I was at the park last Sunday, and witnessed dozens of busy, health-conscious Americans walking, jogging, and biking in the area. Most of them were looking at what I thought was their watches. Then it hit me . . . it’s a Sunday, a leisure day for most. What could be so urgent on this day of rest that would have these folks so pressed for time? Most of them weren’t actually looking at their watch; rather, they were peering into the abyss of information gleaned from the various wearable fitness devices that they were ‘sporting’ – pun-intended! This new wave of technology has become increasingly popular, to the point where sales have exceeded the billion dollar mark.
Over the past 10 years, exercise has been increasingly prescribed by physicians to treat various types of cardio-metabolic disease risk factors. Despite this, about 85 percent of Americans beginning a new fitness program, quit by the 12th week! (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This statement points out some of the glaring weaknesses in our current fitness model, where facilities, separate from our normal living environment, serve to mimic a physically-active lifestyle.
Wearable fitness technology is actually not new at all. Remember step counters? Also called pedometers, these devices motivated millions of people to reach “10,000 steps per day!” Fast-forward to 2015, and the wearable fitness technology market is saturated with various types of devices aimed at getting you moving, and keeping you moving. Fitness professionals often refer to these devices as triaxial accelerometers, meaning they measure movement, in space, in three different axes.
The value of triaxial measurement of movement (versus biaxial), includes the ability to assess inclinometric, or climbing, which provides more accurate information about the intensity of exercise. This knowledge allows engineers to establish equations which can reliably estimate caloric costs of various activities and caloric estimates of daily energy needs. For body weight management, this capability is invaluable. Other devices incorporate geographic information systems technology, similar to GPS, to collect data from movement throughout geographic ‘waypoints.’
In sedentary inpiduals, these devices are very effective in motivating them to get moving. According to FitBit.com, their analysis of sedentary inpiduals observed a 43 percent increase in steps per day, on average, in subjects using their wrist-worn accelerometers.
∎ What accelerometers are good at
Measurement of NEAT. NEAT, or ‘non-exercise activity thermogenesis,’ relates to all of the physical activities that occur throughout the course of your day. Activities such as doing laundry, walking from the car to the parking lot, and cooking dinner are examples of NEAT. Don’t underestimate the impact of NEAT on body weight management. Boosting up these types of activities has a major impact on our metabolism.
∎ What accelerometers are not good at
Measurement of fitness-type activities. Surprisingly, physical activity such as stationary biking, rowing, or weightlifting are not well-measured using accelerometers.
∎ Important features to consider
Thinking about springing for your own fitness tracker? Here are a few topics to think about:
Accuracy: The industry is evolving at the speed of light. Alright, not quite that fast, but devices are as accurate as ever. Many can accurately measure and interpret fidgeting and sleep patterns, both of which have a powerful influence on total daily energy expenditure.
Battery life: Some devices have rechargeable lithium ion batteries whereas others have alkaline battery cells which need replacing. Read consumer reviews to be sure that you suit your needs in this department. Remember, though, that most devices are not worn by consumers 18 months after purchase, so spending money on a device which touts 3 year battery life may not offer return on investment.
Numeric Display: Does the device you’re looking at have a small screen that displays the value on it? Or, do you need to access that information from a web-based interface? Direct feedback loops are often more effective at encouraging movement than indirect feedback (i.e requiring a user to log in to a website).
Style: OK . . . there, I said it. Yes, in the fitness industry, fashion trumps function. Find the look that’s right for you . . . ‘nuff said.
Regardless of where you fall on this topic, one thing is certain: Wearable fitness technology is here to stay.
Jason Aziz, MS, CSCS, is a Wellness Coordinator at Concord Hospital’s Center for Health Promotion.
The Capital Area Wellness Coalition coordinates community resources and builds partnerships to create a culture of healthy living for everyone. The coalition meets monthly on the second Wednesday at 8 a.m. at the Center for Health Promotion, 49 S. Main St. For more information, visit capwellness.org.