The Hottest New Wellness Trackers You've Never Seen – and Never Will

New products that measure blood biomarkers make counting steps and calories look old-fashioned.

Kristi Wood, a 49-year-old business owner outside of Seattle, is a health and fitness enthusiast – and Google knows it. Among the ads that popped up on her computer a few years ago was one for a health analytics company called InsideTracker. She took the bait.

"I clicked on it to see what it was about," says Wood, who learned that the company analyzes consumers' blood for glucose, cholesterol and hormone levels; vitamin deficiencies; and other markers believed to be indicators of health and wellness, and then offers personalized diet and exercise advice to improve the parameters. With every needle stick, users can view progress over time. While Wood had used a FitBit when she first stepped up her physical activity and continues to use a Garmin to track her long bike rides, InsideTracker offered something totally different, she found.

"I thought it was fascinating that you could actually track what's going on in your body without going to a doctor," says Wood, who powerlifts four days a week and is training for one 200-mile and three 100-mile bike races this summer.

InsideTracker is one of several emerging wellness "trackers" that take a deeper approach – literally – to counting steps and calories by measuring changes in blood biomarkers over time through direct-to-consumer lab tests and personalized recommendations to improve them. While outside experts aren't sold on the products' research-backing or usefulness to the average American, the companies are rooted in the idea that by giving people a window into how their lifestyles affect internal markers of disease risk and longevity, and then outlining tangible steps to modify them, people will be empowered to make healthy changes, says Ashley Reaver, a registered dietitian and InsideTracker’s lead nutrition scientist. For some users, that can mean adding oatmeal – likely InsideTracker's most recommended food, she says – to their diets to help lower blood glucose, and thus, diabetes risk. For others, it means altering an exercise regimen or tweaking diet and supplement intake to attain peak athletic performance.

"A lot of elites are using this, but it's also very accessible for people who are just getting into exercise and who aren't even exercising at all," says Jonathan Levitt, a sales manager for InsideTracker who runs marathons. Based on his InsideTracker results, which revealed suboptimal glucose, iron and cholestorol levels, he took Reaver's advice to begin eating shellfish, take in more fiber and drink more coffee. He's since seen his race times drop and his energy stabilize. "My training is going really well," Levitt says, "but more important, I'm a human at 5 p.m."

For Wood, who gets her blood tested about once every three or six months, making changes such as adding milk thistle and garlic supplements, cutting her iron supplement – which, she says, was "sucking the calcium" from her bones and making them ache – has improved her energy, endurance, strength and sleep. "Simple, inexpensive changes," she's found, "can completely change how you feel."

Are Blood Biomarkers the New Step Counters?

So long, strap-on watches and clip-on pedometers. Hello, needles. To access blood-biomarker information, users of InsideTracker and WellnessFX, a similar program, first establish an online profile and then visit a nearby lab like Quest Diagnostics to get their blood drawn and sent to the company. (The packages cost between $50 and nearly $1,000, depending on how detailed your results are.) InsideTracker also offers at-home testing, where an examiner comes to users' homes or offices to take the draw, and an at-home kit, but doesn't encourage consumers to choose it unless they're out of the country. WellnessFX's home kit, which will also include genetic and microbiome testing, is in its pilot stage. Within days of their blood test, users' online dashboard populates with information such as their ratio of good-to-bad fat and their vitamin D and cortisol levels.

"The biomarkers that we pick to use are ones that [are proven to be modifiable] through lifestyle, nutrition, exercise and supplements," says Reaver of InsideTracker. As such, the company is less likely to run into ethical concerns that some genetic lab-testing services face when telling consumers they have a gene linked to, say, breast cancer, Reaver says. WellnessFX takes special precautions, too, by having clinicians review all results and contact users if any results raise serious red flags, while InsideTracker alerts users to see their doctors if a marker is clinically deficient or out of range.

