Are smartwatches too much of a good thing?

I RELEGATED a running watch recently. After eight good years, the device which I bought off a former user had stopped responding to the charging pod.

Weighing my options for a new watch was quite the dizzying experience. I thought I'd get a smartwatch this time, and spent a good number of days comparing watch prices, functions and aesthetics on the Garmin website.

My previous watch did not have a heart rate monitor, but this has become "table stakes" for most smartwatches now. The new one I eventually got even tracks oxygen in my blood, stress levels, menstrual cycles, and computes my "sleep score" as well as "body battery", among other sophisticated-sounding functions. The owner's manual lists some 30 of them.

As if my smartphone isn't collecting enough data off me, I'm now wearing another "ultra-smart" device on my wrist.

The growing awareness of mental health issues has led consumer tech companies to offer more stress detection measures on their wearable devices. By some estimates, the wearables market could be worth US$160 billion by 2026.

Each device defines "stress" differently, although many use heart rate variability as an indicator. However, this capability could be a double-edged sword.

On one hand, smartwatches are well used by healthcare researchers and practitioners - some researchers at the Nanyang Technological University are using wearables to detect people who have an increased risk of depression, for instance.

But wearables can sometimes cause stress - the very symptoms they were made to help users track and manage. A paper published last year by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale School of Medicine noted that some patients with underlying heart issues were preoccupied with notifications from their watches. The researchers highlighted one 70-year-old patient, who took 916 ECG readings - which record her heart's electric rhythm - in one year through her device.

Some have even suggested that smartwatches exacerbate orthosomnia, or an obsession with getting "perfect sleep". As someone who already struggles to sleep well, I most certainly do not need a device to remind me how poorly I am sleeping with no suggestions for a solution.

In an interview with The Verge, a researcher said patients were coming into clinics with "stacks of papers with data from their smartwatches". Constant and on-demand access to health information created what the researcher called "pathologic symptom monitoring".

We now have more information but greater worry - because our lack of control over certain symptoms are made more apparent by these wearables.

It also feels odd to have a watch suggest to me that I take a five-minute deep breathing exercise, or for it to propose daily workout plans. I'd much rather decide on my run or whether to run based on how my legs feel - surely my watch can't know that better than I do? And frankly, if I wouldn't even take heed of friends' advice to take a break, why would I listen to a watch…

Another reason I have not stopped staring at my wrist is because the text messages, news alerts and other notifications I receive on my mobile phone are synced to the watch - a feature I have since set certain limits on. Someone pointed out this week that I had constantly been looking down during a meeting, which made me realise how I had not been fully present with the friends I was meeting.

To be sure, most of these functions can be moderated or disabled based on users' preferences. And I do like my new watch for a good all-round view of my training performance and fitness. I just don't like that I have been spending an inordinate amount of time monitoring the numbers on my wrist.

All these bring to mind a recent conversation with DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta, who waxed lyrical about the bank's artificial intelligence capabilities, but also acknowledged that a drawback of over-dependence on data is that there may come a day when machines become "too good".

"What (will happen) on the day the machine starts thinking by itself," Gupta had mused during the interview.

Our present reliance on smart devices are a hint of what that day would look like.

By the river
This route gently meanders along the Singapore River and extends through the Alexandra canal, which is one of my favourite segments of Singapore's park connectors. I also like that this takes me from the central business district into the heartlands.

This route gently meanders along the Singapore River and extends through the Alexandra canal, which is one of my favourite segments of Singapore's park connectors. MAP DATA © 2022 GOOGLE

Distance: About 9km

Route markers
(A) Outside The Fullerton Hotel
(B) Clarke Quay Central
(C) Jiak Kim Bridge
(D) Alexandra Park Connector, after Delta Road
(E) Alexandra Park Connector, outside Prince Philip Ave
(F) Alexandra Canal Linear Park
(G) Holland Village



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