Fitness technology is part of the fitness industry's "new normal," but it's changing rapidly. Many of the fitness technologies we saw at the beginning of last year have already morphed into new and improved devices and features. We should expect more exciting updates this year as fit-tech companies, app developers and tech-savvy fitness brands continue to iterate.
What will we see more of in 2017 (and beyond) as these trends evolve? When it comes to activity tracking and fitness apps that can benefit you and your clients, there's plenty to look forward to.
"Invisible" Activity Trackers
Wrist-based activity trackers will remain popular in 2017 as styles become more appealing and technology gets more sophisticated. However, several new options are already on the market, with more on the way—namely, wearable tech that's not strapped to the wrist and, in many cases, is inconspicuous.
Expect to see more "invisible" trackers, whose sensors might be discreetly integrated into a shirt or shorts, attached to a sports bra, embedded in jewelry, placed in a shoe or stuck to your skin. Could invisible trackers eventually replace wrist trackers?
"The answer depends on if you are talking about all-day tracking of activity or specific exercise tracking," says Ted Vickey, MBS, founder and CEO of FitWell and a senior adviser in fitness technology for the American Council on Exercise. "I don't see these invisible wearables replacing wrist-based trackers anytime soon for all-day tracking. I don't wear the same shirt day after day, but I can wear the same 'watch' every day."
Wearables for working out might pose a different scenario. "I [could] wear the same pair of athletic shoes during my run, or the same workout shirt that could have some sort of embedded sensor that tracks my activity during my exercise session," says Vickey.
It's unlikely that folks will entirely replace their smartwatch with a smart top just yet, though. Think of how people use wrist-based trackers. Sometimes it's solely about exercise. But many of the major players in trackers offer too many perks to pass up: You can text, call, email, set reminders, set timers, control playlists, and on and on, right from your wrist. Metrics and motivation aside, smartwatches have become an integral extension of many people's daily routines, communications and lifestyle. You can't text or call from a smart-connected sneaker . . . or if you could, wouldn't you be embarrassed talking to your foot in a crowded gym?
Complementary and Integrated Data Collection
While the most in-demand smart garments—shoes, jewelry, skin sensors, etc.—may eventually replace a few of the wrist-based wearables that are less competitive on the market anyway, the real story is how wearables of all kinds have begun to, and will continue to, complement or integrate with one another. For example, a client could simultaneously track exercise metrics through a smartwatch and a smart shirt, bra and/or shoe. During and after a workout, it's conceivable that the client could check and interact with data from multiple sources, perhaps in a single, aggregated mobile app.
Complementary and integrated experiences and data collection allow for a more rounded and potentially more accurate picture of real-time health and fitness data. "Having a tracker somewhere other than the wrist could [enable the user to] track other types of data, like foot strike, sweat levels, even perhaps a more accurate heart rate," says Vickey.
Embedding measurement devices into various types of wearables helps move biometric tracking toward being seamless and all-encompassing, says Fabio Comana, MA, MS, faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and faculty member in exercise science and nutrition at San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego. There's also great potential to look beyond the usual data we see on most wrist trackers—steps taken, heart rate, calories burned, pace—as clients drill deeper into their medical and fitness data. "Once you collect ventilatory measurements, you can estimate many things, such as recovery, calorie burn and fuel utilization," says Comana. "This is just one segment of the wearable market that is improving. Wearable sleeves to assess lactate levels [and] patches to monitor some hormones . . . can provide continuous monitoring."
Adds Comana, "You could technically outfit the entire body with wearable devices in your shoes and your socks, sleeves, patches, etc., which are all discreet and can provide useful info." Picture it: We could become walking, talking (and sweating) personal-data collection sites just by how we get dressed for the gym.
Of course, people will want to collect data from various sources only if those sources are comfortable, attractive and convenient. There are also the issues of battery life (how long does it last?), safety (what are all these sensors doing to our bodies?) and accuracy (are all these numbers even right?).
"As we all know, the light-spectrometry devices at the wrist are highly inconsistent," says Comana. "Heart rate monitoring via a chest strap remains the most consistently accurate, but it is inconvenient." The newest, garment-based wearables might solve this problem; the convenience factor greatly improves when the sensor measuring heart rate is embedded into a stylish, well-designed athletic shirt or sports bra.
Moving forward, expect your wrist-based tracker to integrate more closely with invisible wearables and a multitude of workout apps for refined accuracy. "The biggest change will be a slowdown in the development of new tools in favor of improving the accuracy of the existing tools," says Comana. "As consumers become more savvy and informed, they will demand greater accuracy, given how we have more choices today than ever."
