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Why You Should Be Tracking Your Vital Signs

By Dr. DAVID L. KATZ

Now that mobile apps and wearable devices make health monitoring, tracking and quantifying readily available outside of the doctor's office, there's open discussion among consumers and the medical community about how beneficial these products can be and what we should be monitoring regularly.

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Everyone has unique medical needs or health and fitness goals that are important to them, which can dictate the levels they should monitor and understand.

A good starting place to take ownership of our overall health is to get a better understanding of our vital signs.

Vital signs are key body functions. The levels that are most commonly monitored by physicians are blood pressure, body temperature, pulse and respiratory rate. However, body-mass index, blood sugar, blood-oxygen level and cholesterol are also considered vital signs.

As implied by the name, these levels can be "vital" to giving us an inside look into our health and alerting us to issues before they become acute. With some indicators like temperature or respiratory rate, we can easily feel when our levels are high or off balance.

For other vital signs, tracking with a device is often necessary to gain even a basic understanding of how we're doing. Our bodies are complicated machines that don't always offer immediate signs when there's a problem.

I often compare it to driving a car: There are times when it's easy to tell when there's something wrong. Other times, you have to rely on your dashboard to show when you're low on gas or the engine is overheating, because without those visible indicators, you would think your car is running fine.

Unfortunately, humans don't have a dashboard that lights up when we need maintenance. This is where tracking vital signs comes into play. Keeping up with blood pressure and pulse, for example, can give us insight into how our "engine" is running.  

A recent survey shows that 82 percent of Americans believe tracking vital signs is important, but one fifth don't track any health metrics outside of their doctor's office.

These numbers reflect a belief that we should leave our health up to the professionals and rely on annual checkups to monitor our physical well-being unless we're feeling sick. But the best health care has always been the result of a partnership. We have inside knowledge on how our bodies are functioning on a daily basis, and doctors have the medical experience to interpret those signals, diagnose and treat health issues.

So which vital signs should we track and how? Since it's important to build a partnership with your doctor, I recommend consulting your physician on what your levels should be and which vital signs would be helpful for you to track.

For those 50 and older or with a family history of heart disease, staying on top of blood pressure and heart rate can be extremely beneficial. Luckily, there are many tracking devices available to monitor these levels.

Gyms and local pharmacies often offer blood-pressure and heart-rate monitors that customers can use. For simple at-home options, there are tools like Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor that quickly tracks your levels and stores the data on your mobile phone.

If you're interested in having a general understanding of your overall personal health, research which devices and methods are the easiest for you to incorporate into your normal routine, and share that with your physician.

The easier the better, because creating long-term tracking habits is the goal here. You can also use traditional methods like checking your pulse with your fingers over your arteries on the side of your neck or inside of your wrist.

Monitoring vital signs is a simple habit that ultimately helps manage medical issues, point out potential health threats and avoid future health problems. Finding the devices and techniques that you feel comfortable using is important to helping you understand your health and create a beneficial partnership with your physician.

--Dr. Katz

Readers -- Do you keep track of your vital signs or activities with wearable technology? If so, what kinds? Which data do you keep track of? Do you talk with your doctor about what your vitals should be? Leave a comment below and let us know.

 David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., FACPM, FACP, is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. He received his BA from Dartmouth College, his M.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and his M.P.H. from the Yale University School of Public Health. Dr. Katz is known internationally for expertise in nutrition, weight management and chronic-disease prevention. He was invited on behalf of Withings to share his professional opinion on monitoring vital signs.

To learn more about Dr. Katz, visit davidkatzmd.com or connect with him on Twitter and Google+.

 

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