Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

We discover whether wearables can ever really help with mindfulness
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It's the new big thing in wearable tech. The new Fitbit Charge 2 has it and the Apple Watch is about to jump on board: breathing and mindfulness are the next metrics to be tracked by your wearable, but are they a potential lifesaver or a bunch of marketing puff?

Over the past few years, big-name devices have gone from keeping tabs on steps and sleep with basic accelerometers to GPS performance tracking, heart-rate sensors, blood oxygen levels, muscle-mass monitoring and so much more.

Now the next big trend in wearable tech seems to be focused on our mental wellbeing rather than our physical performance.

And it's going beyond niche devices. The Bellabeat LEAF, Spire and Feel wristband have already put mindfulness front and centre. But now that the big wearable tech names, like Apple with its Breathe app in watchOS3 and the Fitbit Charge 2 with its new guided breathing tool called 'relax' are starting to take notice, it won't be long until smashing a meditation session is just as important as smashing a session at the gym.

This all comes at a time when research suggests our anxiety levels are at an all-time high, and interest in mindfulness and wellbeing is increasing as people realise they can start taking their happiness into their own hands. But can something as subjective as 'calm' or 'mindfulness' really ever be quantified? And will quantifying our own calm really help us to change our mood, or is it just a load of new age bullshit cashing in on our collective worries?

Exploring mindfulness, calm and breathing

Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

Although used synonymously in a lot of marketing claims, mindfulness isn't the same as relaxation. (Which isn't the same as being calm, which isn't the same as having mental clarity…)

For starters, mindfulness could be considered a bit of a buzzword at the moment. But the core principles of mindfulness have actually played a huge role in everything from the Seven Factors of Enlightenment that provide the foundations of many forms of modern-day Buddhism to therapy in a clinical setting.

Depending on what you read and where you read it, mindfulness also has different definitions, applications and doesn't come without its fair share of controversy.

But essentially mindfulness is about paying more attention to the present moment. Sue Wright, .b mindfulness curriculum teacher, describes it:

"It is about being able to accept the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. It is also about making conscious decisions rather than carrying out automated actions."

But importantly in this context, mindfulness isn't always about being relaxed – even if some of the top apps would have you believe these words can be used interchangeably. In fact seeing the two as the same can be harmful, as Neema Moraveji, Ph.D. and co-founder, Spire told us:

"Focusing only on the 'relaxing' aspect of mindfulness can cause a vicious cycle by creating fear about an inevitable part of daily life: stress. Mindfulness is not about avoidance or 'zoning out' but about responding effectively to what life brings."

And while relaxation can play a role in mindfulness practice, it's essential to remember they're not the same thing. Sue Wright told us:

"You may become more relaxed because of mindfulness and it is recommended to 'set yourself up' for mindfulness practice that you use some relaxation techniques but they are not one of the same thing. To be mindful you have to have a calm yet alert mind."

Tracking your breathing

Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

Although a number of physical indicators are linked to relaxation, you could argue mindfulness is hard – and maybe impossible – to gauge. There are a few important data points here, but the main one that's garnered a lot of attention recently is breathing.

Breathing plays a central role in mindfulness practice and can bring about the Relaxation Response. Michael T Williams, the founder of BreatheSync, told us:

"It can be very difficult to be mindful when we are stressed – it becomes hard to focus and pay attention. Controlled deep breathing with an emphasis on the exhalation can trigger our natural relaxation response, reducing stress and anxiety."

The reason it's often so effective is because it's the one thing we can control. Neema Moraveji, Ph.D. and co-founder, Spire, told us:

"Interestingly, breathing is the only physiological metric humans can directly control, giving it a uniquely bi-directional relationship with our state of mind. That is, it reflects our state of mind and we have conscious, immediate control over it to influence our state of mind."

Therefore, it makes sense that a number of wearable tech brands have used breathing as a way to quantify relaxation and even mindfulness – it seems like the easiest way of being able to tell whether someone is relaxed or mindful without needing any actual feedback from them.

Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

To do this, most of these wearables utilise movement sensors – like the accelerometer you'll already find in your favourite tracker – to monitor how you're breathing. But they don't just track your breaths and leave you to it, they enable you to actually control your breathing through a series of guided relaxation practices. Or in the case of Apple's Breathe and the Fitbit Charge 2's Guided Breathing, they help you to visualise the ins and outs of your breath to get you started.

Some of our favourite wearables in this category include the Bellabeat LEAF, Spire and Prana. They all take readings about how hurried or slow your breath is in order to tell you whether you're likely to be stressed. They then help you track what stresses you out and sometimes even alert you when your breathing becomes more frantic.

