The fitness tracker market has been on the rise year by year. In addition, rapid technological improvements are making advanced health monitoring features more accessible and affordable than in previous years.
However, are fitness trackers safe to wear? if you’re a fitness tracker owner, you may be concerned about the overall safety of your device. In general, these wearables are relatively safe to use. Still, there are three main safety concerns you should be aware of that we’ll discuss in this article: physical health, psychological health, and security.
- Physical Health
- Psychological Effects of Wearing Fitness Trackers
- Privacy Concerns
- Stealing Personal Data
- Data Selling to Third Parties
- Data Can Be Public
- Fitness Company Could Be Sold
- How Secure Is Your Data?
- Who Is the Owner of Your Data?
- Tips for Improving Your Fitness Tracker Security
- Use Fitness Trackers Responsibly
The average fitness tracker can tell the user how many steps they have taken each day, their heart rate, or how many calories they have burned. The wearables rely on low-level radio frequency waves to send information and collect it on the user’s smartphone or computer.
With that knowledge, wearable device owners may wonder about possible threats to their bodies from wearing the devices on their wrists since this exposes them to electromagnetic waves. In fact, many people and media outlets have started raising the possibility that even this small amount of radiation from these devices can pose a cancer risk for people who wear them.
The concern about fitness tracker safety mostly comes from examining long-term cellphone usage radiation due to exposure. Regarding cell phone radiation, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’S) International Agency for Cancer Research has listed these devices as potentially carcinogenic to people.
In a 2011 panel, 31 scientists participated in a forum to discuss the potential radiation risk of cell phones. They concluded that using the devices may be cancerogenic. However, they also said that keeping those devices away from direct contact with the user’s head can lower radiation risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also tackled this issue and said more research is needed before they can confidently say that cellphones cause health issues. However, they confirmed that cordless and cell phones use radiofrequency radiation to send signals. The CDC says this radiation is different from other known types of radiation like X-rays; we know that prolonged exposure to X-rays can adversely affect people’s health. But, so far, there’s no evidence that RF radiation has a cancerogenic impact on people’s health.
Still, the Federal Communications Commission introduced safe RF energy exposure limits for mobile usage. They require phones to emit less than 1.6 watts per kilogram of radiation. Phones that emit less than that are considered safe in this regard.
The scientific community hasn’t recorded a significant increase in brain cancer cases since the spread of smartphones. That’s why, for now, there’s no reason to worry about a significant cancer/smartphone usage correlation.
Also, numerous cancer institutes recommend reducing the time users spend on their cell phones, especially on calls with the phone placed against the ear. This is important because it lowers the radiation emission on the head.
Scientists who have studied the topic concluded that the radiation the trackers emit is similar to that of smartphones. However, it’s less energetic.
A hematologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah also says there’s no evidence that fitness trackers aren’t safe to wear. The doctor also said that even if there was a slight risk of radiation exposure imposed by these devices, keeping an active lifestyle drastically reduces that risk.
Devra Davis, an epidemiologist and a visiting professor of medicine at two universities recommends taking fitness trackers off at night. She states this limits exposure to potentially harmful radiation to the head. Users are also advised to stick to fitness trackers that can be worn around the wrist rather than at the waist to avoid exposing internal organs to these low-frequency waves.
Another recommendation from Davis is to use fitness trackers that plug into a smartphone or computer for data syncing instead of those that constantly transmit information wirelessly.
Effects on the Sleep-Wake Cycle Regulation
Since fitness trackers are electronic devices, they emit electric and magnetic fields, two forms of EMF radiation. In addition, most fitness trackers come with Bluetooth connectivity which allows them to connect to other devices wirelessly.
So far, it’s known that EMF can have a negative effect on a person’s natural ability to create melatonin, an essential element for sleep-wake cycle regulation. This is because our brains’ pineal glands convert this radiation into a form of light. This inhibits melatonin production since the presence and absence of light is the primary influencer of the production of this hormone.
When wearing fitness trackers at night, the brain may interpret this radiation as daylight, making it harder to fall asleep.
To lower exposure to EMF during bedtime, try not to wear your fitness tracker throughout the night. Alternately, you can keep your device in a drawer or another room.
Psychological Effects of Wearing Fitness Trackers
The second major concern regarding the safety of fitness trackers is their possible adverse effect on a psychological level.
If overused, these devices could generate anxiety for people who wear them. This could be true for people with eating disorders or weight problems who believe excessive workouts can help them get healthier or thinner.
Some scientists use the term “self-monitoring neurotics” to describe people who excessively pay too much attention to their fitness trackers and start questioning their vital functions.
Globally speaking, fitness trackers are still scientifically untested regarding potential psychological (and physiological) effects.
However, what potentially makes things worse for the people who wear them is that these devices aren’t 100% accurate. Still, most users perceive them as diagnostic tools rather than simple pieces of information. This can cause a misalignment in the user’s expectations and the results they actually achieve, leading to anxiety or other related conditions.
In fact, where calorie counting is concerned, one study shows that fitness trackers can be off by 27% or even 93% in some cases.
