Fitness wearables such as Fitbits or Apple Watches can help track the effects of long Covid, new research suggests.
Researchers on the Digital Engagement and Tracking for Early Control and Treatment (DETECT) study, run by the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, United States, studied the wearable data of participants between March 25, 2020 and January 24, 2021. Although more than 37,000 people enrolled in the trial, the study focused on the 875 people who reported symptoms of respiratory illness and were then tested for Covid-19.
Those who tested positive displayed long-term changes in their health, most notably an elevated heart rate that did not return to normal until, on average, 79 days after symptoms began. A small subset of this group – nearly 14 per cent – had a heart rate elevated by more than five beats per minute, which did not return to normal for more than 133 days.
Those who tested positive also walked less and slept more, although these changes returned to normal sooner than their heart rates, at 32 and 24 days respectively.
In summary, the researchers said their work had found ‘a prolonged physiological impact of Covid-19 infection, lasting approximately two to three months on average’, although there were substantial differences between individuals.
The evidence that wearables could help track the effects of long Covid is growing. The same team of researchers published another study in the scientific journal Nature last year that found combining wearable data with the usual testing and self-reported symptom information led to significantly more accurate results than symptom information alone.
Jennifer Radin, a public health expert who leads the DETECT trial, told The New York Times, ‘There was a much larger change in resting heart rate for individuals who had Covid compared to other viral infections. We also have a much more drastic change in steps and sleep.’
But Radin also acknowledged the limitations of the study, namely that researchers did not ask participants to continue self-reporting their symptoms in the weeks and months after they fell ill: ‘We want to kind of do a better job of collecting long-term symptoms so we can compare the physiological changes that we’re seeing with symptoms that participants are actually experiencing,’ she said. ‘So this is really a preliminary study that opens up many other studies down the road.’
Dr Robert Hirten, a gastroenterologist and expert in digital health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, who was not involved in the study, told the newspaper: ‘Wearable devices offer an ability for us to be able to monitor people unobtrusively over long periods of time to see in an objective way – how really has the virus affected them?’
He added: ‘Combining these sort of techniques with other studies that are being done looking at this issue of long-term symptoms could really offer a nice objective insight into what’s going on with people.’
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