But what's going on when we breathe? Well, a whole host of things. But mindfulness coach Tara Killen of Happy Healthy Mind tells us:

"A by-product of focusing on our breathing is that we can intentionally deepen and slow down the pace of our breathing. When we do this, we activate what's known as the vagus nerve which gives us a physiological response of calming the nervous system – calming us down."

You don't have to look far to find all kinds of studies into the efficacy of using breathing to have a positive effect on physical wellbeing and even more serious health complications, too. Like decreasing anxiety and self doubt or lowering blood pressure.

But it's important to note that these results tend to happen over a long period of time. The participants are working closely with specialists and they're keeping track of their state of being – like everything else it seems to take time, patience and commitment for breathing to have a healing effect.

So on the surface, breathing seems like a great starting point. It's easy to track with sensors we already have, it's proven to work in some studies and it's directly linked to calm and relaxation. That means it's easy to make claims that slower breathing equals a more relaxed mind – even if the science to back it up is a little shaky.

Learning from heart rate

Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

But breathing isn't the only metric that could give us an indication of relaxation. Michael T Williams, the founder of BreatheSync, told us:

"Stress, relaxation and mindfulness are connected and yet difficult to group together with one set of metrics. Resting Heart Rate can be an indicator of elevated stress but for me Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is more interesting. It is commonly used in cardiology departments and with elite athletes in monitoring recovery and performance."

Breathing may be easier for wearable tech brands to track when armed with a sensitive accelerometer and a fancy app to match. But a number of devices, like Zensorium, are putting HRV at the front and centre of their offering, even claiming to be able to tell the difference between good and bad stress.

Big name brands are slowly starting to realise that the heart rate monitors that were once reserved for better workouts might fare well as relaxation trackers too. The recent release of the Fitbit Charge 2 sees the brand using a combination of breathing visualisations and heart rate data to slow down your heart rate. Sure this isn't HRV, but you could argue it's a step in the right direction and will give some indication of relaxation – even if it's not as accurate as some of the more specific devices.

Heart rate variability does exist in wearables. The Jaybird Reign uses it to gauge post-workout recovery, although using it to determine stress would be an interesting twist on the feature.

The more metrics, the better the data will be, right? But all of this is based on the assumption that physical relaxation always equals mental calm. And although that tends to be the case, based on lots of evidence, it can never be an exact science because we're dealing with the sticky subject of feelings and emotions.

But can we really quantify our calm?

Breathe easy: The science behind Fitbit and Apple's mindfulness push

Sure the future of calming tech looks bright. Relaxation often shows physical indicators, we can track physical indicators and we can use smart tech and algorithms that are already popular to do it. It sounds easy, but it doesn't take long to start questioning just how quantifiable this kind of subjective data can really be.

First up, the idea of what being 'calm' and 'mindful' really means is rather subjective in itself. One person's idea of relaxation won't necessarily be the same as another's.

What's more, it seems like tech companies might simply be seeing surface level physical traits, building a solution to combat them and assuming concepts like mindfulness and relaxation are as easy to achieve as a running goal, or hitting 10,000 steps. We all know that's wishful thinking – but the same could be said for tracking calories or even habits: tech might help, yet the onus is still on you.

Sure we can track physical changes, there's no denying that. But the impact these physical changes have on us mentally is actually really hard to track and to quantify. And that's because there's a huge reliance here on how each and every person actually feels. Because even the most advanced tracker can't tell you how you're feeling or what you're thinking. It's subjective, open to interpretation and relies massively on qualitative data.

This means that although physical signals may often equal mental clarity or happiness or relaxation in a clinical setting, there's no surefire way of marrying the two for everyone.

It all depends on mindset, mood and who you are

The million-dollar question here is, can tech actually help us become more mindful? And in many ways the answer is yes.

There's no denying that mental wellbeing is often related to a number of physical markers that we can definitely quantify, like calmer breathing, lower heart rate and lower blood pressure.

The problem is, those terms are subjective and long-term change relies heavily on people labelling these physical states, figuring out for themselves what it feels like when they're in them and caring enough to do it time and time again.

But Sue Wright reminded us that without dedication, commitment and a deeper understanding you're unlikely to reap the long-term rewards:

"My personal view is: using the tech on its own without any personal study or guidance from a qualified teacher, in the first instance, is somewhat kidding yourself you're 'doing' mindfulness rather than actually 'being' mindful."

How we test

Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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