Fitness Technology: To Wear or Not to Wear

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"Voyce measures key vital signs and other wellness indicators through wearable technology and proprietary algorithms. Using that information, Voyce provides you with trends and valuable insights, helping you stay proactive about your dog’s overall health, behavior, and wellbeing." Words and image courtesy of Voyce.

"Voyce measures key vital signs and other wellness indicators through wearable technology and proprietary algorithms. Using that information, Voyce provides you with trends and valuable insights, helping you stay proactive about your dog’s overall health, behavior, and wellbeing." Words and image courtesy of Voyce.

Randy_BearThe 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, the equivalent of the Detroit Auto Show but for gadgets, just ended in Las Vegas. At its best, CES serves as the showcase for next-generation innovations, although its also known for hype, glitter, and tech toys that will never find a big market.

This year there was a lot of  hype around wearable technology.

While some of the wearable gadgets explore new territory, such as Voyce, a kind of emotional translation monitor for your dog, most new products are focused on fitness and health. With all this new technology at your fingertips – for a price – that can track every waking and sleeping moment, is this the future of fitness or should people just focus on the basics?

"Voyce measures key vital signs and other wellness indicators through wearable technology and proprietary algorithms. Using that information, Voyce provides you with trends and valuable insights, helping you stay proactive about your dog’s overall health, behavior, and wellbeing." Words and image courtesy of Voyce.

“Voyce measures key vital signs and other wellness indicators through wearable technology and proprietary algorithms. Using that information, Voyce provides you with trends and valuable insights, helping you stay proactive about your dog’s overall health, behavior, and wellbeing.” Words and image courtesy of Voyce.

Before Christmas, I spoke with Tom Trevino, a wellness coach and regular contributor to The Rivard Report on fitness, about this explosion of technology. I had recently written about these coming changes in my personal technology blog, right after Under Armour’s announcement of the acquisition of MapMyFitness, an Austin-based wearable technology company.

Tom and I had a lively discussion about the usefulness of these technologies and where they might fit with the fitness community. While most of us are attracted to the latest gadgets, that doesn’t mean we will necessarily benefit from having every breath, beat, or step measured and tracked by silicon and the cloud.

Wearable technology is a segment of the electronic gadget market that the user attaches to his or her body to record activity data and performance. That usually involves a wristband, wristwatch, bicep or belt attachment, some place that allows the gadget to monitor you everywhere you run, walk, pedal or row. Some measure motion as many smartphones now do. Others monitor vital signs, such as pulse or respiration.

Nike's Fuelband. Courtesy photo.

Nike’s Fuelband. Courtesy photo.

Nike was one of the first to enter the market with its Fuelband, a small wristband that connects to a smartphone to track your movement throughout the day. By plugging in metrics such as age, height, and weight, users can have the Nike application calculate potential calories burned and track your stats over time. Nike changed the status quo when it combined data collection with game technology, using a color coding system to let users know if they were on or off target.

At CES 2014 a variety of new technologies entered the market, including devices from LG and Intel, all focused on providing some sort of wearable technology. With the introduction of Intel’s new Edison, a computer on an SD card, it opens the door for an even wider array of solutions, provided the computer has access to the monitors. But, the consensus was that this market is still in its early stages, and the current jumble of gadgets is confusing the consumer.

Tom and I decided to share our thoughts on the wearable technology space and how it might fit your health and fitness practices.

Randy Bear: I see wearable technologies enabling a person to easily track and monitor their fitness routines, and loading these results to the cloud for comparison. With more people wanting to be connected, this is an easy way to connect the person with others.

Tom Trevino

Tom Trevino

Tom Trevino: That seems to be the trend consistent with technology and social media in general – everyone sharing and comparing every single thing we see or do, whether it’s a great meal or a great workout. Fitness is just one more of those “things,” and the industry is salivating over the potential to sell us even more gear. Has any of that really had an impact on our health and wellness? If you use our overweight and obesity rates from the last several years as a means of monitoring our progress, the answer is an overwhelming no.

RB: Good point, Tom. If all we do is buy the technology to wear it and not leverage it, then it’s just one more gadget for the drawer at home. Something I found interesting is that the heart rate monitors could be included in everything from wristbands to earbuds, providing a less intrusive way to monitor vital stats. Imagine working out and setting a target heart rate, with the technology providing occasional “whispers” to tell you if you’re on target.

