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Why Fit Tech Changes Everything

If you’re not already harnessing the power of fitness technology to run your personal training business and make a difference in the lives of your clients, you should be.

Why? Because smartphones, wearable technology, mobile fitness apps and fitness websites have the potential to revolutionize the work of personal trainers—freeing up more one-on-one time with clients, providing more accurate data on their achievements and giving us powerful tools to better manage our fitness businesses. Further, fitness tech can help us motivate clients to increase their daily physical activity and, in our own small way, help confront the global obesity epidemic and fight the spiraling cost of health care.

This article explains the benefits of fitness technology, explores rising trends in the fit-tech industry, and suggests how you can ride this new wave of change sweeping the worlds of wellness and consumer electronics.

Relax: Technology Cannot Replace Trainers

Before we dive into the specifics of fitness technology, we need to confront the reality of what all these tools mean for fit pros. Some people wonder if the new breed of fitness technology will replace the personal trainer. If you are nervous and asking that question, then perhaps you should be. The technology is here, and it’s becoming more popular by the day. But personal trainers who embrace it have the opportunity to reap great success and outcompete rivals who choose not to innovate.

And while it’s true that fitness technology can be effective, it lacks one essential feature—the human touch. At the end of the day, the “personal” in personal training is the killer app. Most people who need your services also need what only you can provide: your insight, judgment and personality.

Look outside of our industry. How many times have you been frustrated when you’ve called a company and been asked to “press 1 for customer service and 2 for sales,” when all you wanted was to talk to a real, live person? The same holds true in health and fitness.

What Is Fitness Technology?

Walk through any sporting goods store, visit iTunes or watch others in the gym or outside running and you will see all kinds of gadgets, devices and apps. From Basis to Fitbit, from Zombie Run to MyFitnessPal, there is an awesome array of tools for making people healthier and more fit.

For this article, we’ll define fitness technology as a category of devices and software that consumers can use to monitor their physical well-being and motivate their behavior. Examples include wearable technology (Jawbone, Basis, Fitbit, etc.) and mobile fitness apps (MyFitnessPal, GAIN Fitness, Endomondo, etc.).

The go-to platform for fitness technology is the smartphone, which passed an important milestone in 2013, outselling the more basic (and cheaper) cellphone worldwide for the first time. Out of an estimated 1.8 billon mobile phones sold last year, 54%—or a whopping 968 million—were smartphones (Gartner 2014).

The popularity and computing power of smartphones have significantly increased the reach and realm of mobile fitness apps and fitness devices, allowing the average exerciser to track, share and evaluate real-time, always-on health data that just a few years ago was available only to hospitals and elite athletes.

This new era in fitness technology will define—and (in a good way) disrupt—the health and fitness industry over the next 10 years. We’ve always preached to our clients that they must make fitness a daily part of their lives. Fitness technology can help them make that change.

A Brief History of Fitness Technology

Using a tool for fitness and motivation isn’t new. The first recorded pedometer dates to 1780, when Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet created a self-winding watch that allowed users to measure steps and distance as they walked (Neuchatel 2014). Fitness technology has been evolving ever since. Free weights, treadmills, stationary bikes, virtual cycling—you name it, the technology has been tried.

In 1995, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop predicted that “cutting-edge technology, especially in communication and information transfer, will enable the greatest advances yet in public health. Eventually, [we will have] access to health information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, encouraging personal wellness and prevention, and leading to better informed decisions about health care” (Koop 1995).

Koop’s vision is today’s reality. The tipping point for consumer fitness technology came in 2007 with the release of the first iPhone. That same year, Fitbit released a tracking device using a wireless sensor that “could bring amazing experiences to fitness and health; creating a product that would change the way we move” (Fitbit 2014).

The rise of mobile and wearable fitness technology has broad implications for the fitness industry. People do not have to visit a fitness center for a personal training session; they can do it from their iPad. Trainers who adopt this technology have a chance to produce greater results with their clients while employing a better business model. Fitness technology is to personal training what Les Mills and Zumba® are to group exercise: a way for you to train more clients, more efficiently, using tried-and-true, repeatable systems.

The Science Behind Fitness Technology

Can these new fitness technologies really make a difference in the lives of clients? That depends on who you ask. Researchers have been scrutinizing the effectiveness of these technologies—from the accuracy of step counters to the influences of online social networks on people’s health. Studies have found that digital technologies have generated improvements in health-related knowledge, attitudes, intentions and nutrition, and have helped people stop smoking (Kennedy et al. 2012).

About half of these studies have shown gains in physical activity, weight loss and diet, which is impressive considering how hard people struggle to stick with a regular fitness program or diet over any length of time (Kennedy et al. 2012). Relatively simple technologies like digital weight loss scales have been associated with better weight loss and weight maintenance (Kennedy et al. 2012). Initial studies suggest fitness technology can be effective, but they also suggest it is far too early to establish that devices and software are helping people make lasting changes in their health choices.

Striving For Healthier Workforces

Technology cannot overcome all the difficulties in changing long-lasting healthy habits, but it can be useful in improving fitness participation and motivation. Many companies, for instance, are using personal health technologies to prevent diseases, track progress in health promotion programs, and ultimately cut the costs of health care and health-related absenteeism (Mattila et al. 2013). Personal trainers and health coaches can use these same technologies at a fraction of the original cost.

