If you’re of a certain age you’d remember the 1970s. That’s when the jogging craze really took off. All you needed was a T-shirt, shorts and pair of rubber-soled shoes and you were on your way to marathon stardom – or a gentle plod around the block.
By the 80s we were in the aerobics era. Jane Fonda ruled the VCR with her series of videos and Olivia Newton John told us to get physical. And while gyms and exercise studios reaped the benefits, the activities we performed at those times didn’t actually look that different from the sports played in ancient Greece 2500 years ago when Pheidippides ran back and forth between Marathon and Athens before dropping dead.
During the 80s and 90s, sports science took some massive leaps and bounds. As drug testing became stricter and tolerance for performance enhancing drugs became lower, sports science needed to look for new ways to extract maximum performance from athletes.
Over the last couple of years, something has changed significantly. All those improvements made by sports scientists have become more accessible to all of us through technology. It’s a bit like the car industry. When the first sat-nav devices were available in cars they were an option costing several thousand dollars. Today, we all carry an up-to-date set of maps in our pockets.
Almost always, great scientific and technical leaps become commoditised. And the same is happening in fitness and health. And much of this has been driven by several technologies coming together at just the right time.
Bluetooth LE allows devices to transmit data to our iPhones and iPads with little impact to battery life. That data is being collected by cheap sensors that can use light to measure blood flow under the skin and the composition of our perspiration that is delivered to apps connected to cloud services that give access to all sorts of analytical tools that, until recently, were out of the reach of most of us.
For example, I recently went into a large retailer and purchased a blood pressure cuff for $19 – it was on sale, reduced from $39. Within minutes of opening the box I was able to measure blood pressure, save the data and share it.
It wasn’t long ago that you needed a professional to do this sort of thing. And there are lots of other devices that measure almost anything you can think of.
We’re in an ecosystem war
The biggest challenge for anyone interested in health and fitness tech today is which ecosystem do you pick. Between Apple, Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, Under Armour and many others, it’s hard to know which platform is best.
This is our biggest gripe about the entire health and fitness tech world. Interoperability – which is what will delver the most value to users – is still some distance away. A great example of this is the fracas between Apple and Fitbit.
There was a time when Apple stocked Fitbit’s trackers online and in its retail stores. However, when Fitbit went public saying it wasn’t planning to integrate with Apple’s HealthKit because its customers weren’t asking for the integration, Apple took Fitbit’s products off the shelf.
Similarly, if you’re a runner and like Nike’s sport watch and its running app, integration with other exercise ecosystems like Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal is difficult.
In other words, when you’re looking for your health and fitness tech, you’re not just buying hardware – you’re investing in an ecosystem.
A look in Apple’s world
Over the last couple of years, Apple has been making a big push into the health and activity market. And, while the Apple Watch is the centrepiece of that endeavour, the real power is around HealthKit and the ecosystem of data sources Apple is trying to create.
On the iPhone, the Health app acts as a central receiving point from other apps that access the data collected by various apps and devices. For example, on my iPhone, several apps deliver data, and my Apple Watch and the sensors in the iPhone can be used to collect other information.
All of this is then collated and presented in various graphs and charts.
However, Apple has seen fit to fracture this experience. With the arrival of the Apple Watch came the Activity app. And while it displays activity data in a different way with circular progress, it’s tough to get a coherent picture of activity, a reasonably detailed view of diet with information about macros (carbohydrate, protein and fat consumption) and get a longitudinal view of exercise performance.
Part of the challenge in using Apple’s ecosystem is that it relies on other parties modifying their apps and making data available via the publicly available HealthKit APIs. But because the market is still evolving, many players are trying to lock consumers into their apps and hardware.
It’s a bit like how content from Google’s Play Store and Apple’s iTunes Store is locked to specific apps or devices.
Many emerging sports are able to increase interest for both spectators and athletes by the use of social media and online platforms for advertising and training. One sport that has grabbed the bull by both horns is roller derby. Lisa ‘Basement Staxx’ Banks competes in a league in Adelaide. The name of the league – the Murder City Roller Girls.
“Roller derby is one of the fastest growing sports for women worldwide, and there are mixed gender, men’s and junior leagues popping up, too,” says Banks.
Games, or bouts, are played in two halves on a flat track. Each half of the game is made up of several two-minute jams – competitions where five team members from each team line up on the track. One member of each team wears a star on their helmet – they are the jammers and the only players who can score points. The other four players are blockers – their job is to legally stop the opposition jammer from scoring points.
The game has rules, but is quite physical. Blockers can be sent to the sin bin for 30 seconds for infractions.
