The Fitness-Data Revolution Is Just Getting Started

For years, the fitness industry has been churning out products that collect data. Millions of people have used them to count their steps, measure their water intake, track their vital signs.

But for many people, all those numbers don’t add up to better fitness. Some don’t know how to put the information they’re seeing to use effectively. For others, insufficient motivation overtakes the best intentions.

 

So get ready for the next phase in the fitness-data revolution, as researchers at companies and universities come up with new ways to turn all that data into insights that can get people motivated—as well as devise exercises tailored to their individual needs. The goal is to create fully personalized fitness programs that people will stick to.

Increasingly, these programs are designed to redefine fitness as movement, activity and play that people want to do, instead of boring exercise that they grudgingly tolerate, at best.

A big question for researchers right now is “how to take this love that people have for technology and devices and screens and mediated entertainment, and figure out how to blend that with being out in the world and moving and playing and engaging,” says Katherine Isbister, a professor and researcher at the Center for Games and Playable Mediaat the University of California, Santa Cruz .

Here’s a look at some of the latest developments in fitness technology and what researchers and entrepreneurs have in mind for the future.

Michael Yang, a managing director at Comcast Ventures who invests in health-related technology, points to the success of Pokémon Go in getting people moving as an example of how a playful strategy can work. “What’s the best way to get people off their butts and walking their steps and doing all that other kind of healthy living?” he says. “Sometimes it’s an interesting kind of game that overlays the physical world and virtual world and sending people on quests.”

That overlay has been entering the gym in the form of virtual reality. When Black Box VRopens its first gym in September in San Francisco, customers will be able to walk up to a resistance machine, put on a pair of virtual-reality goggles and find themselves across from an opponent in the middle of an arena. There, they will attempt to destroy their opponent’s tower with dragons, robots and other forces that they deploy by performing various exercises on the resistance machine.

Motivation to work harder is built into the system. As people play, Black Box gets to know each customer and anticipates his or her abilities. If it expects that a customer is capable of 12 repetitions of an exercise and the customer does 13, she’ll get more power in the virtual-reality contest and cause more damage to her opponent.

Even if the gains in training are small, “we will allow you to see that and make it an exciting thing like in a videogame” where you’ve leveled up and you are now more powerful, says Black Box VR co-founder Ryan Deluca.

A home machine is in the works. Mr. Deluca says it currently costs roughly $20,000 to create each machine. But he expects to be able to sell them for less than $5,000 within three to five years.

Others are working on encouraging fitness through face-to-face social activities. Dr. Isbister of the Center for Games and Playable Media says studies show that “being social together is a big motivator for doing things like moving around a lot more.” When she was at New York University, she headed the development of YaMove, a dance-competition game where two-person teams create synchronized dance routines, using smartphones to track how well team members are emulating each other’s moves.

One idea she has for the future is an augmented-reality version of today’s parcourses—fitness trails where users stop along the way at various exercise stations. She envisions versions “where we go to the park and every week it’s some crazy different theme and you have to actually do this challenge and the software’s able to track whether you pulled it off or not,” she says.

Software and hardware innovations are enabling companies to work fitness-tracking technology into a wider range of wearable items that can give people more-useful feedback on their workouts.

Increasingly, wearable devices are going beyond spitting out metrics to tell wearers when to push harder, take it slow or otherwise adjust their workouts.

For instance, Athos training clothes include sensors that measure muscle movement and transfer this data to a smartphone app that analyzes it and offers insights on optimizing workouts. Lumo Bodytech makes wearable products that sense details such as steps per minute and pelvic rotation, and combines that with an artificial-intelligence coaching program that can give users feedback to improve their runs. It recently announced plans to team up with Puma to create a new coaching product.

Michael Chu, chief executive of K-Motion , a company that makes a smart vest currently used primarily by golfers and baseball players to analyze their movements, says that in the near future the company’s products will understand an athlete’s body well enough to make real-time suggestions for ways to have a more productive workout.

“Let’s say you’re on the fifth set of your squat training,” he says. “We’re detecting your back is not in a comfortable spot compared to where you were when you were nailing all the reps.”

The vest will respond by beeping and buzzing to help get the wearer into the posture that he was in when he was at his best.

Further down the road, it will also be able to analyze the state of the wearer’s body when she puts on the vest, to give her adjustments to make, in case she’s been sitting all day at her desk, for example, and her pelvis isn’t in an ideal position for a workout.

“Over time, what we’re going to be able to do is take all of these outputs and take your body’s characteristics and turn that into something that’s personal for you and your coach to determine: ‘This is exactly the regimen we need to get better,’ ” Mr. Chu says.

Lifestyle coaching

Fitness is about more than what you’re doing at the gym. It’s also about sleep, nutrition and the things that your body is doing while you’re away from the gym. Some researchers are working toward personalized fitness recommendations that take all of that into account.

There are products already on the market that work along these lines. Wearables such as the wrist-worn tracker from Whoop Inc. measure, among other things, metrics for users like heart-rate variability and sleep, to give them a better sense of how much they can push themselves on a given day and so get the most out of their training.

Rosalind Picard, director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and co-director of its Advancing Wellbeing Initiative, wants to create the equivalent of a weather forecast for the body to allow people to anticipate what they need in terms of sleep, exercise and even social interaction. She’s already done some forecasting work. Empatica , the wearable-device company she co-founded, offers a wristband called Embrace that can tell if people with epilepsy are beginning to have a seizure and alert others. By collecting enough data, she believes future technology will be able to predict people’s imminent mental and physical state, and know what kind of exercise or activity their body needs in those circumstances.

Joni Kettunen’s Finland-based company, Firstbeat Technologies , studies heart rate and heart-rate variability to develop technology that can be used in products to customize health and fitness recommendations, such as whether someone needs more sleep or if they can handle more-intense workouts. Firstbeat technology will be used in fitness watches being released later this year by Suunto and Garmin .

In the future, Mr. Kettunen says, Firstbeat technology could be used by primary-health-care providers to put together personalized diabetes-prevention plans that include specific variations and durations of exercise.

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