Fitness trackers can pinpoint people at risk of heart disease, says study

Researchers have used fitness trackers to identify people with an increased risk of having enlarged hearts – a condition known as ‘Athlete’s Heart’. The study was also able to predict levels of ceramides – a class of lipids associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Fitness trackers can pinpoint people at risk of heart disease, says study

The findings offer compelling evidence that wearable fitness trackers can provide insights in biomedical research, and potentially act as an early indicator of developing diseases.

In the study, researchers from SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine, Singapore, and the National Heart Centre Singapore profiled 233 volunteers, tracking activity and heart rate with data gleaned from loan Fitbit Charge HR devices – “exactly the same devices you can buy from retail stores,” according to co-author Weng Khong Lim. The researchers also carried out a variety of clinical tests including cardiac imaging and serum lipidomics (profiling of fats in the blood) and instructed the participants to complete lifestyle questionnaires.

From the combined results, the team was able to identify those with an increased risk of Athlete’s Heart.

“An enlarged left ventricle could be caused by heart disease or harmless adaptation to sustained exercise, and these two conditions share overlapping features,” said senior author Professor Stuart Cook. “Activity data from wearables may help us identify individuals more likely to have this condition due to exercise, and are therefore at risk of misdiagnosis in the clinic.”

The study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, also showed lower levels of ceramides in active volunteers, compared to their more sedentary counterparts suggesting that the more active participants could be at less risk from obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

“In the past, researchers studying the interaction between lifestyle and lipid metabolism would have relied on questionnaires or expensive experimental studies.” said Associate Professor Khung Keong Yeo, another study senior author.

The increasing popularity of low-cost fitness wearables has fuelled considerable interest in investigating how these devices can enhance biomedical research and healthcare. A Stanford University study last year found that the accuracy of the heart rate sensor of seven different wearables, including the Apple Watch, was good. However, it found that their readings for energy expenditure were not so impressive. On average, the devices were off 27% of the time. 

While consumer wearables have been used in a limited number of studies, progress has been slow, predominantly due to a lack of comprehensive datasets that combine both wearable data and other types of health data.


The new study shows how combining different types of data can offer vital insights that could help early diagnoses. The study also highlights the importance of collaborative research.

“Discoveries such as this are only possible through multi-disciplinary partnerships between clinicians, clinical researchers and health data scientists, and access to high-quality multi-modality data from well-phenotyped cohorts,” said senior author Professor Patrick Tan.

The next step? Repeating the study with patients with specific ailments. “Now that we have data from a relatively normal cohort, we plan to study cohorts of patients with various medical conditions to determine if there are differences that can be picked up from wearable data,” Lim told Alphr.

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