Where Wearable Fitness Trackers Meet the Road

By Chuck Norris

March 25, 2016 7 min read

There's no magic solution to the health problems in which we find ourselves in today's modern world; and seemingly no end to the obstacles we face in trying to maintain or restore good health.

The best way out of this mess is neither revolutionary nor unknown. It starts with eating right, exercising daily and getting a good night's sleep. We do this, and major health benefits can come quickly. This fact was reaffirmed by a recent study conducted by Brigham Young University, where researchers found that just 30 minutes of cardio exercise a day — such as walking — along with switching to a healthier diet dropped the health risks of its participants dramatically in as little as six weeks.

A foundation for such a program is fresh fruits and vegetables. They should make up most of what we eat. This advice is also neither new nor revolutionary. So it's sad to learn that nearly 60 percent of what Americans eat continues to be junk. More than half of all calories in the U.S. diet come from ultra-processed foods, which also contribute nearly 90 percent of all added sugars we consume. Ultra-processed foods accounts for nearly 3 out of every 5 calories we take in according to a new study conducted jointly by researchers from the University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University in Boston.

This sobering reminder of the American diet, along with a sedentary lifestyle, speaks volumes as to why two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight and why rates of diabetes and heart disease continue to soar. To compound matters even more, studies now suggest that strokes among people under the age of 45 have increased by as much as 53 percent since the 1990s. Yet 75 percent of Americans under age 45 don't even know the signs and symptoms of stroke. Even more disturbing, many say they would likely wait out the symptoms, believing that stokes only occur in the elderly. Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure and obesity. The younger generations are not excluded from these conditions and the health risks associated with them.

This led me to wonder: Could the trend toward wearable fitness technology, an appealing trend to younger generations, prove to be their life ring?

More than 13 million wearable fitness trackers were sold last year, generating $1.5 billion in sales, says Sweat Science blogger Alex Hutchinson in an opinion piece in the New York Times. That's more than double the 2014 total. The market for wearable fitness trackers is projected to be worth more than $50 billion a year by 2018. Smart watches and mobile phones apps with fitness-tracking capabilities are also growing in number and in use.

While an editorial in The Journal of the American Medical Association points out that more than half of people who now buy these fitness trackers eventually stop wearing them — some within six months — it still means several million people exercised more than they otherwise would have.

Even if this product category were to advance as nothing more than as an activity tracker, the benefits as a motivational tool could develop into a game changer in getting people up and moving. Knowing how many steps you're taking a day and how much sleep you're getting can be incentive enough; when you combine the ability to add a friendly competition element by connecting your device with others — regardless of where they are — make the possibilities even more intriguing. One big difference from the un-networked, disposable pedometers, says Hutchinson.

But it is not the most significant difference. The collective data stream being electronically compiled from these devices amounts to by far the largest and most comprehensive observational health trial ever conducted; and it is going on right now, before our eyes. The data is accumulating from users in the millions. It's time now for science to figure out what it means and to try and put it to good clinical use.

Before we get too excited, we also have to acknowledge the potential that is there for exploitation and misuse of this information. An area of concern is when a device designed for health becomes an instrument of surveillance. As part of its "Whole Person Education" program, Oral Roberts University is currently requiring freshmen to wear a Fitbit and to grant school administrators access to the data to ensure that they're meeting the program's minimum 10,000 steps a day requirement. What if employers were to adopt similar mandates and access from their employees?

At present, technology companies are trying to use the data to make more informed decisions for its customers. Under Armour, for one, has formed a partnership with IBM in an effort to find ways to compare the data from its millions of users as a way to offer them smarter advice on how to exercise, eat and sleep. Other wearable companies are pursuing similar projects.

Health researchers are also recognizing the benefits of crunching this real world data, rather than traditional laboratory work, in discovering ways to improve health and fitness.

As an example of its potential, Hutchinson cites a recent analysis of data from 4.2 million "MyFitnessPal" users, which yielded unexpected insights into the habits of successful weight-losers compared with unsuccessful ones. Those who succeeded in losing weight ate nearly a third more fiber, and 11 percent less meat. They consumed more grains, cereal and raw fruit, but fewer eggs.

Such insight is the greatest promise of the wearable revolution says Hutchinson.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan

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