The health features of smartwatches and wearable tech have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Now, your watch can give you in-depth and accurate insights into a huge variety of health factors. And the technology is only getting better. For example, Fitbit has just announced that they are rolling out irregular heartbeat notifications on many of their Fitbit devices. Other smartwatch brands have had this feature for a little while, such as Apple, Samsung, and AliveCore, so the new Fitbit feature brings their heart monitoring in line with the other leading companies. And it could do wonders for taking care of your heart health.
Why is an irregular heartbeat important to measure?
Suppose you’re wondering why you might need notifications about the regularity of your heartbeat. In that case, you’ll be pleased to know that it can give you more than just an interesting tidbit of information about the way your body works. In fact, the most common cause of an irregular heartbeat is atrial fibrillation.
Your heart has four chambers: two higher chambers (the atria) and two lower chambers (the ventricles). Most of the time, these two chambers work perfectly in sync to pump blood around your body. But in some people, the upper chambers beat irregularly, which causes them to not be in time with the lower chambers. This is atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation isn’t deadly or dangerous on its own, but it can increase your risks of heart-related diseases, such as heart failure, blood clots, and stroke. For example, 35% of people with atrial fibrillation will have a stroke in their lifetime. Perhaps more worryingly, many people with atrial fibrillation have no idea that there is anything unusual about their heart activity.
For some people, atrial fibrillation can result in symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, weakness and fatigue, and shortness of breath. But for most people, atrial fibrillation has no symptoms at all. And this is why the Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications are such an important feature.
While your Fitbit won’t be able to give you a diagnosis on its own because this can only be done by a physician and extra testing, having a notification that your heartbeat is irregular can be the thing that prompts you to make that appointment and start the process. Another reason why the irregular heart rhythm notifications can be so helpful in the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is because it can often be a condition that comes and goes. So if you get your heartbeat measured in the doctor’s office, it might show up as regular just because that happens to be a day when it is.
The good news is that atrial fibrillation is pretty treatable. Some medications can help your heartbeat become more regular, and therapy treatments and catheter treatments can interrupt faulty heart signals. So knowing and seeking treatment from a doctor sooner rather than later can help lower your risk of developing problems with your heart later down the line.
How do Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications work?
Suppose you’re a Fitbit user and all this talk of atrial fibrillation feels weirdly familiar. In that case, this might be because there is already a feature that allows you to measure the regularity of your heartbeats on demand: the ECG app. With this app, you can tell your Fitbit to start measuring your heartbeats, and it will tell you whether they are irregular or not in the Fitbit app.
It does this through the optical sensors on the back of the watch face. These sensors shine green light onto your wrist. Why green? Because it is the opposite color on the color wheel to red, it is the perfect light to detect blood flowing through the veins on your wrist.
The way the light bounces back will be different depending on the volume of blood in your veins because this will show up in how contracted or expanded the blood vessels are. The software algorithm can then use this data to pinpoint when a heartbeat happens.
Once the software can time a heartbeat, it only takes a few more calculations to figure out how regular (or irregular) the heartbeats are. Your heartbeats are measured in beats-per-minute (bpm), which tells you how quickly each heartbeat comes after the other. The bpm usually follows a predictable pattern. Even when your heart rate is going up or down, for example, while exercising, the pattern will remain steady and regular.
When you tell the Fitbit ECG app to take a reading, however, you should make sure that you stay still the whole time so that the data are accurate. If there are large irregular deviations, this can be a red flag that you have an irregular heartbeat.
How are Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications different from taking an ECG?
You might be wondering what the big deal is about the irregular rhythm notifications, given that your Fitbit already allows you to take an ECG. Remember that atrial fibrillation is a condition that can come and go. It might just be that when you take an ECG, your heart rhythm is fine, but it can also still be the case that it is irregular outside of those times.
The Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications can allow you to catch irregular heartbeats as and when they happen. It uses the optical sensors plus the motion sensors already present in your Fitbit device. The motion sensors detect when you are still or asleep and will start collecting your heart rhythm data. Once the software has detected enough analyzable data, it will start checking the beat-to-beat measurements.
When you next open your Fitbit app, it will sync this data and give you a notification if it detects an irregular heartbeat. This automatic data collection gives you the best chance to uncover atrial fibrillation even when it is transient.
Are the irregular rhythm notifications accurate?
The last thing you need is to be notified that your heartbeat is irregular, only for it to be a miscalculation of the software. And equally, it would be frustrating if the software didn’t pick up an irregular heartbeat that was there. Of course, no test like this will be 100% accurate, but it must be as accurate as possible.
Thankfully, you can be sure that the Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications are accurate enough. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved the Fitbit to take these readings. And as part of its heart health clinical trials, which included over 450,000 participants, Fitbit showed high reliability for detecting background irregular heartbeats in undiagnosed individuals using this method.
The results are also given to you in a format that is easily shared with your doctor, so when you do go in for an assessment, they will be able to see the information.
What about the small print?
This is all excellent news, and the Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications show a lot of promise in detecting potential atrial fibrillation automatically, but there are some caveats.
Fitbit states that the feature should not be used in people under the age of 22 nor in people who have previously been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. And it is clear to point out that it won’t detect atrial fibrillation 100% of the time because it isn’t continuously monitoring it (it only starts the detection when you are asleep or still). And it also may not be accurate in people who are already taking heart medication for something else.
The feature is only currently available in the U.S. So, if you are a Fitbit user in another country, it won’t be available to you right now. And it isn’t available on all Fitbit devices. You can use it on:
- Fitbit Sense
- Fitbit Versa 3, 2, and Lite
- Fitbit Charge 5, 4, and 3
- Fitbit Luxe
- Fitbit Inspire 2
So if you don’t have one of those devices, you won’t be able to set this feature up.
How do I set up Fitbit irregular rhythm notifications?
If you fit the bill in terms of your health, you’re in the U.S., and have one of the compatible devices, setting this feature up is relatively easy. First, you will need to open the Fitbit app and tap on the Discovery tab, then See All. Here you will see a button for irregular rhythm notifications. Tap this and press next to follow the instructions.
At this point, Fitbit will ask you to confirm that you are eligible. So it will ask you your birth date and whether you have ever been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in the past. Once you confirm that you are old enough and haven’t already had a diagnosis, it will take you through a series of information pages to read, and then you’re good to go.
To wrap up
Fitbit rolling out its new FDA-approved irregular rhythm notifications is excellent news for people who have been waiting for it. Since atrial fibrillation can be transient, the ability of the software to detect irregular heartbeats automatically when you are still or sleeping is a big step forward. It can increase the chance of a potential issue being caught early and shared with your doctor before you start experiencing any heart problems. If you ultimately end up with an atrial fibrillation diagnosis, you will have a good chance of getting it under control. So this is a feature worth having that could have important implications for your heart health.