Long-term stress erodes BodyWHealth. It induces a physiological state that impairs performance, and increases the risk of disease. Awareness and control of our breathing enable us to detect and reverse these dangerous conditions. Wearable devices are now available to help us.
Stress expresses itself very directly in our breathing. If you pause for a moment in a highly stressful moment, you will feel tension in your neck, shoulders and chest muscles. You will find that your breathing is shallow and rapid. You may find your pulse racing. Your brain pumps out signals to activate your body and focus your mind. These are appropriate reactions designed to cope with emergencies, but when we maintain this heightened physiological alertness over a prolonged time, we can trigger serious health problems.
Unlike other automated bodily functions, we can actively control our breathing. By enforcing a pattern of slow, deep breathing, which the body associates with relaxation, we are able to counteract the impact of stress. I learnt almost by accident to calm my children when they had fallen and injured themselves. They still laugh at me today. “In through your nose, out through your mouth” they chant when somebody hurts themselves. I carried this through into my medical practice, and try to remember it in my personal life when life gets the upper hand!
Recognizing that breathing is both of diagnostic and interventional value, two companies have developed wearable devices that help us to monitor our breathing. Spire launched their device (with the same name) last month. Prana Tech launched their device (called the Prana) this week. Both are neat little devices that clip onto the inside of clothing, and download the data into software on your favorite mobile device. Both offer the wearer feedback and breathing advice.
In addition to monitoring breathing, Spire tracks activity by counting steps (a big bonus for BodyWHealth fans who are aiming for 10,000 steps on 5 days of each week). The company hopes to integrate other biometric data like heart rate and sleep quality over time, but this is not available for the immediate future. The Spire companion app is integrated into Apple’s HealthKit, hopefully helping us minimize the number of dashboards we will need to consult as we monitor our health. Spire was rewarded with the Cooper Hewitt & Smithsonian 2014 People’s Design Award.
The Prana also reports on the wearer’s posture. If we slouch, we squash our abdominal organs up against our diaphragm and impair the deep abdominal breathing that relaxes us. Their app includes a game designed to help you towards better breathing technique.
While writing this blog I reached out to a friend who has been wearing the Spire since its earliest availability. He is very happy with the feedback that the device is giving him, helping him to modify his breathing to relax and focus better. In addition to this “actionable feedback”, he appreciates the design that allows him to wear it “discretely” throughout the day.
I’m excited about the opportunity to monitor our breathing with unobtrusive devices and look forward to exploring their value. I’m more excited that, although we are measuring breathing, we’re actually gaining insight into our emotional state. This is where we really want to be working. Stress is healthy for short periods. It helps us achieve stretch goals. We need to learn to manage it over the longer term in order to avoid disease and to achieve BodyWHealth. This should help!