Activity Trackers Useful for Chronic Illness, Too


When we talk about self-tracking, most people think of symptom logs as a way to keep track of their chronic illness symptoms.  But there are other ways that people can self-track with the use of new technologies, such as fitness/activity trackers like Fitbit, among others.

Activity trackers are not just for athletes

Pedometers may be useful as a way to help with fatigue from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But I’ll take it a step further.

I have been using a Fitbit for almost six months now, and I got it specifically for tracking my RA.  How, you ask?  I got a Fitbit for two reasons. The first is that I wanted to see what my threshold was—that is, how many steps I could walk in a day without then being totally inactive the next day because of flaring. The second is that I wanted to track my fatigue, not only based on physical activity, but also based on how many hours I sleep at night, and to also track my naps.

Fitbit recently made it easier to track napping because you no longer have to set your Fitbit to sleep mode in order for it to track sleep.  This is extremely helpful because it is able to track my naps, even when I’m not planning on taking one.

I think it is really amazing that these activity trackers were made for athletes, not for people with chronic illness, but even the most basic functions can be very helpful in monitoring your disease in a less traditional way. The information is at your fingertips and all you have to do is remember to wear the activity tracker.

Fitness trackers are a great way to motivate yourself to get out and get moving.  There’s nothing more gratifying than when your tracker buzzes, letting you know you’ve hit your step-goal for the day.  My goal is 10,000 steps, which I definitely don’t always meet, but you can set it to whatever goal is right for you.  Maybe 1,000 or 2,000 steps is a good starting off point for you.  And if being more active improves your RA, you can change your goal accordingly.  This is a really tangible way to make a resolution to move more and stick with it.

I also like that Fitbit provides you with averages and graphs, so you could easily provide your doctor with information if you feel that what you have been tracking has a direct effect on your RA, and could possibly impact your treatment.

Things I have learned about my RA from using an activity tracker

In the last six months, I have hit an average of eight hours or more of sleep a night only in December. I have hit my average goal of 30 or more active minutes a day every month except January. And I have hit my average goal of 10,000 steps only in October.  I’ve also discovered that on days where I walked more than 10,000 steps, I usually crash the next day or a few days later if I have a run of days with a lot of steps.  In terms of managing my fatigue, I have discovered that I really don’t sleep as well as I thought I did, and this is something that I need to work on.

How much is too much?

On the flipside, self-tracking can have the opposite effect, and rather than it motivating you, it can also make you feel bad about what you aren’t doing (not moving “enough”) and what you are doing (sleeping “too” much).

It can also lead you to obsess over your numbers.  If I miss a day because my tracker dies or I forget to wear it, I feel naked.  I feel like I am messing up the information I get as a result.  So there’s a balance between using your tracker for good, and obsessing over it.

Activity trackers can be a bit pricey, so if you aren’t willing to spend the money, you can go with a more basic pedometer, which simply tracks your steps. You can also use the Arthritis Foundation’s Track + React app, which is free, although you have to track everything yourself and then log it.  In other words, it doesn’t automatically track your steps or sleep like a fitness/activity tracker does.  You have to input that information yourself.

I do think that the benefit of tracking outweighs the downsides, but if you feel it gets to be too much, you can always take a break from it.

I do hope that in the future, there will be trackers or apps that can track things that are more RA-specific, like how many times you can go from a sitting to standing position in a certain amount of time, and other ways to track disease activity that might be specific to you.  For now, though, I do think that fitness/activity trackers are very useful for monitoring physical activity and fatigue, which are both important aspects in RA and other chronic illnesses.

If you have used a fitness/activity tracker to manage your RA, what have you found helpful?  Do you have any advice for others on how they might use fitness/activity trackers to manage their RA?

See more helpful articles:

Exercise and RA: Keep Moving

9 Tips for When You Don’t Want to Exercise

Keeping Mobile: Physical Therapy and RA