We are living through an obesity epidemic; this much is clear. In the U.S. in 2010, the CDC pegged at 36% the proportion of adults to be considered obese. If you were to widen your criteria and also look at those classified as overweight, that number shoots up to roughly 65%. That’s two out of every three adults in the country!
The consequences of this phenomenon are sobering. Again according to the CDC, in 2003 obesity-attributable medical expenditures reached $75 billion. This number goes up to $117 billion if you include indirect expenditures as well (absenteeism, loss of future earnings due to premature death, etc.) and represents 6% to 12% of national health care costs in the United States. Other consequences are more than monetary; deaths which have obesity listed as a contributing factor are estimated to be anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 yearly. Clearly, this is a serious problem.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that America is aware and motivated to do something about it. The more tools available to fight obesity, the greater the odds that driven individuals can get active and healthy.
As it turns out, this increase in awareness is happening at the same time as the maturation of technologies that can make a difference, ripe for use in fitness devices: GPS chips, accelerometers, heart rate monitors, Wi-Fi chips, and so on. These are all now cheap and small, and an entire subset of the consumer electronics industry is beginning to flourish. There are now smart scales, intelligent pedometers, sensitive health watches, motivational fitness applications, and many other devices whose sole reason for existing is to help you get moving, get fit, and most importantly get healthy.
This is the growing field of fitness tech, and the rest of this article is an overview of some of the gadgets currently on the market.
The FitBit Movement Tracker
The Fitbit ($99) is a really fancy pedometer that contains both an accelerometer and an altimeter. With these sensors, the Fitbit can extract a wealth of information about your activity patterns. It’s small enough that you can clip it on your clothing and forget it’s there all day.
Once you’re within range of its base station, the FitBit offloads all the data it’s gathered. Just like that, you know how many steps you took, how far you traveled, how many calories you burned, and how many stairs you climbed.
Better yet, an entire online system is associated with the device. You can keep track of what you eat, set goals, log workouts, see graphs, share your progress with friends, and generally have access to a solid support infrastructure that should make the technologically minded health-seekers giddy with joy. The FitBit and its online tools make it easier to quantify almost every aspect of the process and provides the sort of instant feedback that a lot of the more traditional fitness regimens lack.
The Aria WiFi Scale: Weight Tracker
The only sensor the FitBit is missing is the one that can tell how much you weigh. You need a scale for that, but why settle for a regular scale? The Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale ($129), which is made by the same folks who make the FitBit, automates the entire process. Every time you step on, it’ll instantly upload your weight, body fat percentage, and BMI to the same online system used with the FitBit. It integrates seamlessly and adds two crucial data points to the several others you already have.
The Nike Fuel Band: Movement Tracker
Similar to the FitBit, the Fuel Band from Nike ($149) contains an accelerometer that monitors your movement and activity levels. But it does things a little differently. You give the Nike Fuel Band specific daily activity goals, and LED indicators light up once you reach them. If you’re falling short, the indicators let you know, with instant feedback, that you need to move a little bit more before you get back home. It’s also waterproof, so you can get the fuel band slightly wet (nice jog in the rain, anyone?) and still keep on ticking.
The Basis Wristwatch – Movement Plus Heartbeat and Stress Tracker
The Basis Wristwatch builds on some of the previous concepts by adding two more sensors: a heartbeat sensor and a galvanic skin response sensor. On top of tallying your calories burned, you can see how your heart responds to your increased activity levels. This lets you keep things in check, and dial down your exercise if you see you’re getting into a potentially dangerous zone.
The galvanic skin response sensor sends a tiny electric current through your skin and measures its conductivity, which allows it to detect subtle changes in moisture that are a direct result of psychological or physiological arousal. This can mean fear, anger, startle response, etc.
The idea is that by using all of these data points, you can paint a clearer picture of your wellness throughout the day. You can determine when and why your heart was racing, and correlate this to different events daily.
The Basis Wristwatch isn’t shipping yet but will cost $200 when it’s ready. You can visit their website and sign up to be notified when this happens.
The RunMeter And CycleMeter: Jogging And Cycling Dataloggers
Making use of the GPS capabilities of most modern smartphones, RunMeter ($3) and CycleMeter ($5) make jogging and cycling a lot more fun, at least for data geeks. They both work much in the same way, and keep track of your every move across the map. They tell you how fast you’re going, your average speed, distance traveled, elevation changes, and even calories burned if you enter your height, gender, and age. You can see the path you took, overlaid on a Google Map with a mile-by-mile breakdown. Facebook sharing is built in, so you can inform your support group about your efforts and get some welcome encouragement (or perhaps instant shaming… well, no I’m sure you’d never need that).
SleepTracker Watch: Sleep Helper
Almost as important as maintaining a good training regimen and eating the right things is getting enough sleep and waking up refreshed. Human sleep patterns go through cycles, alternating between deep and light sleep. If your alarm clock happens to wake you up during the deep phase of sleep, you will feel tired and groggy and unrested.
So what the SleepTracker watch ($149) does is monitor your movement with the help of its integrated accelerometer. It turns out that the lighter the sleep, the more you toss around in bed. You give it a “wake up window” during which it’s okay for the alarm to go off and if you start moving during that time, that’s when it sounds. Although you may end up getting, say, 15 minutes less sleep, you wake up energized and refreshed.
The SleepTracker watch also gives you a “Sleep Score,” which is its own analysis of how well you slept, based on how often you woke up, how many hours you got, and some other factors. Keeping track of your score can help you figure out what works best for you and lets you see the impact of adjustments you try.
The watch is $149. Although, in all fairness, there is an application in iOS that does much of the same things the watch does, but for $1. It’s called SleepCycle and uses the iPhone’s accelerometer for the same purpose.
Losing weight and getting healthy is one of the hardest tasks that people willingly submit themselves to. But it’s easy to fall off the wagon and to get discouraged. You think you’re not seeing results, you get impatient, and you simply give up.
These tools can be of great help in your getting-healthy process because they let you measure and quantify all your efforts. You can see when you’ve been inactive for two or three days in a row; it’s that drastic dip in the graph right there! You can see when you’re actually improving your running performance: the graph line is rising, not dipping! Your friends on Facebook haven’t seen any of your activity updates lately? They’ll send you a message, encouraging you to keep going! Waking up groggy every morning? You’re barely getting 4 hours each night, it says so right there!
More importantly, these devices work behind the scenes, silently gathering important data without any additional effort on your part. Just wear the watch, step on the scale, start the application, and everything else is automatic. Technologies that just a few years ago would have cost a small fortune are now small and cheap, and can be crammed alongside others in a stylish and convenient package for a reasonable price. Fitness tech is a burgeoning field in the consumer electronics industry, but as America increasingly gets off the couch and starts moving, it’s a field that’s sure to do well.