Alongside users' results, InsideTracker offers personalized diet, exercise and supplement recommendations based on users' current habits, which they revealed in an earlier questionnaire. WellnessFX, on the other hand, offers explanations of each biomarker and how to influence them, as well as virtual access to clinicians, who walk users through their results and how to tweak them, at an additional charge. The latter platform is free if you already have lab results to input. Both companies encourage users to share their results with their doctors, too.

If consumers continue to get blood tests over time, they can compare their results and theoretically deduce how their lifestyle changes are affecting their biomarkers. "There's something about being able to see what your risks are that's incredibly motivating," says Dr. Murdoc Khaleghi, WellnessFX's medical director, whose WellnessFX results encouraged him to switch from endurance exercise and a low-fat diet to high-intensity interval training and a diet rich in healthy fats. His blood sugar and triglyceride levels improved.

For Jason Sissel, a 40-year-old elite athlete in Boston who first tried WellnessFX about four years ago, the results of cutting out alcohol for 30 days were dramatic: His triglyceride levels dropped 71 percent, his vitamin D increased 80 percent, his thyroid levels balanced out and he lost 9 pounds. "When you isolate one variable like that, you can see how sensitive certain biomarkers are," says Sissel, founder of the childhood cancer nonprofit Endure to Cure. He continues to test his levels a few times a year and make associated diet and supplement changes that have improved his sleep and, he hopes, will help ward off disease. "If you can identify various [problematic] biomarkers that you can't feel right now," he says, "you can make adjustments before those warning signs turn into problems down the road."

Consumers, companies, sports teams and even doctors are catching on. Since its launch in 2009, InsideTracker, for instance, has partnered with 25 professional sports teams and currently serves thousands of users. It's in every state and 55 countries, Levitt says. WellnessFX, which was started about five years ago, meanwhile, works with 25,000 physicians and between 4 and 5 million consumers, says Courtney Pong, the company's director of communications. It also works with companies desiring to use the program as a part of their employee wellness initiatives.

"Health care is going to the home in many fashions," says Paul Jacobson, CEO of Thorne Research and WellnessFX, "and this is a way to save the system an awful amount of money." It can also save consumers money, says Wood, who sees her tests as an investment. "I'd rather pay a little money upfront and make sure I'm good," she says, "then see the doctor bills later."

Proceed With Caution

Despite the tools' buzz and growth, outside experts are skeptical. Carol Torgan, a physiologist in Bethesda, Maryland, and spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine, points out that they don't really "track" fitness the way pedometers, watches and apps do, since they only offer a snapshot of your (highly variable) blood at a given moment and compare it to another sample months later. What you ate or drank the night before your test, how you slept and your stress level can all alter the results perhaps more than any lifestyle changes. "There's so many potential sources of error you need to standardize," says Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an associate professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and director of the Exercise is Medicine Global Research and Collaboration Center.

Measurements like heart rate, blood pressure, steps taken and lung function are better overall markers of fitness, he adds. "These things give us pretty good information, and they're not as invasive."

Torgan also cautions consumers to be wary of unrealistic promises, insufficient research supporting the validity of these biomarkers as health and fitness benchmarks, and the security risks of handing over blood samples and personal data. Says Torgan: "Will the information really give you new insights about your health that are beneficial and that you couldn't get through your existing health care system?" Some tests, for instance, are covered by insurance, she says, although the companies contend they offer tests most typical doctor visits don't, and offer more personalized recommendations. "A lot of users come to us because they're sick of feeling fine, but they could feel better," InsideTracker's Reaver says, "and when they go to their physicians, they hear, ‘You’re fine, you’re fine.’"

Perhaps most importantly, outside experts suggest considering why you want to sign up for a blood-testing service and whether it's worth the cost. If you're an elite athlete looking to optimize performance, the answer might be yes. But if you're like most Americans, you're probably better off with a more traditional wearable tracker that gives insight into behavior, not just physiology, or following time-tested advice like an American Heart Association-recommended diet, Lobelo guesses. Ultimately, he says, choose "what's going to motivate you to become more active at the end of the day."

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