In one study that offered employees the use of a wide range of technologies—including monitoring devices, mobile applications and Web services—97% of the employees used the services at least once, and 50% did for 7 out of 8 weeks of the “active intervention” period (Mattila et al. 2013). The most sustained users over the yearlong study decreased weight, body fat, BMI and waist size while improving their aerobic exercise and cholesterol measurements. Most respondents who used the health technologies thought at least some of them had helped them maintain or improve personal wellness, and the majority said they would recommend them to others. Many users found that the most important benefits of the tools included the ability to see their progress and be reminded of the need to engage in healthy activities (Mattila et al. 2013).

“Tremendous” Potential

“The potential to impact health-supporting behaviors is tremendous,” says Stephen Yang, PhD, a professor of exercise science at the State University of New York, Cortland, who has been studying physical activity and technology for years. Yang sees three categories of health technology that are especially beneficial: wearable sensors, social networking and games—all of which can accurately measure, track and share health data. A few examples:

  • fitness trackers: Fitbit Flex, Nike+, Withings Pulse, Misfit Shine
  • specialty sports equipment: Zepp® Golf, Babolat® Play, 94Fifty® Smart Basketball
  • mobile device sensors: Endomondo, RunKeeper, Digifit

“The use of fitness and technol-
ogy within clubs is on the rise as more clubs use traditional online social networking to connect with its members,” says Yang, who notes that clients’ demand for diverse programming that suits their schedules is driving the need for automated video exercise classes like Fitness On DemandTM, personalized video training sessions like Fitblok, and interactive fitness training floors such as Pavigym 3.0.

While excited about the possibilities, Yang suggests caution: “Fitness and technology can work together to improve health, but as in all cases improvements can only come through solid programming, assessment, individualization and feedback.”

How Fit Tech Affects Fitness Pros

Trainers and clients alike have limited time, finite resources and everyday life challenges to deal with. That often translates into clients struggling to find time to meet with trainers, and trainers struggling to deal with clients’ scheduling needs. This is where technology can come to the rescue, allowing trainers to keep clients accountable without needing to be in the same room with them. Online social networks allow group members to motivate and inspire one another.

“Technology is enabling the fitness professional to do more, in less time,” says Michael Piermont, founder of amSTATZ, a Chicago technology startup. Piermont predicts a future rooted in subscription-based health coaching in addition to traditional one-on-one and group training. “Technology makes it easy for professionals to maintain a relationship with their clients in between in-person training sessions.”

Lee Jordan, a former 450-pound middle-aged executive turned ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer, sees great value in using technology with his clients. Through his clients’ smartphones, Jordan provides “virtual coaching” that tracks every time they take a step, scan a barcode or record body weight. He expands on the adage that “knowledge is power,” suggesting that the “application of knowledge through data” is the power that drives results.

“True behavior change doesn’t take place during your typical personal training session,” Jordan says. “By using currently available fitness technology, I can be part of my clients’ daily routine, helping them make healthy choices for a healthier life. This accountability is easy to use and noninvasive, which leads to our desired goal of adherence.”

Jordan has clients who are morbidly obese and reluctant to visit a gym. “I’ve been in their shoes. These are the people who have the greatest needs,” says Jordan. “I use technology to bridge the geographic gap and to decrease clients’ hesitations, but also to solve the [challenges of the] old-fashioned ‘session-based’ business model with a time-efficient, recurring-revenues solution for personal trainers and health coaches.”

Embracing Technology in Your Fitness Business

Developing tracking technology was the first phase of fitness tech. The next phase is the creation of specific wellness-related services that help people alter their habits. Yet for all the potential of technology, there’s a disconnection between device and delivery. Most of these technologies fail to drive long-term, sustained engagement and behavior change for most users.

That gap represents an opportunity for entrepreneurial fitness professionals. More than half of the people who own a fitness device no longer use it, and a third of them stopped using their device within 6 months of acquiring it (Ledger & McCaffrey 2014). Fitness professionals can help ensure people make good on their investments in these technologies.

Accountability is one of the main reasons why clients hire personal trainers and health coaches. Equipment like bands, steps and cardio machines can make people stronger, but it still takes a trainer to be sure clients feel responsible for changing their behavior. That’s why adding a few technology tools to your bag of tricks can really enhance your clients’ progress.

For example, think about one of those Wi-Fi–enabled weight scales. Want to make a real difference with your clients? How about providing one of these scales to your clients as part of your training package? Perhaps part of their training is to weigh themselves each Monday morning and share the result with you automatically, in real time. For clients comfortable with a bigger challenge, perhaps you can up the ante on accountability by having their weight tweeted or broadcast on some form of social media. Does that simple tool, a Wi-Fi–enabled scale, used from the comfort of a client’s bathroom on Monday morning change behavior over the weekend? If the answer is even a small yes, then you’ve done your job in keeping your clients accountable to you and to themselves.

Fitness devices have brought millions of potential clients off the couch, ready for the human touch of a personal trainer. These devices show that being physically active does not mean spending hours in a gym. Simple things during the course of the day, like walking and using a step counter, encourage behavior change that, over time, can generate dramatic changes in a person’s health.

It’s only natural for fitness pros to be nervous about all these changes. But look at it this way: The academic research, the Wall Street investments and consumer demand represent your invitation to become better educated about the power of fitness technology.

Business leader and author H. James Harrington, PhD, best sums up the potential of fitness technology for personal trainers: “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

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