While activity trackers, apps and smart-watches grab most of the attention, a quiet proliferation of sensors that measure timing, balance, coordination and muscle activation stands to bring much more profound change to the fitness marketplace.
Sewn into clothing and built into jewelry, these devices represent a trend that extends far beyond our notions of wearable tech. “Wearables is kind of a misnomer,” observes Bryan K. O’Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council, in Covington, Louisiana. “It really is about sensor technology.” Indeed, many of these sensors are not wearable; they are built into sophisticated systems to track human movement and identify potential for improvement.
Smart apparel and other sensor devices—some of which offer movement analysis—are poised to become the next wave of technology that transforms training as we know it. While the clothing runs the gamut from socks to sports bras, other technologies include freestanding camera/light sensors that capture data for movement assessments, and video/analytic tools that enable extremely precise adjustments. Some products are more suitable for big-budget facilities; many are small, portable and affordable, even for solo personal trainers. Some products are marketed to athletic and rehab professionals; others are pitched directly to consumers.
How Is Movement Analysis Technology a Game Changer?
As of September 2013, 1 in 10 American adults owned a wearable device (Endeavor Partners 2014). Smartwatch ownership is forecast to reach 9% of the U.S. adult population by 2016, and activity tracker ownership will begin to plateau as smartwatch penetration grows (NPD Group 2015). These stats reflect the first iterations of movement analysis technologies that are rapidly evolving into much more powerful tools.
“Everyone talks about corrective movement, but how do we know it works?” asks Peter G. Gorman, DC, who is president of Microgate USA in Mahopac, New York, as well as a movement analysis specialist and inventor of heart rate monitor technologies. “With movement analysis technology . . . we can evaluate, intervene with immediate neuromuscular reeducation and see what changes result—all in real time.”
Microgate’s OptoGait system for runners uses two parallel bars, either on the floor or on a treadmill, connected to a camera and a computer. When a client walks, runs or jumps between the bars, 97 LED lights detect movement duration and positioning with accuracy to one-thousandth of a second. Computer software reads the data and provides balance, timing, coordination, sway and dynamic stability information, including discrepancies between the right leg and the left leg.
MORE EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
Other movement analysis technologies include “smart socks,” “smart fitness apparel” and slow-motion video analytics. Here’s a look at some of the companies and the products they are developing:
- Sensoria® makes “smart socks” with
proprietary textile sensors woven into the fabric as part of a system that monitors foot landing, ground contact time, cadence, distance, pace, speed, time, altitude and calories. The user wears an anklet that collects and transmits data to a mobile app.
The system, designed for distance runners, also includes smart upper-body garments (a sports bra or T-shirt) with built-in heart rate monitoring. The app features a virtual coach that gives runners real-time feedback so they can adjust as they run. “These garments are only the beginning,” declares Davide Vigano, cofounder and CEO of Sensoria in Seattle. “We intend to create an entire platform [of products and services] based on sensor activity with clothing and footwear.”
- Athos anchors its movement analysis system with two pieces of clothing (users can wear one or both) that resemble cycling pants and shirts. Biosignal sensors inside the garments measure muscle activity, heart rate and respiration; a Bluetooth-enabled “core” device analyzes the data, and a mobile app displays the information on the athlete’s smartphone or tablet. Athos uses surface electromyographic, or EMG, technology to measure the firing sequence of muscles activated during movement and to document muscle activation intensity.
- Coach’s Eye® and Siliconcoach Pro8 are two video analytics systems that use slow-motion video capture. These systems let trainers and coaches run instant replays on smartphones, tablets or computers, and use movement-analytic tools, video overlays and an online cloud system to share and enable simultaneous discussion among players, trainers and physical therapists online.
Benefits of Advanced
Most experts agree that these technologies can transform training, but also find that they’re not for everyone and not for use all the time. While experts are unanimous that these devices are likely to grow the fitness market, they agree that such tools cannot replace trainers.
“If you’re training pro athletes or very good amateur athletes, data utilization is widely adopted, and adoption of these new technologies will be high and fast,” O’Rourke notes. “For the mainstream, it will be a little longer in coming. But potential clients are going to start having experiences with information that before was available only to pro athletes, and the likelihood that people will go to trained professionals increases substantially because they see these benefits.”
The technologies include these potential advantages:
- “Seeing” things that the unaided eye
misses. “It’s like being an astronomer, faced with the difference between viewing the sky with the naked eye and seeing it through a high-powered telescope,” suggests Gorman, whose devices test balance, timing and coordination. “The resulting data cannot be ‘seen’; it must be measured.” Patrick Jak, MSc, a personal trainer and coach in San Diego, advocates slow-motion video capture technology: “You’re seeing something from a totally different perspective than what you’d see normally.” Jak recalls one client whose knee pain was thought to be coming from the hip. A video breakdown of the athlete’s movements revealed that a tight left shoulder was causing a shift in body position. “After we released the shoulder, we immediately saw change.”
