Janice Chow renewed her exercise regimen after retiring. She uses a Jawbone to monitor her workouts. (Janice Chow)
When Elisabeth Handler, 71, of San Jose decided to commit to losing weight, she started using an activity tracker from Fitbit. Handler wears the tracker on her wrist to monitor her daily step count.
We rarely hear stories in the press about people who use wearable technology that aren't young, fit and generally healthy. But Handler is far from alone in finding value in apps and activity trackers later in life.
New research is finding that seniors are monitoring their health using wearable trackers at similar rates as their younger counterparts. A recent survey of 4,017 Americans, conducted by Rock Health, found that demographic variables, like age and income, had no statistically significant effect on adoption of digital health. In other words, seniors are just as likely to use a Fitbit or Jawbone device as a millennial.
"We were surprised, but pleased, that age wasn't a significant factor in determining adoption, because it implies that digital health technologies are reaching the senior population,” said Rock Health's Teresa Wang, one of the researchers behind the survey.
How Can Seniors Benefit From Wearable Tech?
I spoke with several retired people over the age of 65, who said they had more time to tackle the health challenges they have been putting off for a lifetime. And wearable health trackers provided the data they needed to meet their goals.
“When I was working, I always said I wanted to exercise,” said Janice Chow, a 66-year-old resident of Castro Valley who uses a Jawbone Up24 tracker. “Now that I’m retired, I have time to exercise twice a day.”
Chow resumed regular exercise with activities she loved: Walking and hiking. She describes herself as "technologically challenged," but when she received a wearable fitness tracker as a gift, she found it integrated easily into her workouts. It could tell her how many steps she had taken and how far she had hiked.
Her Jawbone device (and the several Fitbits she had previously lost) began inspiring her to do more. At its suggestion, she has integrated more dynamic activity into her workout regime.
“I take aerobics because the Jawbone would tell me, ‘Try to get your heart rate up,’” Chow said. “I’m trying to tone my muscles and be healthier. It motivates me to do more.”
'Awareness Around My Physical Life'
Handler has been relying on technology to manage her health for years now. When she needed a new hip 11 years ago, she turned to the Internet to find a surgeon. Today, she uses an online portal to access her health records, make appointments and email doctors.
But her most enthusiastically-adopted piece of technology will always be her health tracker.
Handler said her health habits began to evolve when she retired from a traditional career in favor of working from home as a consultant. She signed up for a 30-week health program through Kaiser in 2013, during which she abided by a rigorous supervised diet and bought a treadmill desk. She quickly became frustrated with tracking her workouts on paper.
She had used pedometers in the past, but never felt like they were accurate enough. This time, she bought a Fitbit Flex, a thin wristband that can track factors like steps, calories burned and sleep patterns. She monitors the data it collects in an app called MyFitnessPal, which can also log her food consumption.
Handler eventually lost 50 pounds. She’s found it isn’t hard to keep active during the day if she keeps her exercise simple. During our interview, Handler admitted she was currently walking at a very slow speed on the treadmill.
“For me, the tracker was a very easy entry-point into kind of a whole ecosystem of awareness around my physical life,” Handler said. “It gave me a really tangible, un-fudgeable, un-manipulatable way of being honest about what I’m doing."
Both Handler and Chow said their wearables helped them improve their sleep. In Chow’s case, the reports she received on her sleeping patterns helped her improve her quality of sleep. When Handler paired her step counts with overnight reports, she realized more activity led to better sleep.
“If I have a high number of steps on Tuesday, Tuesday night I sleep better,” Handler said. “It’s a clear correlation. That to me was an enormous ‘aha.’”
The next step is, of course, to track more. Handler is eyeing an upgrade that would allow her to monitor her heart rate. Chow would like to start logging her water consumption--something the Jawbone app keeps bugging her to do. But she’s not quite sure how to do it.
“My daughter says she’ll help me figure that out,”she said.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.