, and the apps themselves can tell you what time you went to bed for instance, and what time you got up. And even that data can be useful if you put your mind to it. And if you decide, I want to be disciplined about my sleep, then the smartwatch app and the smartwatch itself can help you with that. But ultimately it's you who has to go to bed, it's you who has to have good hygiene in terms of not using screens in your bedroom, and/or not watching television, or whatever is important for your sleeping. You've gotta do that, but the smartwatch can give you feedback on how you're progressing with that.
[Val] So let's take a look at smartwatches for a second. So in this sort of category we've got devices like Fitbit, Samsung Galaxy Watch, the Apple Watch. Those are sort of some of the main players. There's also Withings who has a watch that has a lot of heart rate monitoring, and that type of thing too. So John, do you have to have your phone near the smartwatch in order for it to be able to connect to the internet, or basically operate?
[John] Well, you typically need a phone in order to set up the smartwatch, but once it's already set up, then depending on the type of smartwatch you've got, it can actually liberate you from your phone. If you've got one that has, what's known as an eSIM, you can then use the watch independently of the phone, but on the same phone network on the same account. So you could argue that one of the psychological benefits of a smartwatch, is that it helps you break your dependence on a smartphone. You can leave the phone at home when you go out, you can still be contacted by people who need to contact you. And I know a number of people, who have found it's helped their mental health, just from that regard, even leaving aside the question of whether it helps them exercise more.
[Val] And with the calls, like we could have a two-way conversation. So we would just sort of talk to each other. How does that actually work?
[John] Well, there's two ways you can do it. Typically you can pair the smartwatch to Bluetooth earbuds, and you can just use it for a regular Bluetooth call. But if you don't happen to have Bluetooth earbuds in, then a lot of them do have a little speaker in them and a little microphone. So you could make a call from your watch, talking into it like Dick Tracy.
[Val] So what about music? Can I listen to that on my watch, without my phone around as well?
[John] So when you buy a smartwatch, it will participate in a particular ecosystem. And you just need to check that the services that you want are available in that ecosystem. If you are a user of Apple Music, then you need to check that your watch is capable of streaming or playing Apple Music. If you are a fan of Spotify, or of YouTube music, you just need to check that your watch can either stream those things, or can take downloads.
[Val] Speaking of apps, keep in mind that you can find out more information about the right apps for you on the Be Connected website, under All About Apps. So make sure to check that app sometime too.
[John] Another thing we should mention, is that you can have maps on these devices too. They can be pretty good navigation devices when you don't have your phone with you. I think the phone's still better, but they can buzz when you've gotta turn left, and buzz twice when you've gotta turn right, or something like that. So they can be helpful.
[Val] Yeah I know that I've used them when I've explored a new city. And I remember I was in San Francisco when I used it. It reminded me where I needed to turn left or turn right, and it seemed to know exactly where I was. So it was a pretty good experience really.
[John] And especially if you're in a new town, and you don't wanna seem like a tourist, who could be like a target for pick pockets. You can just discreetly look at your watch, and look for the arrows telling you, you know, where you've gotta turn rather than pulling out a map, or pulling out your phone and looking at a map, which makes you an obvious target.
[Val] That's a very good tourist tip, thanks John. Well, it's really fascinating to think about how, now we're seeing technologies like artificial intelligence, or machine learning, looking at the data and then looking for trends in the data. Like how do you think that can be used for the benefit of all of us?
[John] What computers are really good at, much better than specialist doctors, and specialists will tell you this, is they're good at finding trends in massive amounts of data. And they can recognise tiny patterns that aren't necessarily visible to the human eye, or to the human brain. They can see things in data that humans can't see in data, especially over a long period of time, and especially over multiple different data sources. So that if you're wearing a smartwatch, and also you've got another import from say an ECG that was done in a hospital, computers and machine learning are really good at seeing trends in that and figuring out correlations that we don't see. And so there's a lot of work with smartwatches at the moment in using them to gather data and then to run it through machine learning systems, which can analyse it and look for signals in the data, that means that smartwatches will be able to tell you that there's something wrong with your heart, and you should see a doctor, so that in real time it can give you that warning. So the first step is to figure those things out with the computers in the cloud. And then the next step is to get that data, turn it into something actionable, and put it back on the watch. And then that produces like a virtuous cycle where the watches become more useful, because they've got all these extra features and then more people wear them. And then they get even more data, and the computers find even more trends from the smartwatch data. And then they feed them back into the watch, and even more people wear them, and that's the promise of smartwatches. I guess it remains to be seen whether that's what comes true. It also raises something that's very important to keep in mind with smartwatches and that's data privacy. When you wear a smartwatch, you are giving up very personal data to the company that made the watch, and they might have deals to pass on that data to someone else to analyse for medical information. This is the most private data. This is your heart rate. This is, you know, how stressed you are during the day, or you might be capturing what you eat. It's very personal data.
[Val] Absolutely, absolutely. And as these devices are able to capture even more information with more sensors, yeah, we really need to keep track of all of that.
[John] And just keep an eye on the privacy policies of the companies that are behind these devices.
[Val] You can find out more about how to protect your online privacy and data in the Advanced Online Security course, on the Be Connected website. So what are your thoughts about the future and the role that technology, including smartwatches, will play in keeping us healthy?
[John] It's really an interesting time, but I think over time, GPs will learn to look at smartwatch data. They'll learn to take out the bits that are meaningful, and ignore the bits, that, you know, are a bit doubtful, and it will just help inform them. It will be one of the tools they use to come to a diagnosis.
[Val] I can see it's sort of almost like a pervasive ongoing care, where, you know, instead of you just visit the doctor and have a session, it's the session doesn't end necessarily there. It's whatever they're prescribing you to do differently, for example, the watch could support that, and also the information about how that's happening and how well you're doing, it could be fed back to the doctor again in real time. So I love that idea of a pervasive sort of circular healthcare.
[John] A lot of that is stuff the medical community has been doing for a long time. It might have been that if you had a heart problem, they would make you wear a heart monitor strapped around your chest. The thing about the smartwatch is that it makes that available at a much lower threshold that, you know, you don't necessarily need to have a heart problem before a doctor might encourage you to start monitoring your heart, and it produces a much bigger data set as well.
[Val] Well, John, it really does look like we've got exciting times ahead. And, you know, when it comes to wearable technology and, you know, we may even be able to live longer, or at least take better care of ourselves, thanks to something as simple as a watch, you know, thank you so much for helping us navigate what we can do now. And, you know, casting that, you know, that critical and sensible eye over what's possible today. And also what the future might look like.
[John] You're welcome, Val.
[Val] We really appreciate your insights. And it is a super fascinating area that I think is going to lead to some amazing things. And if you like what you heard, please subscribe to receive all the latest episodes, and leave a review or two to help others find us, if you're listening via a podcast platform. And remember to visit the show notes for more information on anything we've covered today, including links and other useful material. And lastly, to discover other great topics, go to beconnected.esafety.gov.au. That's beconnected.esafety.gov.au.
[Narrator] Be Connected is an Australian Government Initiative developed by the Department of Social Services, the eSafety Commissioner, and Good Things Foundation Australia. Be Connected builds the digital skills, confidence and online safety of all Australians, with engaging online learning resources, and a network of over 3,500 community organisations to support them to thrive in a digital world.