- Getting real-time feedback data. “It’s not a snapshot of performance but an ongoing analysis—which is significant, as form can change over time,” Vigano says in describing his virtual coach system. “A runner can adjust in real time with the feedback and feel the change immediately.”
- Developing better programs. Mauro Demaso Jr. of Manchester, Massachusetts, who uses Siliconcoach Pro8, has created a company that provides data analytic reports to coaches and trainers. “With video analytics,” he explains, “I can overlay multiple videos comparing the same movements [as they’ve changed in response to training] to allow for program modification and for people to see progress.” Adds Gorman, “You can test your interventions and see whether balance, timing or coordination has improved, is unchanged, or is getting worse—and then adjust. This lets us make more effective and efficient training programs.”
- Validating trainer’s input and making processes transparent. Experts agree that these products can confirm training effectiveness and bolster the trainer’s credibility with a client. “It’s one more layer of validation,” says William “Billy” Greineisen, PhD, owner of Translational Health LLC and director and general manager of Unbreakable Performance in West Hollywood, California. Greineisen uses the Athos suite. “For example, I can display [the data] on the TV screen and show my clients, as they’re doing a squat, how much they’re favoring one leg over the other. So it’s not just me telling them that they’re doing it. They can see it themselves.”
- Motivating clients and setting goals. These tools can help establish small short-term goals that can increase motivation. “For example, the Athos shorts allow little goals of muscle exertion,” Greineisen says. “You think you’re pushing at 50% and you’re really at 40%. [The data] is great for giving you small goals and personal assessment, instead of just focusing on a big, long-term goal like doing your first marathon.”
- Increasing client retention and providing a “value-added” service. “Gathering quantitative and visual data that can show progress can lead to better customer retention rates and potentially faster recoveries, performance gains and results,” Demaso explains. “Trainers can provide these assessments at an additional fee as a ‘value-added’ service and not use it with all clients.” Technology also attracts new clients who are “pro-tech” and data oriented.
- Expanding professional networking opportunities. “For example, if physical therapists know I use [an assessment] technology and I share [my data] with them, they may be more inclined to send some patients to me for training,” Jak reflects.
Technology Is Not a Cure-All
Experts agree that these technologies potentially have drawbacks:
- Experiencing “paralysis by analysis.” Trainers could find themselves focusing more on the data than on the client. “Trainers must learn to use tools, not to let tools use them,” advises Lenny Parracino, a soft-tissue therapist at AIM Sports Medicine in Hermosa Beach, California. “A good assessment is 80% subjective. When you bring in technology, you can lose that. And interaction is more important than the intervention. We always have to remember to come back to the individual, since movement is multifactorial, subjective and individual. We should not get wrapped up in numbers or in thinking it should only be a certain way.”
- Losing flow. Some trainers are concerned that introducing technology can interrupt a training session’s flow. Jak and Greineisen suggest that you first learn how to use a product by trying it on yourself and by practicing on friends and family, before offering it to paying clients. Also, use it sparingly. For example, conduct an assessment and then, depending on the client, set new goals once per month or so.
- Causing data overload. Trainers should not inundate clients with data. “What people want is to have a goal and know what to do to achieve it,” says Stacy Morris Bamberg, PhD, CEO of Veristride, a Salt Lake City company that is creating insoles with sensors. “Professionals and organizations are interested in data, but consumers just want results.” In addition, fitness professionals need to use simple, positive and meaningful language to explain the guidance they’re offering as a result of the data. “Clients do not want to hear about everything that’s wrong or about how out of balance they are,” shares Parracino. “We need to give encouragement.”
Keeping the Personal
in Personal Training
Sensor devices will affect more and more aspects of the daily lives of people working in fitness, health care and other industries. In 2015, of fitness professionals who responded to an American Council on Exercise survey, 72% had clients who were asking for insight and feedback on wearables, but only 51% felt prepared to answer those clients’ questions (Green 2015).
With more sensor technologies, fitness pros will be asked even more questions. Device creators are excited about collaborating with these experts to offer training programs for using the tools. More professionals like Demaso will emerge to provide data analytics, so that fitness pros can benefit from reports and not need to do the analytics themselves.
Power lies in the possibility that these tools can detect movement dysfunctions before those actions result in pain or injury, and that they will optimize training effectiveness. “We can actually grow younger,” suggests Gorman, “and modify modifiable risk factors.” We have tremendous potential to use tools to educate, inspire and empower individuals to enjoy healthier lives, but the most important factor will still remain the very human and personal training relationship.