How do you track your fitness? How do you prompt yourself to stay active? How do you measure your sleep? What is your stress level? These questions and more are being asked every day by people around the world who are interested in their own personal health and fitness. One thing that is becoming more common among this group of people is the use of some type of wearable, specifically fitness wearables. Wearables are small devices that can be worn on, or attached to the body at any spot and provide basic to detailed bio-physiological information or feedback.
Wearables have been rated as the top fitness trend over the past few years (1,2). With more than 100 million wearable units shipped worldwide, they are one of the fastest growing segments in the fitness consumer product industry. Just a few years ago, in 2014, there were about 28 million units shipped globally; by 2020, the number is expected to reach 170 million units, which will equal the global market, in volume, of athletic shoes (3).
WHAT IS A WEARABLE?
When people think of wearables, the image of space-age devices often comes to mind. However, hearing aids and wristwatches are common everyday wearables that we don't necessarily think of as “technology.” Yet, there was a time when even these were unimaginable. Today's wearables can take many different shapes and forms, yet underneath those futuristic covers is just one basic component; an embedded sensor. Because of the small size and the high capacity to process information of these sensors, they can be placed almost anywhere. Some of the typical places you will find sensors with fitness applications include jewelry, clothes, watches, necklaces, and earbuds. Currently, the majority of consumer interest in wearable technology is for fitness applications (4). Still, the versatility of these products has allowed for expansion into a large number of other fields, including devices that can be used to monitor the blood sugar level of a person with diabetes or check an infant's heart rate, skin temperature, and sleep patterns (5). Given the nearly limitless applications of sensors, it seems likely that fitness won't be the only market segment to experience this exponential growth.
In 2018, wearables are easy to come by; a “fitness wearables” search on Amazon turns up more than 10,000 options. Wearables also come in a variety of prices, with low-cost options less than $10, and no shortage of products for more than 10 times that amount, often reaching upwards of $500 or more. Some of the more common applications are listed in the Table.
The wide range of price and device types also brings substantial variation in the accuracy of wearables (6). Consumers and clients often have difficulty determining an appropriate device that will be suitable for their needs. An Internet search for the “best wearable tech” returns hits from popular web sites or blogs, often providing nothing more than the opinion of a single individual. However, relying on the scientific literature to determine the value and usefulness of wearables is not necessarily better. In fact, one of the main issues consumers face in learning about a product is that it takes time from when a product is released for public use to when reputable research can validate the product's claims. Therefore, the early adopters may or may not like what they have purchased. In some cases, independent researchers are unable to complete testing and publish results before a device becomes obsolete (7).
So what should a savvy consumer or diligent trainer do when looking for the latest advantages in the wearables market? First, consider price; what is a realistic amount you are willing to spend so that even if you aren't thrilled, you still feel like you receive some value for your money? Second, know what features you are likely to use the most, and which are simply frivolous. Most activity trackers focus on counting steps and collecting heart rate but don't offer much beyond that other than the time and date. This simplicity, plus a moderate cost for basic information, is probably the biggest part of their popularity. In fact, for achieving fitness goals and staying motivated, these features might very well be all that are needed.
Smart watches, also quite common, are higher priced and offer many more features, including the ability to check or send emails and texts, answer your phone, and serve as your GPS. Top of the line smart watches can do much more; however, they also cost much more. If these features are important, then the consumer might consider the added expense as a good value. Beyond smart watches and fitness trackers, other items currently available don't yet have the value for fitness but certainly can make you the talk of your local fitness group.
THE FUTURE OF WEARABLES
With the increasing prevalence of wearable technology, a compelling question is “What is the future for wearables?” As the applications for wearable technology are rapidly increasing, so too are the technologies being developed to match these applications. Examples of not-too-far-off concepts are virtual assistant contact lenses and clothing that monitors and displays mood. Still, the largest impacts expected in the field of wearable technology do not necessarily lie in its applications but rather in its usability, purpose, and integration (8). Not only will wearables become less visible through seamless integration with clothes, they also have the potential to expand to invasive monitoring through nanotechnology and implants. The futuristic Tech-Tats (Chaotic Moon, Austin, Texas) are tattoos made of electro-conductive ink that can connect to advanced sensors pressed against the skin of the wearer. This type of “biowearable” can be used for monitoring heart rate and vital signs, fitness tracking, the transmission of critical health information on a weekly or monthly basis, or even a health emergency.
Such advancements will allow for the use not necessarily of single wearables, but entire systems of wearables for a single person. These systems of wearables can be personalized for the needs of every individual, which adds significant consumer appeal and individual efficacy. In addition, the sheer magnitude of data collected could allow for integration with smart home technology. In this way, your home could monitor your current physiological state so as to cultivate an ideal environment for you. Of course, such large-scale integration would require a lot of power. That is why there are currently methods being developed for wearables to be self-powered using solar, kinetic, or thermal energy (9,10).
TAKEAWAYS AND APPLICATION
Wearable technology opens up exciting possibilities for the way that personal trainers link to their clients. Because of increased connectivity and data monitoring, trainers are no longer limited to working with clients at a single geographic location. This new “playing field” also creates numerous financial options for personal trainers to work outside of historic confines and expands the number of individuals that can be coached at any one time, be that in the same town or around the globe. As a client base grows by using wearable technology, fitness professionals can monitor client progress (in real time if desired) and provide encouragement or individualized feedback. Finally, wearables allow the trainer to set up expanded connections/competitions between clients (developing a social fitness network) to increase motivation and/or accountability that can be directed toward helping each individual be successful in attaining their fitness goal.
Fitness wearables are an emerging market that shows no sign of slowing down in its popularity. There also are no signs of slowing down in the potential applications of wearables, not just for fitness, but across all aspects of health and beyond. Both trainers and clients have a wide variety of wearables to choose from, in all price ranges, and should be thoughtful about their individual needs for this technology. Also, the trainer can use wearables to bring more to what they are doing: expanding services, reaching a clientele far beyond the usual geography, and providing individualized training programs better than ever before. Wearable technology is no doubt a wave of the future, and one that you can begin using today.
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