Can your fitness tracker pick up Covid symptoms before you do?

Women are noticing changes to their heart rates and breathing through their tracked data. 

When Jem’s fitness tracker alerted her to a skyrocketing heart rate despite the fact that she wasn’t actually doing anything to get it up – no running, no jumping, no walking up the stairs – she was concerned. Her watch was telling her overnight heart rate had doubled from 45 beats per minute to somewhere in the 80s. As all of us do in 2022 when something seems off, she took a lateral flow test. 

It came back positive. “I was fascinated by the fact that my watch picked up my infection before I did,” she says. 

Her story is unusual, but not unique – many people are being alerted to physiological changes in their bodies as a result of Covid thanks to their wearable tech. 

That might be more crucial now than ever, as asymptomatic cases are on the up – according to government data, people with the latest strain of Covid were less likely to report most symptoms associated with the virus, and substantially less likely to report loss of taste or loss of smell, compared with people with Delta. 

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So how is it possible that trackers are picking up on it if we feel otherwise fine?

Well, the latest versions of fitness trackers are sensitive – they can accurately detect heart rate, respiratory rate and even blood oxygen levels. While we might not notice taking, say, an extra few breaths a minute, or our heart beating a little faster when at rest, many of these smartwatches or trackers can.

How does Covid impact heart and breathing rate?

The fitness tracker brand Whoop have found that users have a frequent increase in respiratory rate just before they log coronavirus symptoms. On an episode of the brand’s podcast, vice president of data science and research Emily Capodilupo explained why trackers are able to pick up these changes:

“Covid-19 is a lower respiratory tract infection. The infected cells are the alveoli, the point of contact in your lungs to your blood. As they get damaged, your ability to get oxygen into the blood and get carbon dioxide out becomes less efficient. In order to compensate, you have to take more breaths.”

Covid symptoms picked up by fitness tracker

Dr Zoe Williams, a GP and ambassador for fitness tech brand Garmin, tells Stylist that these changes don’t necessarily mean that your lungs are struggling. “With the more recent strains of the virus, we’ve seen symptoms like nasal congestion, abdominal pain and even symptoms of the skin occur. A lot of these aren’t caused by the virus itself but as a result of the immune system rising up to fight the invading virus. It’s largely the effects of our body’s immune system that can alter physiological functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate and heart rate variability.

“As the body is put under some level of strain and is working hard to beat the virus we would typically see a person’s heart rate and respiratory rate increase while heart rate variability is more likely to decrease. Although, if people become quite unwell with the virus itself, it can affect the lungs’ ability to transport oxygen into the blood as effectively and that directly impact respiratory rate as well as heart rate, as it needs to pump faster to get oxygen to tissues and organs of the body.” 

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Other reasons for heart and respiratory rate changes

Covid isn’t the only thing that can cause changes in your body. “There’s the physical, like infectious diseases that make the body work harder. But also anything else that increases the body’s need for oxygen, like walking up a flight of stairs, doing exercise and laughing,” Dr Williams says.

““Next are psychological factors – anything that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part that prepares you for fight or flight, or the stress response, which will also increase heart and respiratory rate. That’s things such as fear, anxiety and shock, but also things that aren’t stressful but make you excited in other ways – including sexual pleasure.”

How to use your fitness tracker to track Covid symptoms

“Fitness trackers aren’t medical devices,” Dr Williams reminds us. “But they can be useful for monitoring and detecting changes in certain physiological parameters.”

It’s also, ironically, not good for your health to be constantly monitoring your stats. But, if you want to track your data in the most accurate way to make note of any changes that could be associated with Covid or indeed any virus or illness, how do you best do that?

Wearing a tracker all the time, rather than just during exercise, can make it more accurate

Firstly, collect as much data as you can to get accurate results. Only wearing your tracker during workouts won’t give you stats around, say, resting heart rate. Wearing it most of the day and night will allow you to create a “more clear overview of your health,” says Dr Williams. 

Whoop have reported that “there is value in tracking your respiratory rate and being well aware of what your baseline metrics are” so that you can notice trends and changes. It’s these overall changes that matter, not just whether your respiratory rate goes up as you move. 

And it’s important that you’re comparing your data against yourself. Heart rates and breathing rates vary hugely across the population, gender, activity level, age, and other personal and health metrics, so look for a change in your data, rather than comparing whether your average is different to others. 

Whoop research has also found that men are more likely to see a significant increase in respiratory rate with a Covid infection, while women may experience a more subtle increase – so be aware of the small changes, as well as any big fluctuations.

“Your heart and lungs are designed to constantly alter how they function to adapt to your environment – in fact it’s healthy for us to push our heart and lungs towards maximum capacity every now and again, which is why moderate or high-intensity exercise is good for our bodies,” reminds Dr Williams. However, if you notice a change in physiology without explanation, you might want to do a lateral flow test and, if it’s not Covid, talk to your GP, Dr Williams adds. 

Images: Getty

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