The Intersection of Technology with Fitness and Health
Up until a few years ago, fitness wasn’t something I consciously concerned myself with – I’d been an athlete in my younger years and remained relatively healthy riding on the continued benefits of my youthful athletic pursuits well into my late thirties and early forties. However, after some shoulder surgery and a decade of back pain, I realized I needed to get more proactive with my physical fitness and take charge of my health. Ultimately, I credit my revamped perspective on health and fitness to my supporting and very participatory family, my butt-kicking personal trainer, Leandro Carvalho along with the entirely thorough and accessible platform of the most well known and reputable fitness and nutrition company in the county for over 15 years at Beachbody. The emergence of fitness and health tracking technology has helped in ways no one could have imagined in my youth! Since my fitness re-awakening, not only have I lost thirty five pounds, but I’ve also gained some much appreciated energy and stamina. That said, change didn’t happen overnight, and while initially recovering from decade long injuries and a dash of mid life aging, the first few steps were quite small. Starting out with a Fitbit and my family group, I actually began tracking my steps as a fun way to stay connected with my family. Nonetheless, I soon found myself competing with my sister and trying to keep up with the kids’ step counts by walking instead of hopping on the train, taking longer routes between meetings, and pushing myself to get out and be more active. As a tech enthusiast, these initially small yet ultimately significant life changes sparked my increased fascination in the intersection of technology with fitness and health – specifically the ways in which biotech innovation is creating real, powerful impacts on the way people view their personal health. Predicted by tech mogul Steve Jobs, as he laid dying of pancreatic cancer he passionately pronounced, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.” To this point, Jobs could not have been more accurate. Driven by my growing mini-obsession with biotechnology – along with the insights into my personal health and fitness it provided (including calories burned, pace, steps, distance, heart rate monitoring, and interval training metrics, just to name a few) – I continued to submerge myself into a pool of biotech supporters and was recruited by several family members to join them on this evolving journey. Now both health and tech-conscious, these same family members have grown to become my fitness rivals, and collectively, my invaluable fitness support group. And in no small way, the social nature of fitness and nutrition give me continual inspiration every day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There has been a lot of speculation on the usefulness of fitness trackers – I’ve read multiple articles recently stating that wearable fitness trackers “do more harm than good.” However, given the wealth of sedentary desk-bound jobs, sitting over long periods of time is unquestionably helping drive the national obesity epidemic, triggering an onslaught of physiological responses, and consequently, causing a myriad of chronic diseases. And while I can’t argue that wearable fitness tech is the end-all-be-all solution to our nation’s health issues, I have found it extremely useful on my own personal fitness journey, and I’m certainly not the only one. Just look for instance at the Pokémon Go app and the effect this interactive game has had on its users. Having led to what many reported as a ‘population-level’ surge in fitness tracker step counts, this augmented reality game impressively increased user’s day-to-day activity levels, with numerous anecdotal reports surfacing of players getting out, walking long distances, and even losing weight. Others even talked about the very real effects the game was having on their mental health. In fact, when activity-tracking apps compared step counts, heart rates, and other biometric data from Pokémon Go’s launch week with the previous weeks, they saw huge spikes in users’ overall activity levels – with one company seeing a nearly 60 percent increase in step counts. Blurring the lines between fitness and gaming, Pokemon Go utilizes fitness-tracking data as part of the in-game experience, and has compellingly raised the bar in terms of activity-driven apps. With Pokemon Go walking groups forming across the country, commuters purposely taking longer paths home, students skipping bus rides to “catch ‘em all,” and formerly sedentary people across the globe getting more active, Pokemon Go is undoubtedly changing the conversation around fitness and health apps. Conversely, many have realized better sleeping habits using movement-tracking apps that monitor sleep duration, quality, and patterns, and even adjust your alarm to wake a user during light sleep. Another fascinating use of movement-tracking technology can be seen in the MLS’s GPS vests that tracks players’ movements and recovery times throughout games to create better-informed training methods, maximize recovery, and improve performance. And as the technology continues to evolve, many of these benefits are more accessible to non-pros like myself. Most recently, I’ve become inseparable from my Apple Watch, with which I am able to see real time data, split workouts into segments for better monitoring, count calories and laps while swimming, rowing, cycling, and running, track workout durations, and monitor my heart rate. It has become my fitness companion, helping me to set and reach workout goals – pushing me when I should be going harder and cautioning me I need to give myself a breather. And when work forbids a visit to the gym, I instead turn to Beachbody On Demand. The BOD streaming platform offers both fitness and nutrition content, including the well-known programs and my personal favorite’s P90X, Insanity and just about any and everything Autumn Calabrese seems to do. With the latest update of the BOD app – that is now conveniently accessible on my Apple Watch – my workout experience has evolved immensely. By overlaying real-time biometric data, including continuous heart-rate monitoring with haptic feedback and zone-targeting, onto my favorite workouts, BOD and Apple have turned this wearable technology into a thoroughly enjoyable training experience. Working seamlessly together, these advancements in fitness tracking technology are indisputably changing how I work out. Indeed, with real-time biometric data at our fingertips, we can improve the way we exercise, eat, and even sleep. Though critics argue that step counters are inaccurate and therefore useless, as the metrics can sometimes vary across different devices (e.g., the same user may get a slightly different step count depending on if they’re using a Fitbit or Apple Watch), I don’t agree that those variations render health trackers useless (ultimately, the real value isn’t found in matching some mythical step count, but in understanding how your different choices can affect your overall activity level). As a new and avid Apple Watch wearer, I cannot deny the accomplished feeling I get after a 25,000-step day, nor can I ignore the angst wrought by a sedentary Sunday totaling a measly 3,000-steps. With that in mind, I use my fitness tracker as guide rather than an absolute scale of values. Rather than looking at the numbers as definitive, I use them to compare my day-to-day activity levels and compete against myself to find new ways to be a little more active. After all, knowing my exact step count is not the goal here. What matters to most is feeling motivated and getting active, which is inherently subjective. The term “active” varies from one person to the next – my active 25,000-step day may be a lousy day compared to that of a marathon runner or even my own sisters! While it’s clear that health and fitness tracking tech is not yet perfect by any means, in a data-driven society, it behoves me to say that informed decisions are truly what moves a society forward. Information technology, or the collection of personal data to in turn make wiser and more informed decisions, has long been understood as one of the prime contributors of globalization. While fitness tracking technology can be deemed a first-world luxury (and rightfully so), similar information and communication technologies are being launched globally to support health-oriented information sharing in developing countries. From actual healthcare clinics to inside patient homes, biotechnology is far-reaching and drastically improving the delivery of healthcare systems worldwide. To term information biotechnology as “harmful” completely disregards the world’s progression towards an informed society, one which everyone has control over their personal health and access to health-oriented information. What truly is harmful is hindering this natural evolution of technology. So while I can’t say my Fitbit and Apple Watch are solely responsible for my improved fitness and health (nor the improved health of an entire population or nation at that), I have no doubt that the insights these tools provide – particularly the ability to engage with my biometric data and use it to set new goals for myself, compete with my friends and family, and push myself further each day – have ultimately transformed me from someone who gave little to no thought about my health and fitness, to someone who actively and consciously considers how even the smallest daily choices can add up to affect my health. And to say there is no difference between who I was before I got conscious about my health and who I am now is simply inaccurate. Not even close!