Know thy data: fitness wearables, it’s not all about you

On my Christmas list: a fitness tracker, which will help me train more, eat well, sleep better and otherwise become a much better person. If it could also be invisible, or if not then at least amazingly stylish, that’d be great. Thanks.

Fitness trackers will, I’m sure, be on many Christmas lists this year. Research firm ABI estimates that 42 million fitness tracking devices will be sold in 2014, up almost 30% from 2013. The boom is partly due to an increase in supply and a decrease in price. But those in turn are a response to an overwhelming demand from not just fitness fanatics. The fitness trend is nothing new. We are all bombarded with information on how to lose weight, increase our life span and cure a sore back. But these trackers are even being purchased by people who have never lifted a weight in their lives. What’s going on?

moov fitness wearable

To understand what is motivating this new trend, it helps to separate the market into three main groups. The largest group is comprised of people who do little or no exercise. It’s hard for them, they don’t have time, they don’t enjoy it… Suddenly along comes a little gadget that supposedly makes it easy, that gives you little badges when you reach certain goals, that convinces you that you’re actually doing something proactive about your fitness level. Your friends are impressed, you envision a leaner, fitter you, and you feel motivated (for a few weeks, anyway).

The second group is the fitness fanatics, who, being fairly driven people anyway, want to continue to perfect their techniques, increase their speed and strengthen their endurance. The data provided by these little gadgets can help them to obsess over progress and achievement, to swap data over the watercooler or health drink and to push themselves even further.

The third group is people like me. We’re relatively fit, we take care of ourselves, we exercise, we eat well, and we’re happy with our lifestyle. We don’t really feel the need for a fitness tracker, since we have a fairly reasonable level of motivation anyway. But, they sound cool. Some of our friends are wearing them. And becoming even fitter without having to think about it too much sounds good.

Flyfit wearable tech

The concept is called “the quantified self”, since it’s all about gathering data, lots of it, about us. This is not new, it has been done for years in laboratories, with human test subjects hooked up with wires to beeping monitors while they run, sleep, watch videos… The big innovation is the ease with which data about our actions is collected and analysed. We can now get at least 10 times the amount of data, with no wires whatsoever. That little bracelet on your wrist can track how many steps you take a day, what your heart rate is, how many calories you burn, how much and how well you sleep… And the apps put the data in context. The information is transmitted to your smartphone, analysed and presented to you in an attractive infographic that shows how much you’ve improved in stamina/strength/sleep/calorie consumption.

Could the influx of fitness trackers be the beginning of a health revolution? Could the ease/coolness/social pressure finally get everyone off the couch a bit more? Will cocktail party conversations increasingly revolve around your biorhythms, sleep patterns and blood oxygen levels? Personally, I’m not really interested in knowing what my heart rate is or how my sleep patterns differ from one day to the next, that’s just too much detail for me. I have more interesting things to obsess over. I am very interested, however, in how this concept can change the way people live. If we are more conscious of every step and breath we take, perhaps we will live more “in the present”, more “mindfully”. And perhaps we will live healthier, longer and more productive lives. Or, perhaps we will become even more self-absorbed than we (on the whole) already are.

I think that, rather than the personal fitness angle, the lasting impact will be the changes to the healthcare sector. Doctors with access to our data can dole out health advice based on our lifestyle, they can monitor our progress and they can suggest evolving changes to our diet, exercise patterns and stress levels. Instead of waiting until we feel ill, doctors could help prevent ailments and injuries with access to our lifestyle data. It’s a more personalized form of health care, that saves time and money. As well as your vital signs, an increasing number of trackers monitor glucose levels, and advise both you and the doctor if certain measures need to be taken. Some motion sensors can even detect early onset Parkinson’s disease, and advise if the wearer has fallen and hurt him or herself.

ihealth blood pressure monitor

Wearables could also open up another line for life coaches, professionals who help us to focus, set objectives and meet them. Quantifiable goals tend to produce more concrete results than vague dreams, and data that shows us how close we are can be a powerful motivator. Health professionals are finding that simply tracking an activity can encourage people to do more of it, at least for a while.

Apart from the help and motivation, fitness wearables can provide a staggering amount of information to the healthcare sector, at a fraction of the cost of a full-blown study. Macro-research. Jawbone users have collectively racked up data on 130 million nights of sleep, which makes it the biggest sleep study ever.

Imagine what health wearables can do for team management. A coach will be able to tell which of his players is getting tired, who is exerting himself too much. A fire response coordinator will be able to tell whether any of his firemen are in danger via their heart rate monitors. The fastest growing part of Fitbit’s business is sales to employers. Not so much the “quantified self”, more the “quantified other”. A free Fitbit (or similar) band in exchange for a commitment to get more exercise is turning out to be profitable for companies in the form of lower health insurance premiums.

There are so many choices of fitness tracker wearables either on the market or in development, that the field is starting to look a bit like a solution in search of a problem. In a first sweet I counted at least 40 different brands and models, from wristbands to clips to eyeglasses to insoles (I’ll publish my list next week!). It will be interesting to see which device ends up leading the pack in terms of sales. I imagine that it won’t be the cheapest one, or the one that ends up collecting the most data, but the one that is easiest to use and to understand. Just as most gym memberships are never fully taken advantage of, the use of these wearable devices drops off sharply after purchase.

Industry forecasters seem to agree that 2014 was the “breakout year” for wearables, and that 2015 will be the year for smartwatch sales growth. Could smartwatches end up cannibalizing the “quantified self” devices, fighting over the valuable real estate that is your wrist? They are, after all, a “wearable”, with a superior chip and plenty of adaptability. And to top it all off, they tell the time! As the talk-show host/comedienne Ellen succinctly put it:

apple watch tweet



If you want more information on fitness trackers and biosensing wearables, check out my “Wearables” Flipboard magazine.

Noelle's Wearables flipboard magazine

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