A technological fitness revolution is fundamentally changing what we wear, how we work out and our entire approach to wellness, as Kieran Alger reports
For years, pedometers, treadmills with TV screens and massive strap-on GPS units were the cutting edge of fitness technology – in 2014 that’s all changing.
From sleep-tracking apps and fitness bands, to socks that improve your running and smart garments to monitor your breathing, smaller, more capable sensors, paired with smartphone connectivity, have put previously elite-level tech in reach of the average gym-goer.
It’s a white-hot market in every sense. Analysts at Canalys predict that 17 million wearable fitness bands will be sold in 2014, rising to 45 million by 2017, while figures from ABI Research forecast 99 million fitness wearables will be shipped annually by 2019.
In the last month alone, the fitness-focused Samsung Gear S and new Apple Watch have been launched, adding to products from sports brands including adidas and Nike.
Meanwhile newcomers, such as Wahoo, Fitbit and Withings, are fighting for market share with incumbents Polar, Garmin and others. Even companies such as Epson are launching tracking bands and running watches.
This fierce competition is good for the industry, according to Kevin Abt, European sales and marketing director at Wahoo.
“Apple’s arrival means you now have one of the most influential companies in the world putting a firm stake in the ground saying you should care about fitness,” he says.
It’s not just technology for the sake of it either, as being enabled to track and share fitness stats is proven to keep people committed longer.
“Fitness technology gives you real control over your habits – it makes you accountable,” says Julie Sylvester, producer of the Sports and Fitness Tech Summit at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
“It’s also fun. If someone is held accountable through a device, app or their social community, then they’re much more likely to stick to a fitness regimen,” she says.
Technogym, a major supplier of gym equipment, is harnessing its new internet-connected machines to add a new, socially competitive edge to workouts.
“We’ve used our MyWellness activity tracker, MyWellness Cloud and our internet-connected fitness equipment to create a global challenge,” says Enrico Manaresi, international public relations and media relations manager at Technogym.
“Our Let’s Move for a Better World challenge tracks gym-goers and rewards the fitness centre whose members move the most. In each country the winner gets to donate a Technogym gym to a local school,” he says.
Friendly competition carries over into the workplace too. Employers are using emerging platforms to change the way they keep their staff healthy and productive.
“Businesses understand that if employees are fit, healthy and engaged they will perform,” says Glenn Riseley, founder of GCC, whose corporate wellness initiatives boast more than 300,000 participants in 180 countries.
“While gamification might not sound like something that’s appropriate for a sophisticated employee, it absolutely is. It draws people into the activity and it distracts them from the one thing they thought was going to be inconvenient and difficult – moving,” he says.
Fitness technology gives you real control over your habits – it makes you accountable
It’s working too. Once someone gets past the first 60 to 90 days of the GCC step-counting programme, their average daily steps rocket from 3,000 to 13,000.
It’s not just consumers who will benefit from always-on monitoring, the elite sports world has plenty to gain too.
“You’ll be able to build masses of information over the course of a career,” says Andy Baker, chief executive of Smartlife. “Once you’ve got data for the careers of some of the best footballers in the world, it’ll become easier to identify the traits you want in kids to make a good footballer. Then you take a lot of opinion out of football – it’ll be about raw facts.”
Access to this previously invisible data is already having an impact on sport at the very highest level. StatSports Viper is a cutting-edge sports tracking system that combines an accelerometer, GPS unit and a heart-rate chest strap with monitoring software to create a detailed picture of a player’s performance.
It’s this technology which has won them an impressive list of clients with 14 Premier League football teams, Barcelona and Juventus, as well as the England team.
“The ability to look precisely and objectively at what a player has been doing in training is a seismic shift,” says Jim McEneany, StatSports head of marketing. “At the recent World Cup, the England team would have had data from all the clubs who use StatSports, including Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City. From that they could see who has been doing more training, who needs more training or who maybe needs a rest.”
But no matter how far technology advances, the human touch will always be important, according to Giuseppe Minetti, founder of PaleoGym.co.uk, a company which combines sports science and technology with personalised functional fitness and nutrition.
“Technology is a great tool for monitoring activity, but what technology can never do is prescribe correct exercise on a daily basis for an individual, while taking into consideration the multitude of environmental, physical, mental and emotional situations,” he says. “An experienced personal trainer can also encourage, motivate and, most importantly, listen. Technology is not good at listening.”