Personalized Workout Apps
Consumers are also demanding fit-tech experiences that are more personalized. A higher level of tech-based personalization is now possible, thanks to the metrics people gather about themselves through wearables. "We've been collecting health and wellness data for the past few years," says Vickey. "What's missing is the interpretation of that data into meaningful and actionable steps for individuals along their wellness journey."
While many fitness pros have stepped in to help clients decipher data, many others aren't dabbling in technology yet. This leaves a whole lot of data on the table, so to speak. This year, we'll see the latest iterations in workout apps beginning to bridge the gap.
"Tracking devices were a brilliant addition to the industry," says Amanda Patterson, director of marketing at PEAR Sports, based in Irvine, California, that created the PEAR Sports App. "[They] allowed people to take the reins and start monitoring their activity on a daily basis. The shortcoming of the devices was that they didn't provide an actionable plan for all of this data. Users naturally started looking for the next step." Enter fitness apps that coach users, play by play, through the workout experience with individualized information.
Drawing from the data (your data), personalized fitness apps "know" what you've done in the past, what you're doing as you work out in the moment and perhaps even what you're capable of doing in the next few months. A wearable or heart rate monitor collects the data, and the app interprets it into personalized real-time feedback you can use to improve performance and avoid injury. This approach is different from apps that provide a great workout but are otherwise generic.
Speaking about the PEAR app, Patterson says, "We're able to tailor workouts to a user's abilities, goals and preferences, making the experience a truly personalized one." Patterson believes smart, content-driven apps such as this will become the new norm.
While an upsurge in personalized apps seems like it would tie us to our phones even more, the opposite might be true as smart wearables become more advanced and equipped with helpful features such as GPS and the ability to download apps right onto the smartwatch, such as with Apple Watch. "We expect that we'll see a growing demand for 'untethered' experiences, where users can use their mobile apps without their phones, switching to their smartwatches instead," says Patterson. The "untethered" experience—where mobile gets even more mobile—is yet another promising layer of fit-tech integration that could help people exercise more conveniently and with better results.
A Banner Year for Fit-Tech
For fitness consumers, clients and fitness pros, a new year always brings renewed commitments to exercise. Now's the time to consider how you might take advantage of these new directions in fitness technology. Bottom line: Everything's starting to come together. There's a welcome place for fitness pros who wish to integrate themselves into this exciting fit-tech convergence.
"I see the next year as a banner year in the development and launch of new tools that will advance the ability to create a more robust wellness experience," says Vickey. Anything that can help us heighten wellness for our clients and ourselves is worth our attention.
More personalized coaching apps will hit the market as app companies and developers marry data collection from wearables to in-the-moment, personalized coaching for consumers. These personalized apps could be a companion app or a third-party app.
Companion app. This means the app has been specifically designed to function in concert with a certain wearable. One example is OMsignal's OMrun companion app that works with the OMbra, a smart sports bra for tracking heart rate, breathing efficiency, calories and more. As you run, the app provides intermittent spoken instructions, telling you your average pace, distance and more. It also suggests a pace for you. After the run, you can view more performance metrics in the app or on the web.
Third-party app. This type of app wasn't developed solely for a particular wearable, but it can integrate with one (or sometimes more than one). An example is PEAR, an iOS app that connects to various trackers, including Apple Watch and Mio. PEAR accesses metrics from a tracker, then uses voices from real-life trainers and athletes to provide dynamic, responsive audio feedback that reacts in the moment to guide and motivate you.
What else lies ahead in 2017? Here are a few more forecasts from the fit-tech experts interviewed in this article.
Ted Vickey, MBS, founder and CEO of FitWell LLC:"We have enough wearables and sensors on the market now and will probably see a consolidation into a few major players. From that, we will see the sharing of a person's information across multiple platforms that will allow trainers and coaches to create specialized and personalized wellness plans using this data. It isn't that the data will be different. It is that the data will be used in a new and combined way, providing insights into areas that just years before were a guess."
Fabio Comana, MA, MS, faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine:"The technology that we can monitor or measure is extensive and can overwhelm many people. The defining factor will most likely lie in the application, rather than in the tool. If the information can be disseminated down to the appropriate level, then it'll remain relevant and meaningful."
Amanda Patterson, director of marketing at PEAR Sports:"As fitness tech gets smarter, so do consumers. And by default so will apps. Stagnant, nonresponsive workout cues are no longer enough. And while video platforms were once the go-to experience, users are becoming more interested in untethered workouts. They want to work out directly from their smartphones and smartwatches."
What programs or fitness equipment are you finding most popular with participants as they begin to return to in-person training?
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