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Do you really need a continuous glucose monitor?

The latest fitness fad is the continuous glucose monitor, a medical-grade tool for those living with diabetes. If you don't have diabetes, do you need one?

A continuous glucose monitor.
A continuous glucose monitor.

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Those little discs and black patches that you see on the back of the arms and triceps of celebrities and influencers are continuous glucose monitors, medical-grade devices that are used by the severely diabetic to monitor their blood sugar levels. These devices are attracting a lot of attention and have led to a fair bit of curiosity among those looking to switch to a healthier lifestyle, up their fitness game, or lose weight. Thanks to an increased interest in health and fitness these days, plenty are buying them simply out of sheer curiosity. 

I was sent one of these devices, along with a smart scale by HealthifyMe, one of the three major players in this particular health tech space in India. I used it for about two weeks, which is the typical lifespan of these devices. 

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What is it? The device itself isn’t made by the start-up. It is an Abbott continuous blood glucose monitor that’s packaged by HealthifyMe along with with a couple of information cards. This has to be used in conjunction with an app—HealthifyMe in this case. However, since I was curious, I tried to use it with the Ultrahuman app as well, and it worked. 

The disc measures your blood glucose levels in real time. Wellness start-ups have created algorithms to interpret the blood sugar level data that the monitor gathers. Thereafter, with the help of AI, or actual coaches and experts, help you make sense of the spikes and drops in your blood glucose levels. The start-ups contend that it is possible to make you fitter by understanding what causes the spikes and plunges. They do so by coaxing you to maintain your sugar levels within a certain range by suggesting you what to eat, when to eat along with getting you to incorporate workouts in your daily routine.

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How to use it? To start off, you need to use the applicator contraption that comes in the box to extract the disc from its sterilized packaging. You then press the applicator on the back of your arm, ideally around the tricep (which must be first cleaned with spirit or sanitiser). After that you cover it up with the branded black patch that comes with the monitor. 

All health tech companies, including HealthifyMe, claim that applying the device doesn’t hurt more than just a prick. But the micro needle that this device uses to attach itself to your arm, was painful. For a couple of days I refrained from doing any exercise that involved triceps out of fear of aggravating the soreness I was feeling. For the first few days, anytime I slept on my side I could feel the needle. HealthifyMe advised me it would be best to avoid contact sports while I had the device on.   

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After applying the device on your arm, you need to launch the app on your phone and pair it. The disc then sends the readings to the app every time you scan the disc with your NFC enabled phone while the app is open.

The app itself is quite like any other health and fitness app you might have used. It requires you to sign up and asks for your age, height, weight, fitness goals and the like. The HealthfyMe app insists on location access and phone number, without which they don’t ship the glucose monitor or the smart scale. 

Once you sign up, you are prompted to pick from a list of nutrition and fitness coaches on a list. Both coaches call you on your phone to discuss your goals and current fitness levels. The coaches have access to all your data on the app and they discuss and explain the drops and spikes in your blood glucose levels. They can also see the fitness activity data that you let the app collate from other sources. Personally, I remain skeptical about sharing my phone number and location. HealthifyMe’s competitor, Ultrahuman, doesn’t demand either. 

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How to make it work for you? To get the best out of blood sugar levels as a health metric, you will need to log every meal you eat and everything you drink on the app. Exercise and physical activity data is pulled from the health apps that you use. Physical attributes like weight, fat percentage, BMI and muscle mass are recorded through the smart scale. The coaches monitor these data and communicate with you over the texting platform that the HealthifyMe app includes or over phone. 

I stuck to in-app texting. They analyse your sugar levels and suggest tweaks in your diet and your exercise routine so that the blood glucose levels stay stable through the day. The fact that these were human coaches was good because they were able to factor in my eccentricities while recommending a plan of action. An AI coach might have struggled. Based on these details, the app generates a metabolic score for you—the higher it is the better. 

The coaches help you analyse your score, and, based on your spikes and drops, they even suggest the best time of the day for a workout. I must point out that HealthifyMe and Ultrahuman use different algorithms and calibration to read data from the device. This means that you might get different blood sugar level readings and metabolic scores, depending on which app you are scanning with.

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You have to take the glucose monitor off after 14 days, and the app informs you when the time is nigh. You might see a little bit of blood caked near the needle point. Don’t be alarmed, it is normal, as you had punctured your skin to install it. After you take it off the app generates a two-week report and your coaches stay in touch for a few more days and follow up with you on your food and exercise. Around this time, the app also prompts you to sign up for one of the many plans HealthifyMe offers. If you don’t, the conversation with coaches gradually fizzles out and you can get back to life as you knew it.

What do I think? Unlike smart watches and rings for other health metrics, this device is invasive, and I do not like the needles. They may say it is just an imperceptible pin prick, but you do feel it for a while. Not only is it invasive but very costly too, priced at up to 5,000 for one continuous glucose monitor which lasts for two weeks. 

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Also, unlike simpler data such as number of steps, calories burned, sleep hours or heart rate, this is a highly technical metric. You are obliged to have to rely on the coaches to make sense of it. I also found logging every meal and drink a bit tedious. Curiosity made me scan the disc multiple times a day, but the novelty soon faded.

While I think a recreational athlete might try one out just to sate their curiosity, it could be beneficial for those seeking to lose weight. It might also be useful for a professional athlete, under the watchful eyes of expert coaches, who micromanage workouts and nutrition. The overwhelming user testimony on HealthifyMe is about people losing weight and the time they took to do it. I don’t need or want to lose weight, so this is certainly not for me. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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