Wearable fitness devices are on track to become the defining technology of our age. Over 13 million fitness trackers were sold in 2015 with brands like Fitbit and Jawbone becoming household names. Analysts have predicted that by 2018, the wearable fitness tech market will be worth more than $50 billion a year, with devices becoming so sophisticated and ubiquitous the fitness and leisure industry will be fundamentally tech-driven.
This rush to digitize our fitness regimes has led many to hurl themselves off the gizmo ledge, going potty for the latest tracker, censor or gadget to help analyse physical activity. But is this scramble for fitness tech a help or hindrance to those looking to get in shape? How accurate is the performance data being recorded by wearable tech and, ultimately, do they help us achieve our fitness goals?
In 2015, an editorial in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Wearable Devices as Facilitators, Not Drivers, of Health Behavior Change” cited a survey that found that more than half of people who’d purchased a fitness tracking device eventually gave up wearing it, and of those, a third stopped within six months.
‘All The Gear, No Idea’ is the pejorative expression often aimed at those more inclined to throw money at a sporting or fitness endeavour than pursue their goals using the old-fashioned tools of sweat and willpower.
But even aside from the questionable motivational qualities of fitness trackers, further critiques have included the accuracy of the data collected from fitness devices. One of the market’s biggest sellers, Fitbit, has recently come under scrutiny over claims the wrist-mounted heart-rate monitor featured in some of its product is inaccurate to a degree which could be considered potentially hazardous.
In late 2015, The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a review of studies that compared subjective and objective measures of what was termed “athlete well-being” throughout training. The objective measures included cutting-edge equipment, monitoring everything from heart rate to hormones; the subjective measures relied on more anecdotal evidence such as asking the athletes in the trial how they felt. The researchers observed that as the athletes trained, their own body-awareness registered changes in training stress with “superior sensitivity and consistency” to the state-of-the-art tech.
Further to the apparent inaccuracies of the data generated by our fitness trackers, sceptics are also quick to proclaim that fitness device technology industry is a hacker’s paradise. Researchers in Canada recently reported that most fitness trackers haemorrhage personal performance data via Bluetooth which can easily be tapped by hackers.
Futurists have long held the belief that consumer technology can be used as an overt form of surveillance and control. Imagine a workplace where your every step is recorded by management who have a close eye on your productivity and output. Picture life insurance companies tapping into your fitness device data and basing their premiums on your exercise, or lack thereof.
You can’t make a pig fat (or healthy) by weighing it
Further gripes aimed at the fitness device industry is that it is responsible for the over medicalizing of a society and that, in truth, it has become unhealthily obsessive about self-monitoring. We now have technology which allows us to measure and benchmark our sleep patterns, heart rate, blood sugar, reflexes and memory but as the old saying about weighing a pig describes, persistent measuring of a metric will not change it; only actions can do that.
Many will argue that, as with all new technology the societal and cultural tics which may have developed as a result of fitness devices’ rapid adoption are far outweighed by the positive impact they are having on a population struggling to get in shape. This positive impact is being driven in part by simple motivation – the digitized act of measuring how many steps you’re taking or how much sleep you’re getting will motivate you to seek more and improve your wellbeing.