As it’s an emerging sport, Banks says online forums are an important way for skaters to connect and learn more about the sport.
“We generally use Facebook groups, pages and online forums,” she says.
“In terms of learning about gameplay strategy, and getting tips from the best athletes, you can watch WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) bout footage or there’s a great Tumblr blog called ‘You Should Be Watching More Roller Derby Footage’. The WFTDA is the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby.”
“I use RollerDerbyAthletics.com. It’s a website run by Booty Quake who’s a coach, athlete and skater from Terminal City Rollergirls and has heaps of videos, workouts, meal plans and more to help build strength and increase agility. More importantly, it’s derby specific, which means that all exercises on there are relevant to the sport.”
As for the nickname?
“Everyone in roller derby has their own nickname that they use on the track,” she says. “I think the idea behind this came from having an alter ego as your derby persona or creating a clever pun or play on words with your name. My derby name is Basement Staxx – Staxx for short. I love dance music and with all the falls that happen in derby, thought it was a clever play on words that reflected me and my personality.”
Some of the others
Apple, of course, is not the only game in town. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had the chance to use several other ecosystems and tried dozens of apps, trackers and other accessories.
Here’s what we’ve learned.
While it’s the hardware that forces us to part with our hard earned in the store, it’s the software and data where we really interact. For example, we used a couple of different Jawbone trackers over a long period. Ultimately, we gave up on Jawbone because of several hardware issues. But what we really missed was its app. Despite having the same sorts of sensors and communications as other similar devices, its app made it really easy to track sleep and activity.
So, we didn’t miss the hardware when we moved on – it was the app we really missed.
Since then, we’ve tried out a bunch of different trackers, looking closely at the ecosystem. What we’ve found is the market is still too fractured to get a complete picture of everything around your health and well-being.
The closest we’ve come has been MyFitnessPal. Of all the apps we’ve looked at, it has the most complete and user-friendly food database. If you’re planning to track calories (or kilojoules – the nutritional world seems stuck on this imperial measure for some reason) and macros, it makes the task easy.
In addition, it integrates with a huge number of other fitness trackers and services. So, if you use Strava for tracking your bike rides, the data from Strava automatically syncs with MyFitnessPal. And tracking from other apps and devices such as Fitbit is also integrated.
Fitbit is probably Apple’s biggest challenger in this space. It has a number of trackers to suit most budgets, as well as its Aria Scales and its app reflects a lot of refinement through years of experience.
What tech is best?
Choosing the right technology can be really helpful in improving your health and well-being. However, the technology needs to complement your activity, making it easier, rather than getting in the way and making it more difficult.
Great tech is not a free ride to improved health and fitness. Even Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, with all the best resources the USSR had to offer couldn’t beat Rock Balboa, who trained with rocks in the snow!
The problem is when you start out you may have lots of enthusiasm, so you do a bunch of research and aim to get the best possible technology for your budget. The trouble is, it may deliver more data than you can reasonably use or be so complex it becomes a hindrance and not a help.
Our advice is to start simply and slowly add or replace gear that no longer suits you.
The good news is the cost of entry to using technology to support your health and fitness regime is free – all you need is your iPhone. Then you can build on that.
Let’s say you have a goal to be able to improve your aerobic endurance, lose some weight and tone up a little. There’s a lot of advice out there and lots of complicated diets and systems to choose from. But they all come down to one simple truth – your metabolism needs a certain amount of fuel to keep itself operating.
If you supply too much fuel, your body stores it for a time when you under supply it. If you don’t provide it with enough of the right fuel, then you’ll feel weak and lethargic and put weight on.
That’s a simplification of all the complex, metabolic processes going on in your body, but it’s enough for a starting point.
The three apps we’d suggest starting with are MyFitnessPal, one of the many Couch to 5k (C25K) apps and a 7-minute workout app. All are free from the App Store. It doesn’t really matter which one of the C25K and 7-minute workout apps you choose, as there’s not a huge amount of difference between them. However, we suggest starting with MyFitnessPal and finding apps that integrate with it.
MyFitnessPal has a very comprehensive food database for easily tracking your calorie intake. It works with many exercise apps and automatically logs your calorie use, so you can easily track your ins and outs. It also works with apps for sleep tracking, weight management and others.
The toughest part of any health and well-being program is ingraining it as a habit and a normal part of your day. That’s why programs like C25K work well, as they take the planning and scheduling out of your hands. Pull some exercise clothes on, fire up the app and you’re away.
But there may come a time when you want to know more and track things more closely.