The Positive Side
It’s important to note that the psychological effect of fitness trackers is mostly positive. Most people with an inactive lifestyle are motivated to move more when they receive sitting reminders or try to achieve their health goals.
To make the most out of fitness trackers without causing psychological harm, it’s essential to set realistic fitness goals that can help you enhance your health gradually. Also, don’t take the data a fitness tracker shows as gospel but as a piece of information. This way, there won’t be any overwhelming or hard-to-reach milestones that can trigger anxiety.
Some users are also concerned about the privacy and safety of the data used by their fitness trackers. For example, sharing your name, email address, financial data, and virtually all of your health information can raise safety concerns. And in truth, this is probably the most realistic one out of the three listed in this article.
Some of the most common privacy issues fitness tracker users can experience include:
Stealing Personal Data
Weight, distance, blood pressure, lung or heart function are personal information you’d typically tell only your doctor. Some users don’t like the idea of sharing this data with others without permission. With wearables like fitness trackers, this and other data can be accessible to others and stolen for marketing or criminal purposes.
Data Selling to Third Parties
Some brands say they collect user information and sell it to third parties. However, they do so without giving away your personal identifiers. Also, these companies may have to disclose your personal health data for legal reasons. For example, they can share your personal data with the court if that information is required for a criminal investigation.
Fitbit says that as they’re a part of the fitness business (and are in it to make money), they use your personal information to help you maximize your experience with the device. This can include letting third-party marketers target you through the app with related products. However, the company claims they don’t sell the personal data of their users to third parties.
Data Can Be Public
It’s not uncommon for fitness trackers to apply a social networking approach. This helps users motivate others by sharing their personal records or additional information. Unfortunately, this privacy matter is often set to be public. This means random people can find your profile and see your personal information.
If you were unaware of this issue and don’t want to share your data with everyone, make sure to tweak the privacy settings of the app in question.
Fitness Company Could Be Sold
Although this is an unlikely scenario, it’s still a possible concern for users who care about privacy. For example, let’s say you started using a fitness tracker in 2018 and agreed to the user agreement. This agreement can change how the tracker uses your data over time.
For example, when Google purchased Fitbit in 2019, it caused many media discussions on how the action would affect Fitbit users’ data privacy. Google was accused of numerous data leaks and many other privacy concerns because of the way they store and use personal data.
In short, whenever one company gets sold, customer data is often the most valuable asset. New owners may have completely different policies on how they treat your information. They may even start selling it to advertisers.
How Secure Is Your Data?
Wearable companies can also be exposed to data breaches like websites, online stores, or smartphones. In 2018, Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal suffered a massive breach that exposed the log-in information of more than 150 million users. In the same year, a college student from Australia found a security flaw in Strava, a popular fitness app that revealed different kinds of user data. Some included U.S. military base locations in the world’s war zones.
Since fitness trackers connect with other devices using Bluetooth, there’s a potential that information can get to hackers via security holes. However, hackers don’t necessarily have to hack the device – they can “sniff” your Bluetooth signals to reveal your PIN. From there, they can make it to just about any health info you have stored on your smartphone.
Who Is the Owner of Your Data?
Tips for Improving Your Fitness Tracker Security
Although there’s no global framework set that governs fitness tracker data and wearable security, there are still tips you can try to boost your privacy if you’re a fitness tracker user.
However, we recommend reading this document to learn how serious a company you’re about to trust your health data is. You’ll see how they will value your personal data and what you can do to protect it further. You’ll also learn how the company will use, store, and access your data.
If you find the policy inconsistent or vague, it may mean that the company could share your data indiscriminately with third parties. And finally, if you aren’t comfortable with the terms, you can always choose another provider.
Understand Which Type of Data Is Collected
Your wearable device can track different types of data depending on the model. This can include simple steps, distance, and calories burned information. However, it could also include your menstrual cycle data, oxygen uptake, or heart rate variations. This is considered sensitive information that could impose serious privacy issues if breached.
As a solution, you can restrict the type of data you wish your tracker to gather in your device’s settings. Only allow the apps to collect information about the data you need for the insights you want. For example, if you use a fitness tracker to count your daily steps, you don’t need to have your oxygen uptake data collected too.
Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)
Using 2FA is a great way to secure your fitness trackers and the apps you use there. With 2FA, to access the app in which you wish to secure data, you’ll receive a code on another trusted device (like your phone) and enter it on your tracker.
Turn Off Location Tracking When You Don’t Need It
You can limit your location exposure time by turning it off once you’re finished tracking your workout.
Update Your Devices
Many apps come with upgraded security features in their latest versions. Keep your fitness tracker and all apps updated for additional data protection.
Use Fitness Trackers Responsibly
It’s important to remember the three main safety concerns regarding fitness trackers – physical and psychological health and security. Thankfully, the lack of evidence of diseases caused by these devices and the low risk of security breaches is excellent news for anyone wishing to start using a wearable.
So long as you don’t overuse the health features until they become an obsession, there’s also little risk of adverse psychological effects.