It’s no secret that I’m a (fickle) fan of fitness trackers. But after a few years of devotion, the novelty has worn off and I find myself afflicted with data malaise. While I like knowing my daily “stats,” lately I find myself craving deeper, more actionable insights … and paying less and less attention to the data that I do have.
I’m not alone in this. According to a study conducted by strategy firm Endeavor Partners, more than a third of people who use fitness trackers abandon them within a few months.
If tech and medical expertise, engineering skills, available capital and privacy were no barrier, here’s the fitness and health data fantasy I would love to see become reality:
(Much) Deeper Insights, Coupled with Science-Backed Advice
What’s the impact on my health over time if I take 15,000 or 25,000 step in a given day? What do my heart rate measurements over time indicate? What’s the ideal heart rate for me to target during exercise? Yes, I know that I have a weird tendency to wake up at 3am for no reason … but what might that mean and what can I do about it?
In my fantasy, not only does my tracker measure my stats but also analyzes the data behind the scenes and asks for inputs/feedback from me at key opportunities. It would then present me with personalized, easy to understand, meaningful insights, coupled with information-overload busting, science-backed suggestions for what to do with it.
I know that many wearable makers provide lots of charts, graphs and links to content, but in my daydream, I want these insights and suggestions in real-time, integrated directly into the experience, along with personalized “coaching” based on my overall health and fitness picture (my stats, my goals, etc.).
More Automated and Accurate Detection and Tracking
There’s a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to fitness tracker accuracy, and I’m not immune. Case in point: when I went ski-touring with my friend Kate last weekend, she was wearing a Fitbit and I was wearing an Apple Watch. We toured the exact same route, however her device indicated several miles less and several hundred more calories burned than mine. Was this difference because of variations in our personal stats like height, weight, stride length, etc. or because one or both devices were just plain wrong?
In my fantasy, my wearable automatically detects the activity I’m doing and accurately measures it according to my personal stats (height, weight, fitness level) and the stats most relevant to that activity. For example, if I’m running, I will be most interested in distance and pace. If I’m ski touring, I want to know distance and vertical. And my fantasy wearable would accurately calculate calories burned and other fitness stats according to these different activities. The heart rate measurement would be accurate and analyzed alongside the other activity-specific stats to provide a picture of how my body responded during the workout.
Finally, my food intake would be automatically logged and analyzed in concert with my other health and fitness data. As anyone who has attempted to consistently keep a food diary — whether manually or via an app — knows, it’s incredibly tedious and error-prone. Nutrition is a hugely important part of health and fitness … and not just from a weight-management point of view. Imagine being able to examine the impact your diet may be having on your half-marathon training, for example.
Health, Not Just Fitness, Tracking
At my last job, I submitted to a biometric screening of a long list of health indicators, like weight, BMI, blood pressure, glucose level, good/bad cholesterol, and a lot more. Because I reached a certain threshold of overall health, I got a nice discount on my health insurance premium. Saving $ was great but even better was the detailed report I got on my results, which I shared with my doctor.
In my fantasy, a wearable (or ingestible) would exist that continuously monitored the most important basic health indicators. I would get notifications when levels varied outside of normal thresholds for me, along with the option to share the information with my doctor. These measurements would be tied to my other stats and analyzed, so I could see how my activity and diet impacts my health and wellbeing. Early detection for unsafe stress levels, high blood pressure, cholesterol or glucose levels could help me avoid negative health impacts down the road.
I’d be more than happy to swallow a microchip for this!
There’s a lot of bad advice out there, and as awesome as the Internet is, Google is not a good substitute for personalized advice from a trained expert. Nor are health and fitness stats from a wearable alone (not even one that conforms to my fantasy standards).
So in my fantasy, my health and fitness stats are shared — with my permission — with my primary care physician, fitness trainer and nutritionist (yes, in my fantasy, having affordable access to a complete health team is also a reality). When I meet with those experts, my health and fitness data is part of the conversation. Instead of seeing my stats at one point in time when I go for an annual physical or monthly training session, they can see my health and fitness picture over time, revealing important insights about my lifestyle and habits.
Aaaaand …. then I woke up.
While the industry has come really far in the past five or so years, we’re still a long way off from my fantasy.
I’m not saying that any of this is or would be easy. Developing ways to track new health stats is difficult, as digital health startup Quanttus discovered after recently failing to engineer a way to measure blood pressure with a wristband. Health data privacy laws like HIPAA (as well as privacy-protective consumers) present a challenge to clinical integration. Not to mention the enormously high costs of researching, developing and manufacturing new technologies.
Furthermore, I don’t want to diminish the positive impact of existing technology. Let’s face it, for a big chunk of the American population that is largely sedentary, today’s “basic” fitness trackers are a fantastic way to kick-start and maintain healthier habits. And the social component of certain fitness devices and apps are fun and motivating for a lot of people. Although I’m not sedentary by a long shot, if I have a day where I’m not moving enough, my low step certainly provides a push to get off my butt and at least go take Enzo for a long walk! This is better than nothing.
And there are exciting signs that even bigger progress is afoot.
There are companies developing “smart” pills with a microchip that will help ensure patients take crucial medication regularly and on-time. Companies like Rally Health and Omada Health are working to integrate fitness data, health content and behavioral psychology into healthcare. And I can imagine that wearable maker R&D departments are in overdrive behind the scenes working to figure out the next step in making fitness data more valuable.
I’m excited to see where it all heads, but for now, I’ll keep daydreaming.