At that point, you may want to move from using apps on your phone to other devices such as heart rate monitors, exercise tech such as cycling computers, watches and other wearables.
If you’re into cycling, then the Strava app is a great tool and, if you spring for the premium package (US$7.99 per month or US$74.99 per year), then you can use the app with a wide variety of sensors, such as cadence monitors and heart rate straps.
My only suggestion is investing in a decent bike mount like the LIFEACTÍV Bike + Bar Mount from LifeProof.
For runners, there are dozens of watches to choose from. We’ve been running with the Fitbit Surge recently. It has an integrated GPS and heart rate monitor, so there’s no need to wear a chest strap. However, I’ve spoken with some trainers, who note chest straps are more responsive and better able to track rapid changes in heart rate during interval training than wrist-based pulse trackers.
If you’re looking at wearables, don’t get too carried away with the hardware. The real benefits come from the software and the ability to look at the data to make adjustments to your exercise and nutrition.
When it comes to tech for serious athletes, you can spend as much money as you like. There are smart garments, like the OMSignal Biometric smart shirt reviewed in Macworld Australia in May 2015 and others like the Athos and Hexoskin ranges. There are lots of other wearables and sensors available for tennis, golf, swimming and almost any other sport you can think of.
With this sort of technology, it’s possible to make significant improvements on very technical parts of your sports performance. For example, there are devices that can be placed on a golf club or tennis racquet that provide data about your swing, so you can refine your action.
If you’re particularly competitive this can make a difference to your performance.
The future of exercise
We recently visited Versus – an exercise studio in the bayside Melbourne suburb of Hampton East. Versus is a gamified gaming studio. By using sensors such as cameras and pressure-sensitive mats, two people can exercise in competition with each other.
It doesn’t matter if one person is taller, faster or stronger than the other, as the system allows for individual differences and adjusts the exercise load on each person so they are evenly matched.
The system, developed by Versus founder Brad Bond with RMIT University, uses off the shelf cameras, sensors and screens. The magic is in the software that links all these together. For example, the equipment at a squat station is able to monitor the position of your back and your movement. If your form isn’t quite right, the speakers and display give instructions on how to adjust so you perform the exercise correctly.
A few weeks ago, Virgin Active opened its newest exercise studio in Melbourne. If you haven’t been in a commercial gym for a few years, the difference between this new facility and those of yesteryear is astounding. With several different zones, each catering for the specific needs of different clients, the new Virgin Active on Collins Street even has an antigravity studio.
Your editor – who, it has to be said, is not the most agile of men and has a fear of heights – took part in a short session where he ended up upside-down, suspended from a hammock.
In addition, there’s a pool, several different studios for different exercise classes and a spin studio with state-of-the-art bikes that can be calibrated for your specific fitness level.
Once calibrated, the instructor guides the class through different routines, moving from the easy green zone through to the harder red zone. The studio is also open between organised classes where the bikes can be programmed with different courses, such as those from the Tour de France, with a first person view projected onto the massive screen at the front of the room.
And, using Virgin’s ‘my Locker’ service, you can track everything about your workout easily, as well as integrate with fitness trackers and social media.
Five essential apps
All of these apps are free and available from the App Store. However, most have in-app purchases to unlock premium features.
Strava is probably the most popular cycling app around. As it works with lots of third-party sensors, it can be used by everyone from beginners to advanced trainers. It works with the iPhone’s built-in GPS, so it can track how far you’ve ridden, as well as the elevation, speed and other data.
With its integration to dozens of other exercise and health apps, MyFitnessPal, which is owned by sports apparel maker Under Armour, is probably the most extensive health and fitness ecosystem around at the moment. It integrates with almost every fitness tracker around and has an exhaustive food database that includes a barcode scanner to make it easy to enter your meals.
While we’ve mentioned Nike here, we could have easily mentioned Adidas, Garmin and several others, as they all offer similar functions, such as run tracking with GPS and interoperation with watches and other sensors. Like many other apps, there’s a social element so you can share your runs to Facebook and Twitter.
The 7-minute workout is all about fitting a short exercise session in when you have a few spare minutes. You don’t need any special equipment as all the exercises, like star jumps, bodyweight squats and push-ups, are based on your own movements. The app guides you through 30 seconds of each exercise with a short transition period between each exercise.
Why a music app? The great thing about Spotify for exercisers is there are a bunch of playlists where the beat frequency is at a pace you can work to. For example, if you’re running and want a cadence of 140 steps per minute, the app can adjust to that so you can use the music to keep a constant pace.