TT: Heart rate monitors provide some interesting feedback, and I was addicted to training with them for awhile. They’re not perfect. I like combining that data with a personal RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale, the goal of the individual, and the goal of the workout for a better overall picture.

The benefits of ‘zone’ training are also debatable when compared against high intensity intervals. So, while a heart monitor qualifies as a cool gadget, the information you’re getting back may or may not serve as a reliable guide for defining your workout routine or limits.

Probably not the best place to catch up on sleep. Photo(s) by Tom Trevino.

Probably not the best place to catch up on sleep. Photo(s) by Tom Trevino.

RB: That’s where collecting the data and integrating it with other information could really help change the game, in my opinion. Tracking your daily activities – even when you aren’t working out  – can help you gain a better understanding of your overall fitness. Integrating not only physical activity, but sleep and eating habits into the fitness profile helps provide more feedback on your overall health. I’ve talked to some people who said that just tracking their caloric intake was useful.

TT: Tracking is a very valuable tool. We seem to be so focused on the trees that we miss the forest. At the moment, almost all fit-tech is focused on tracking and sharing workout data (steps, miles, calories burned, etc.). That’s great. But what we’re really missing are all the other elements you mentioned; sleep, stress levels, general daily movement patterns, and the king of them all, food! It’s the area where we need the most help in terms of calories consumed and general nutritional breakdown.

Because that tracking requires a bit more diligence and time than hitting a single button on your watch or smartphone, it’s also the thing people complain about and neglect the most. When the gadget geniuses invent a device that automatically tracks every calorie and nutrient as you consume them, then we’ll really have something revolutionary.

RB: You hit on some key points that should turn into opportunities for some enterprising folks. If information is tracked in the cloud and coupled with other data such as caloric intake, even if it’s just simply entering what we eat, some valuable information could be gleaned to show a person how their daily habits affect one another.

Something Monday rides over the San Antonio river via the Johnson Street footbridge. Photo by Steve Wood.

Something Monday bike rides have become a habit for many locals. Here, the ride leads them over the San Antonio River via the Johnson Street footbridge. Photo by Steve Wood.

While most of the focus has been on fitness tracking and monitoring, I can envision the day soon when people with health conditions will benefit from wearables. Imagine a situation where someone experiences medical difficulties. Wearables could detect and asses the problem, alert medical personnel, and provide real-time vitals while they are in route.

TT: The fit-tech market really shines when new devices help people with special needs and conditions. I have a diabetic client now who has a built-in glucometer that looks like an iPod. She can look at a screen anytime and see where her blood sugar levels are and know immediately if she needs to eat or move or take some insulin. I guess you can also think of modern pacemakers that can have their data downloaded and analyzed by docs as the ultimate version of fit-tech.

Blue bonnets along the trail help make the Mission Reach a great place to go for a run. Photo courtesy of SARA.

Blue bonnets along the trail help make the Mission Reach a great place to go for a run. Photo courtesy of SARA.

All that aside, I’m hoping people simply enjoy movement and activity for the sake of the activity or movement itself, and don’t develop a reliance on wearable tech to let gadgets define their wellness habits. It would be unfortunate for someone to miss a walk or run because their gadget was out of juice or they couldn’t listen to their favorite playlist or track their steps. Sometimes it feels like that’s the direction we’re heading. If each of us we could connect a little more with our own bodies and rely less on technology, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I like the idea of tech as a side dish, but not as the main course.

RB: That’s probably the best take-away from the conversation. Exercise and fitness should be about people getting outside and having fun. We’re already too connected, thanks to smartphones, and sometimes we miss out on other good things in life. If the people providing wearable technology can create solutions that are passive and provide information to help us rather than enslave us, then maybe we’re headed in the right direction. The last thing I’d hate to see is something out of a Star Trek movie, where we’re all “assimilated.”

TT: Exactly. How about we pop our heads out of our smartphones and tablets and unplug for a bit? That’s a healthy option in and of itself. Go out for a walk or bike ride or shoot some baskets. Experience a little bit of nature. And if you use wearable tech, you can check out exactly how many calories you burned or steps you took afterwards, so don’t get lost in the data or on the fly tracking and miss out on the fun and beauty of the moment.

Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, and Fiesta San Antonio. Randy’s political life took root when several friends from Arkansas pulled him into the first Clinton presidential campaign. Since then, he’s been active in politics and government, including a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams. 

Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.

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