Fitbits. Garmins. Bluetooth heart rate monitors. Chances are, if you have more than a passing interest in sport and health, you own some kind of smartphone-enabled wearable fitness technology.
In the UK alone, more than a third of British people now use fitness or health and wellness technology.
The vast majority of those using the technology say that it’s helped them improve their health and wellbeing. Nearly one in 10 Brits surveyed by TCS said the use of fitness tech had had the single most positive impact on their health over the last 12 months.
For most this technology is highly visible: a wristband or watch or – in the case of cyclists – a bike computer. It is also typically limited to measuring metrics such as heart rate, time, speed and calories burned.
Soon, though, wearable fitness technology will be far less visible and capable of providing much more information about how healthy we are.
Recently, the big trend for wearable fitness tech has been its integration into other technology or sports equipment.
For example, many smart watches now come equipped with heart rate monitors and GPS trackers, meaning runners no longer need to wear a separate wristband.
The natural evolution of this wearable tech is for it to become incorporated into sport clothes and sport equipment, especially as battery technology improves.
Clothing brand Under Armour last year launched a range of smart running shoes featuring a tiny chip embedded in the sole, which wakes up every time the shoe moves. Once it detects movement faster than 11 minutes per mile, it starts tracking the activity using its accelerometer. It can even give you feedback on your stride dynamics. The shoes are washable and never need charging because the battery life is longer than the designed shoe life.
Another “hidden” piece of wearable technology already on the market is the smart sports bra by OMsignal. Sensors built into the fabric of the “OMbra” measure not only heart rate but breathing rhythm too, and can calculate an athlete’s anaerobic threshold. It syncs with a smartphone app, and an additional smart tag can be clipped onto the bra to record speed and distance of activities.
Tell me more
While smart running shoes and smart sports bras make wearable fitness technology less visible, the data they generate is broadly similar to the information relayed by traditional fitness wristbands.
However, according to TCS’ survey ahead of the 2017 London Marathon, many would like fitness technology to tell them more than the basic metrics of heart rate, distance, speed and calories burned.
Just under a quarter of those aged 16-24 and 45-54 said they would most like to use a sensor that monitors their all-round health and fitness if they could.
Given that humans are approximately two-thirds water, the ability to measure hydration would seem a good place to start for measuring all-round health and fitness.
Unfortunately, hydration is notoriously difficult to measure outside of a lab.
But this hasn’t stopped a number of wearable technology start-ups developing hydration-measuring devices.
San Francisco-based Graphwear, for example, is developing a graphene-based smart sweatpatch that promises “real time hydration monitoring”.
Meanwhile LVL’s fitness wristband offers hydration monitoring alongside the more traditional metrics such as heart rate and activity tracking. It uses infrared light to measure water levels in your blood.
The ability to monitor blood sugar levels is another overall health indicator that tech firms want to integrate into wearables. Much of the work currently being carried out in this area, such as the development of contact lens capable of measuring blood sugar levels, is being done with a view to helping diabetes sufferers.
Virtual Reality is one of the technologies being developed for fitness
However, given that low blood sugar levels lower not only physical but also mental performance, and the converse may be indicative of overeating, it is highly likely that such technology will sooner or later find its way into mass market wearables.
Wearables that are harder to spot and measure a greater number of metrics will undoubtedly prove a hit with those who already fit and active.
But what about encouraging more people to exercise more regularly?
Nearly a third of those surveyed by TCS said that the fitness technology they currently used had encouraged them to focus on becoming more healthy and active.
For those still unconvinced, the next step could be the gamification of fitness. The potential for gaming to encourage people to be more physically active was demonstrated by the Pokémon Go phenomenon. The smartphone game is based on an augmented reality experience, requiring gamers to go outside and catch Pokémon’s in real locations. It was described by some as a fitness craze.
Over a fifth of the 25-34 year-olds surveyed by TCS said they would use a virtual reality headset to simulate different locations and courses if they could.
While not a wearable, the Icaros VR exercise machine has proven a hit with gym goers. This allows a core workout exercise while those on the machine experience either a flying or underwater diving simulation.
The next step could be for these experiences to become augmented into wearables such as glasses, for example allowing the runner to see their virtual pacemaker jogging ahead of them.
Fans of health tech have much to look forward to. The huge range of products being developed shows the technology is here to stay and the products now available are just the beginning.