E-health: Every bit of exercise counts

by peter.griffin / 28 February, 2013
Activity recorders that connect to smartphones are the latest accessory of the health-conscious.
E-health - Jawbone Up
Jawbone Up

It looked like the Casio digital watch I had as a kid – with a couple of differences. It was lime green, not black, and it didn’t have a screen.

The rubbery wristband I tried on for size at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year is the newest device in a wave of wearable gadgets designed to improve your health and well-being.

The Fitbit Flex and rivals like the Nike+ FuelBand, Withings Tracker and Jawbone Up use an accelerometer of the sort built into your smartphone to track every step you take, every minute and hour slept.

From that information they can work out how many calories you have burnt and whether your sleep is broken and light or deep and uninterrupted. Via a Bluetooth wireless connection, they transmit the data to your smartphone or computer so you can track your activity and sleeping patterns over time.

If you’ve ever been part of one of those awkward office competitions in which your boss issues pedometers to everyone and the employee who takes the most steps in a month wins a prize, you know what the Fitbit movement is all about.

Only now, the pedometer is a fashion accessory, a statement that you take your health seriously. I’ve spotted these colourful bands on the wrists of hikers in New Hampshire and office workers scurrying to lunch in lower Manhattan.

Health-conscious Kiwis have already taken to the Nike+ fitness tracker, some of them posting their statistics on Facebook for all to see. The digital health and self-monitoring market is booming.

Withings Tracker
Withings Tracker

The e-health pavilion I stumbled upon at CES was massive. And typically priced at US$99-149, health trackers represent a relatively modest feel-good investment, even if a basic pedometer without Bluetooth will set you back just $20.

Accompanying the hardware is an array of smartphone apps. Paired with each device, the apps store pedometer readings and let you set targets for steps walked.

Some of the more creative apps let you share data with friends and compete for digital tokens. Others will analyse your activity and give you pep talks. If you input the calorie count of foods you are eating, you can have the app track your intake, as a dieter on a WeightWatchers programme does.

Does all of this make a difference? According to research, yes. People who track their physical activity and calorie intake have been shown in numerous studies to be more likely to lose weight than those who don’t.

Tracking steps taken seems to be the most effective measure for those trying to get more active. The cleverest part of the digital health movement is the way it is using smartphones, devices many people have, to make all that self-monitoring effortless.

But for all the data these gadgets provide, they are still essentially dumb when it comes to the state of your health. Although some can measure your heart rate, temperature and blood pressure and make suggestions based on activity trends, they can’t prescribe a tailored exercise and diet regime, or determine accurately whether your health is actually improving.

E-health - Fitbit Flex
Fitbit Flex

The next wave of e-health gadgets may do that, and serious investment is going into developing them. Next month, Nike starts an accelerator programme for tech start-ups working in the digital health market to encourage the development of more sophisticated gadgets for quantifying and monitoring health in real time.

With Apple rumoured to have an iWatch in the pipeline and Google’s augmented reality glasses already in the hands of software developers, more innovation can be expected.

Which is good, because after two months on a super-sized American diet, I may well need one of these gadgets to help get back in shape when I head home.
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