How Fitness Wearables Will Finally Become Indispensable

In the future we’ll have fitness trackers that aren’t just fancy step-counters

Sep 22, 2015
Outside
Outside Magazine
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A lot of wearable tech innovation relies on getting more people to actually wear it.    Photo: Crew/Unsplash

If you think back to 2005, wearable tech truly has come a very long way. For a few hundred dollars you can now buy a running watch that will simultaneously measure your heart rate without a strap while accurately calculating your mileage based on stride length and GPS—and subsequently using that info to alert you when your running form is falling apart. On the medical device front, there are now wearables that continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetes sufferers, and inhalers for asthmatics that can alert doctors if a patient is about to suffer an attack. This data is even being used to model high pollution zones for weather forecasters.   

Still, we’re only just beginning to understand the potential uses for this growing quantity of trackable metrics. Dr. Iñigo San Millán, Director of Sports Performance at the CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center, in Boulder, Colorado, says that wearable tech may be the best way to take us from the present, “dark ages,” of understanding peak athletic potential, to a place where we recalibrate how we train and what we know based on the data we receive. “What are the chemical markers for overtraining? What’s the right algorithm for heart rate periodization training, to get your own zones, for your own body?” San Millán wonders. “The vast field of data that these sensors will allow will revolutionize what we know about fitness.”

Dr. Euan Ashley, Director for the Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease at Stanford agrees, and with the help of smart devices like the Apple Watch and the iPhone, he and his colleagues have designed a potentially breakthrough study called MyHeart Counts that’s signed up over 40,000 voluntary participants in the U.S. and abroad to study and track their heart activity. “Right now we don’t know if you get more fit by training three times a week very hard, or six times a week, not as hard, or whether being a weekend warrior is actually detrimental,” says Ashley. “But we do know that a lot of gold medals have been lost by overtraining. What if we had a way to see that, to measure it, to diagnose the right kind of routine for each athlete?”

That’s precisely what their study hopes to do—allowing researchers to gather more comprehensive data on a much larger scale that includes information about training as well as recovery. And by studying a huge number of people, from many ages and fitness levels, the researchers behind MyHeart Counts will be able to sub-categorize ‘fit’ and ‘less fit,’ and differentiate between workout regimes that show a sustained cardiovascular benefit versus those that don’t. 

That's just the kind of broad takeaway, as well as specific, prescriptive breakthrough, wearable tech makers desperately want to deliver. But there are still two main hurdles the industry has to overcome.

The first is financial. Sonia Sousa, CEO of Kenzen, a company that will debut a sweat- and heart rate sensing patch by this winter called the Echo H2, says that venture capital is too conservative, and more concerned with flashy appearances than backing devices that yield more powerful and useful information, which is why she says what you see are products that are “wrist-obsessed.” They insist on clones of what already exists, and want devices that deliver identical information. “They’re investing in the present. To do something meaningful we have to get venture capital to understand that it’s not about the wrist, it’s not about the tracking device or the location of where you wear it, it’s about breakthroughs in information science.” 

The second is figuring out a way to get everyone to wear a tracking device all the time. And that’s not a technological challenge, says Athos’ Jake Waxenberg, it’s a Silicon Valley one. Athos’s own solution is to make base layers that track muscle movement—they’re essentially invisible to the outside world. But Waxenberg still acknowledges that what they’ve designed doesn’t embed the tech deeply enough, so that it evaporates into the background for the wearer. 

“We’ve been designing these things for ourselves, for other hyper-obsessed fit people, or for other geeks,” Waxenberg says. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Everyone in Palo Alto would wear it,’ we have to crack the code on where the Under Armours are, so that we can make ‘ath-leisure’ style as a wearable.” 

What Waxenberg is suggesting is technology that brings you insight without requiring any change in your lifestyle. Sousa says that progress can't come fast enough. “If you’re climbing a mountain the device should be geo-aware; it should know that you’re in an arid place, that your heart rate has increased, and especially that all of the data from climbers with your fitness history benefit from the following steps. Right now all of our information is in silos, and until we’re sharing it broadly our insights are going to be too limited.” 

Dr. Eric Schadt, Director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mt. Sinai in New York where he specializes in both medicine and big data says Sousa’s concerns about “silo-ing” data are valid. But he also believes we’re on the cusp of cracking that problem. Mt. Sinai, he explains, is currently using Apple’s ResearchKit to study asthma suffers. Schadt points to an unexpected example, where in New York and New Jersey anger-induced asthma attacks popped up in their study. “Now we have geographical context, and widespread triggers, so that’s an example where widespread sampling can lead directly to prescriptive, personal remedies,” he explains. “We’ve found that we can give more insight to people who share more data, and that creates a positive feedback loop—the more data they share, the more we help personally. And if you translate that to the fitness community and give people truly personal prescriptions on say, when to work out—and then the benefits of working out. That’s when you’re really seeing the personal upside of what we learn from big data.” 

And everyone agrees, this sort of big-data aggregation isn’t far off. By utilizing existing machine learning technology (the kind employed to identify faces on Facebook or in your cloud-based photo collection, or by Spotify to suggest music), number crunchers will soon be sifting through all of your personal metrics to see how fit and healthy you are. One firm is doing IT right now. LifeBEAM has been outfitting military personal with sensor tech since the early 2000s, and has since branched out into support of wearables in the civilian sector, but, co-founder Omri Yoffe says they’re planning well beyond the data they collect. “Think of it like LinkedIn, where you have certain profile strength based on how complete a biography is given— how active you are, what zip code you live in, where you go to work out, how frequently you go, etc.” Yoffe says. To get a total picture of health, you can’t just think of workout and recovery, he suggests. You need more. “This is the pitfall of traditional fitness brands that tend to only think in terms of quantified metrics. They’re not thinking holistically.”

Yet the wearable tech movement is still riding a wave of enormous momentum and the more people think beyond step-counts and heart rate and start figuring out ways to analyze what these numbers mean, the more useful these devices will be. San Millán believes that constant monitoring will lead to very precise patient understanding of what their baselines are, so when there’s an anomaly, the time to action is greatly diminished. “We’ll be able to get you to the hospital, because we’ll see the precursors to a heart attack or a stroke before they ever happen.”

And for quantified selfers, too, many doctors believe there’s even more of a potential upside. “What if we could measure your metabolism ‘live,’ and know just what you should eat to lose weight, or if we knew your precise metabolic cycle so we knew how to help you train as well as how to fuel for fitness. And what about when we can measure lactate the same way?”

Sousa, whose Kenzen Echo H2 patch was created in part to measure lactate threshold as well as hydration, also wants to be able to measure “Your biometrics against your biomechanics.” What she’s after is the idea of more powerful data that can tell you not only when to stop pushing (say, you’ve gone anaerobic), or when to fuel, but also to analyze your form in concert with your biology. “Maybe just slightly changing the position of your legs on a bike makes you more efficient and less tired, or if your ideal stride length isn’t what you thought it was for running faster, but with less effort.” 

Schadt thinks we can go even further. “In five years we’re going to transform human health. When we’re sampling at a very high frequency, we’re not only going to know your personal and correct heart rate zones, we’ll know how exposure to pathogens and pollution personally impact you, and we’ll be able to adjust when and how you work out. We’ll know how your fitness and restful state effects your cognition, and adjust your workout for that, too. We’ll literally help you train your brain, not just your body.”

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