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Tracking Health: How much can exercise tracking devices optimize our workouts?

Home / Super Human
By Allison Hunt
@Quantumrun
Jun 28, 2016,  7:50 PM

Eat well and exercise. We’ve all heard these wise words, and they sound so simple. But how simple is it really? We all know how to read labels on our food and drinks.  So we can then add up some numbers to determine how many calories we’ve consumed in a day.

For as long as I can remember, someone could go to the gym and hop on a treadmill, bike, or elliptical, and enter their weight. Then the machine would attempt to keep track of how many calories someone burned. Which is based on how far he or she runs or walks.

Through our raw brainpower, and some exercise machinery, we have been able to estimate how many calories we consumed and burned in a day. Now tools such as the Apple Watch and the Fitbit track your heartbeat, steps, and activity throughout the day—not just during the time you devote to being on the treadmill—helping us get a better picture of our overall fitness on a day to day basis.

Fitness trackers may sound like powerful tools to help someone get into shape, but there are some major flaws with the current tools used. The most surprising failure of the fitness trackers is that they are much better step estimators than calorie estimators. Since most people focus mainly on calories consumed and burned when trying to lose or gain weight, inconsistencies in calorie counting has the potential to completely derail someone’s diet.

Dan Heil, an exercise physiology professor at Montana State University, explained for Wired in the article “Why Fitness Tracker Calorie Counts are all Over the Map”, “Everyone assumes when a device gives a calorie count that it’s accurate, and therein lies the danger… there’s a huge margin of error and the true calorie burn [for a reading of 1,000 calories] lies somewhere between 600 and 1,500 calories.”

Heil also cites two reasons that the algorithms used by fitness trackers are unsettlingly inaccurate. This being that the devices don’t take into account what’s happening inside your body, only your movement. They also have trouble determining your exact movements and actions. In fact, to get a reliable figure for calories burned, a calorimeter device is necessary.

Calorimeters measure oxygen consumption and, according to Heil, indirect calorimeters are the optimal way to measure calories burned.  Since breathing has a direct relation to the amount of energy used.

So why don’t people trade in their iWatches for calorimeters? According to the Wired article, the cost of calorimeter devices ranges from $30,000 to $50,000. These devices are also mainly tools used in a lab setting, since not many people have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on fitness monitoring. Although efforts are being made to improve fitness trackers in the future.

One area of innovation is “smart” workout clothes. Lauren Goode, writer for Re/code, recently tried out some Athos “smart” workout pants. The pants contained tiny electromyography and heart rate sensors that were connected wirelessly to an iPhone app. Also, on the exterior of the pants one finds “the core”. This is a device snapped to the side of the pants that contains a Bluetooth chip, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer (the same tools found in many current wristband fitness trackers).

What makes the Athos pants Lauren wore special is their ability to measure muscle effort, which is shown through a heat map on the iPhone app.  Lauren, however, points out, “There is, of course, the practical issue of not being able to actually look at your smartphone while you’re doing squats and lunges and many other exercises.” The app does come equipped with a playback feature though, so you can reflect on how hard you were working after your workout and address any issues the next time you hit the gym. Lauren also pointed out that the pants weren’t as comfortable as normal workout pants, likely because of the extra gadgets that they came with.

Athos is not the only company exploring smart workout clothes. There is also Montreal-based Omsignal and Seattle-based Sensoria. These companies offer their own variations and advances for tracking exercise through yoga pants, socks, and compression shirts.

Smart clothes that talk to your doctor

These smart clothes could even go beyond solely exercise purposes. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich tells Re/code that shirts that monitor health data could be connected to medical professionals. As well as become a medical diagnostic tool that allows for doctors to gain insight without a patient even leaving his or her home.

Though the Athos pants and other smart clothes are intriguing. They still require something on the exterior like “the core” that must be removed before washing, and that must be charged before using.

So, even though technically no Fitbit-esque instruments are required. These smart clothes are still not, well, all that smart all on their own. Also, though much more accessible than calorimeter devices, this smart gear costs several hundreds of dollars and is now mainly geared towards athletes. Still it wouldn’t be surprising if in a few years we can buy socks that told us how good our running form was at our local sporting goods store—we just aren’t there quite yet.

In the more distant future, our very own DNA could perhaps allow us to track and plan our exercise more efficiently. SI reporter Tom Taylors says, "In terms of where we can go in 50 years time when we look at DNA analysis, the sky has to be the limit.” DNA analysis has serious implications for the future of fitness, Taylor explains, "It will be standard not just for the athlete, but for every one of us to have knowledge of what our DNA is, know what our injury susceptibility is, know what our illness susceptibility is." DNA analysis could therefore help us get the data we need to tailor our workouts to get maximum benefit with minimum risk.

Running two miles in twenty minutes with a fitness tracker is no different for your body than running two miles in twenty minutes without a fitness tracker. No one needs a tracking and data-collecting device to exercise. They don’t give you a sudden burst of energy and super strength (people are working on pills that can do that). People like to have control though. They like to see their workout in a measurable way—it can help motivate us.

Impact (ONLY use the 'Paste From Word' button to safely copy and paste text from a Word doc) 

This is where we are now, we can determine very roughly how effective our workouts are in terms of calorie burn, how active we’ve been in a day, and our heart rate. But where we are going could allow us to figure out whether running two miles is the best exercise for our particular bodies in the first place. Or if perhaps swimming or biking would be more effective workouts for us.

In the not so far future, it is likely that rather than just measuring heart rate to determine exertion, we’ll be able to measure specific muscles and how hard they are working by just putting on a pair of pants.

The future of exercise points to increased efficiency, specificity, cautiousness, and even the fittest human population ever. But only if we all dare to get off our couches once in a while and, of course, eat well and exercise.

Public Release Year: 
2017 to 2020
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