A Google company launched a multi-year study involving 10,000 volunteers who will wear a watch that constantly tracks their health data.

A version of that fitness tracker on your wrist could someday be used to transmit real-time health data to your doctor.

For the 10,000 study participants, that future is already becoming reality.

Verily Life Sciences, a healthcare company launched by Google, is partnering with researchers at Duke University School of Medicine and Stanford Medicine at Stanford University on Project Baseline.

The project is a large-scale longitudinal observational study that will analyze data gathered from thousands of participants using wearable health trackers and other assessment tools.

These include sleep-monitoring sensors and self-reported information submitted via an online portal and a mobile app.

Each participant will receive a Study Watch designed by Verily that will track and transmit individual electrocardiogram, heart rate, electrodermal activity, and movement data to the company’s cloud-based servers.

The data will be encrypted to protect privacy.

Separately, Project Baseline researchers will gather genomic, mental health, physical health, and family history information through blood tests, surveys, and in-person interviews.

“Previously, these were all studied in a very segmented way,” Dr. Adrian Hernandez, professor of medicine at Duke University and a principal investigator on Project Baseline, told Healthline. “This study is a way to bring all [of these aspects of health] together.”

The goal is to develop a “picture of total health” for each study participant, said Hernandez.

That, in turn, can be used to develop a baseline for defining good health.

More broadly, the 4-year Project Baseline study is aimed at creating a “rich data platform that may be used to better understand the transition from health to disease and identify additional risk factors for disease.”

One of the standard assessment tools for cardiovascular risk is the 6-Minute Walk Test, which measures heart and lung function based on how far a person can walk in a short span of time.

“What we would actually like to know is how patients are doing every hour or day or week,” said Hernandez. “What we have now is a very reactive healthcare system. What we want to get to is a proactive system, where we can predict problems early on and nip them in the bud. Ideally, we get a greater ability to deliver the right care to each patient at the right time.”

Project Baseline is currently recruiting study participants who will wear the Study Watch for 4 years, and reap the benefits of having their health monitored on an ongoing basis.

The research team will be reporting results to study participants as well as for the study, noted Hernandez.

Health monitoring devices for people not enrolled in research studies have become increasingly sophisticated.

For example, the QardioCore monitor straps to the chest and delivers continuous ECG, heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, skin temperature, and activity data to doctors.

It can also be synced to Quardio’s free mobile app or the Apple Health app.

Motiv and Bodytrak had unveiled health monitoring devices that can be worn on the finger (as a ring) or in the ear (like an earbud), respectively, at the 2017 Computer Electronics Show, according to Bertalan Meskó, PhD, a health technology expert and author of the Medical Futurist blog.

Technology aside, it will still be up to people to heed their doctor’s advice based on the data received.

“Giving certain technologies to people will not lead to behavior change. Behavior change only takes place if proper coaching supports the use of disruptive technologies,” noted Meskó.

“But in general, the real potential of such studies lies in the essence of using […] devices to obtain anonymous data about health behavior and lifestyle change. From that aspect, this could be the first step of a revolutionary scientific method,” he said.

Other major research studies also are integrating the use of health-tracking technology, including the All of Us study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The study, part of the $130 million Precision Medicine Initiative, will enroll more than 1 million people in the United States in an attempt to develop more effective ways to prevent and treat disease.

“[It’s] the most far-reaching medical research initiative in the history of the United States,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, in a press statement.

The institute will enroll participants and assess emerging wearables and other medical devices for use in the study.

All of Us participants will contribute health and lifestyle information in surveys, undergo health exams, donate blood and urine samples, monitor their own health, and submit data via mobile apps, websites, interactive voice response, feature phones, and wearable sensors.

“This range of information at the scale of 1 million people from all walks of life will be an unprecedented resource to understand all of the factors that influence health and disease,” said former NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins in announcing the study in July 2016.

“Over time, data provided by participants will help us answer important health questions, such as why some people with elevated genetic and environmental risk factors for disease still manage to maintain good health, and how people suffering from a chronic illness can maintain the highest possible quality of life,” Collins said. “The more we understand about individual differences, the better able we will be to effectively prevent and treat illness.”

From motivating you to take more steps in a given day to helping you monitor your health if you have certain underlying conditions, research is increasingly revealing a variety of benefits of wearable fitness devices. Below are some of the major benefits to consider.

Provides objective insights into current fitness habits

If you’re unsure exactly how much activity you get on any given day, fitness trackers can help tell you exactly how many steps you take. Your fitness tracker may even give you an estimated number of calories you burn during both activity and rest.

Such objective data can help give you key insights into just how much activity you really get each day, thus providing you with the information you need to establish clear fitness-related goals.

May help you achieve more steps

While researchers have found that fitness trackers have the capability of increasing daily physical activity more generally, we’re just beginning to learn exactly how much of a difference these devices might impact a person’s fitness goals.

On average, people who consistently wear fitness trackers walk 1 more mile each day than they would without having these devices, reports Johns Hopkins Medicine.

While some trackers have a default setting of 10,000 steps per day, some NIH research suggests that a decreased risk of death is associated with 7,500 steps each day. If you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, gradually achieving this goal could be less overwhelming than 10,000 steps.

However, this research only focused on older women; more studies are needed.

Furthermore, that same NIH research suggests that quantity is more important than speed. If you’re just getting started and need to walk slower, it’s better to take more steps in your day overall, rather than a few fast ones.

Helps inspire small, achievable changes

Changes to your physical activity habits don’t change overnight, but fitness devices can help you make gradual changes you can manage on your own.

One 2019 study found that fitness trackers promoted behavior change techniques, which could possibly help people increase physical activity on their own without outside intervention.

Fitness trackers may also alleviate some of the anxiety you may experience if you’re new to fitness, or are working toward a larger heart-healthy goal by helping you achieve small, measurable changes. This could be as simple as increasing your daily number of steps a little bit more each day.

May provide additional data for underlying health conditions

As fitness trackers become more advanced, some devices have the capability of providing ongoing data that have been proven to help treat chronic conditions.

For example, one 2018 review of adults with obesity found positive results within 6 months when fitness devices were incorporated into an overall weight loss program.

But the benefits of fitness trackers may extend beyond weight loss. A 2020 study with adults who have atrial fibrillation concluded that these devices showed reduced physical activity in such individuals, thus determining the severity of disease.

Other research has shown that wearing fitness devices may increase better outcomes in other medical conditions that may otherwise decrease physical activity, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and arthritis.

However, before you get started exercising with a fitness device, it’s important to check with your doctor on how to safely do so if you have any underlying medical conditions.

Accountability boosts results

Having real-life data also helps you become more accountable during your fitness journey, thereby boosting your results.

It’s easy to underestimate how much you move on a daily basis, but having accurate numbers from a tracking device can help you make sure you stick to your goals and possibly share your results with a doctor.

Research also shows that physical activity interventions from a doctor are often temporary, and that including fitness devices may lead to better results between appointments.

For even more accountability, some smartphone-based fitness apps also allow you to join groups and share your results with friends and family. This type of competition may help boost your fitness results even further.

While the core goal of fitness trackers to increase physical fitness hasn’t changed, advances in technology are constantly creating new devices that have additional features to help you track your health. Related studies are also continuing to emerge, revealing the potential real-life benefits of these trackers.

Such evolving technology can help you work with your doctor to gain a better understanding of your overall health, potentially leading to better accountability and more proactive actions.

If you have questions about your current health and whether fitness trackers may help, talk with your doctor for advice.