This article is a my review of Welltory. If you’ve come here from a search, I assume you already know the general premise of Welltory. Essentially, it’s a mobile app that measures heart rate variability to help users manage stress and energy.
Heart rate variability doesn’t = heart rate.
HRV measures the variation in time between heartbeats. The more common heart rate marker counts beats per minute. Heart rate, or pulse, is common on wearable fitness trackers like Fitbit, and frequently collected when you visit the doctor.
Here’s an overview of how it works:
Your heart is regulated through sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which along with the gastrointestinal system forms the autonomic nervous system.
Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes care of fight-or-flight while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is rest-and-digest and helps you relax. There’s obviously much more happening behind the scenes but that’s the gist for this Welltory review.
In a healthy person, both systems play nice and balance out. The SNS release norepinephrine, resulting in an increased heart rate faster while decreasing intervals between beats. Conversely, the PNS secretes the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which has the opposite effect of decreasing heart rate while increasing the intervals between beats.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a higher HRV is a general indicator of overall health. A dynamic HRV means the body is able to regulate and manage stresses. Conversely, a lower HRV may be a sign that the body isn’t coping with stress.
Great. So what?
WHY HRV MATTERS
Over the last few decades, HRV has been increasingly studied and viewed as a good biomarker to determine overall health. From athletes to astronauts, HRV is used to gauge the body’s capability of coping with mental & physical stress.
Harvard Health published an article describing HRV as a new way to track well being. The point of measuring HRV isn’t to reduce stress, it’s to help understand its physiological impacts. This in turn allows the individual to take action to change behaviors, form new habits, or drop existing ones to optimize energy and stress levels.
Too much of anything can bad including HRV. HRV is about balance and too high of a variability rate can be a sign of heart health issues.
Alright. With a basic understanding of what HRV is and why it matters, it’s time to finally get to the Welltory review.
WELLTORY & HRV
First, there are a number of HRV apps out there so how is Welltory different?
It comes down to big data, algorithmic learning, and context.
Welltory has the largest enhanced HRV dataset in the world with 100m+ points. Enhanced refers to self reported attributes like mood and feeling. This is obviously advantageous when you apply machine learning to it. Most of the other popular HRV apps focus on the athletic angle. Knowing your HRV helps you know how optimize recovery. Welltory’s angle is on general wellness and physiological stress management.
This is an important point. Physiology doesn’t always equal mood or emotion. For example, sometimes I feel great but take a measurement that shows I’m dragging. I’ve also felt exhausted or stressed while the analysis comes back with optimal stress levels. Stress is necessary for growth. Consider strength training. You can’t gain muscles without inflicting stress on your body. Too much stress can be bad and even harmful.
When Welltory logs a measurement, it returns stress measurements based on sympathetic nervous system and energy levels based off the parasympathetic system.
WHAT YOU CAME HERE FOR: THE WELLTORY REVIEW
Welltory’s not perfect, but I think it’s a great app.
Even if the data isn’t 100% accurate, it’s useful to me. The app acts as a hub for on the go measurements, recommendations, and learning. The web app features a full blown dashboard.
On it’s own, I doubt I’d pay $80 annually for Welltory. But Welltory doesn’t just play in its own sandbox. It connects with 70+ other quantified self and health related apps. From Google Fit to Sleep by Android, these connections are synced with Welltory. Once synced, Welltory’s machine learning looks for trends and comparisons. This is immensely useful for A/B testing. Raw measurement data is exportable from the web dashboard which is a must.
Welltory needs 30 days worth of measurements to fine tune its personalized algorithm for each user. Measurements are done by Bluetooth heart rate monitors or photoplethysmography (PPG), a technique that measures transparency levels of blood vessels using your phone’s light and camera. Blood vessels change as with each heart beat as blood flows in and out. PPG has been around for a few decades and Welltory alleges comparable accuracy to heart rate monitors.
More on measurement accuracy below.
NOT SO GOOD
A Welltory review wouldn’t complete without some gripes.
My biggest concern centers around accuracy. Welltory’s algorithms aren’t public so there’s no way of knowing how they derive each metric. Some of the recommendations seem canned and sometimes don’t makes sense. There’s definitely an element of trust when using Welltory. To be fair, Roman Baevesky, a leading scientist specializing in HRV who’s worked with NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, is the science adviser for Welltory’s platform.
Speaking of accuracy, even when I painstakingly follow the instructions for measurements, I often have to measure 2-3 times before getting a high enough accuracy score to use. It’s amazing to be able to use PPG at all on a mobile device, but it’s also no excuse for taking 2 back to back readings with accuracy scores below 50% followed by a 100% with no change in environment, physiology, or other perceptible variables. Word of warning to Android users – don’t hold your finger too close to your mobile device’s light as it causes a burning sensation.
Yes, it beats taking an actual ECG, but it can still be a frustrating way to spend 15 minutes laying perfectly still.
Not satisfied with inconsistent accuracy scores, I even bought a Polar H10 Bluetooth heart rate monitor to see if that would help. After 30+ measurements, I didn’t observe any significant increase in overall accuracy.
Welltory offers 2 lengths of measurements, 100 RR and 300 RR (i.e. # of beats). Obviously measuring 300 heartbeats will take longer than 100. Sometimes, the 300 RR measurement takes 4-5 minutes. Again, not a huge deal, but definitely frustrating when you need to take 2-3 measurements before getting a high enough accuracy for Welltory to make recommendations off of.
I wouldn’t bother with the free version of the app as it’s fairly limited and only retains a handful of measurements. Personally, I think Welltory’s pricing is fair enough. At the time of this post, a year of Welltory will set you back $79 or you can choose monthly or lifetime passes. This is consistent with other major premium services like Fitbit, MyFitnessPal, and the other usual suspects.
The last con in my Welltory review is no API. API’s are increasingly becoming a must for any service I use, especially the ones I pay for. The ability to programmatically extract and store my data is huge. This lets me perform my own analysis and correlate with other metrics that aren’t tracked in Welltory or any of its connected services like Google Fit.
IS WELLTORY WORTH IT?
I think so (obviously. I’m affiliate linking to it). You may not.
It’s useful to me and I’m convinced enough that the accuracy of the data and recommendations is usable. Would I base a medical decision or diagnosis off it? Absolutely not.
Is it enough to help A/B test different behaviors to see what works for me? You bet.