The Evolution of Fitness Trackers

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some of the most advanced fitness trackers on the market (including one that can predict and quantify your movements in the gym). At the same time, I’ve also expressed my hesitations on the current push for the quantified self movement. Currently, I feel like the movement presents users with an overwhelming amount of data, but in my opinion, it doesn’t spur behavior change, which is the only point of tracking the numbers in the first place. Data without understanding is absolutely meaningless. As I’ve mentioned before, Exist, an app created by the two developers at Hello Code, is set to change that. I’m really excited to see the kinds of tools they put in the hands of consumers and where their small app can take the quantified self movement as a whole.

In the spirit of dreaming big, I thought it would be cool to share some areas that I’m hoping fitness trackers improve on in the new few years. No doubt some of these are already being worked on at the moment. Many of the items I’m proposing aren’t anything spectacularly new or innovative. However, they are tough to implement. So, keeping that in mind, here’s a wish list of where I would like to see quantified self movement in the future.

Better Integrations

With each new device that hits the market comes a new piece of software from the parent company that allows users to upload their data to look at past history and trends. As of right now, if you were to own a Garmin heart rate monitor that you use for working out and a FitBit fitness tracker that you wear on a daily basis, compiling data and looking at the overall picture in terms of your health and fitness becomes an absolute nightmare as they each have their own separate software and uploading capability.

Exist is one company that is helping to compile all of your data into one place. However, I still think the entire tracking market could improve on software integrations. I understand that it’s in the best interest of Garmin to keep their data on the Garmin platform. It encourages users to stick with their tools rather than run off and hop on the Nike bandwagon for example. The same battle is being waged in other technology arenas like cellphones. If you’ve ever purchased an app from the app store or downloaded dozens of music albums from iTunes, you’re in a way locked in to Apple products unless you feel like repurchasing those items again.

It’s unlikely that companies producing fitness trackers start to push out platforms that accept uploads from other devices. However, I think the market is there for more third-party companies to build their own software with multiple integrations.

Move Away From the Wrist

Maybe I’m alone in this arena, but I just don’t like wearing anything on my wrist consistently. I’ve never had success trying to wear a watch for more than a few days at a time. Heck, even when Livestrong bands were popular, I couldn’t stick it out longer than a few weeks. Currently, most of the major fitness trackers live on the wrist (the FitBit One is an exception). As the trackers themselves continue to evolve, I think we’ll see a shift in devices that move off the wrist either elsewhere on the body or into devices that we already carry around on a daily basis. The phone is the obvious choice here, but other options exist as well. Smaller armbands worn underneath clothing are a possibility. A small coin-shaped object that sits in your pocket is another.

One major sacrifice when moving the device away from the wrist is that it reduces the availability of data during the day. With a tracker sitting on your wrist, it’s easy to check out your step count at lunch to see if you need to huff it more in the afternoon to hit your goal. If the device is elsewhere, it’s harder to look at or perhaps impossible if the new design doesn’t have a digital face that displays information. In my mind, that’s a welcomed trade-off. I’d much rather have a smaller, more-hidden device than to have a large digital display screaming out at me during the day. For those that really want to see their real-time data, they could always use an app that displays their information on their phone and updates every 15 minutes or so (battery life would be an issue).

Better Forecasting, Predictions, and Trends

My biggest beef with the quantified self movement in general was that the current data didn’t provide users with any actionable items. Sure, most devices now have coaching models built into the tracker so users can set goals for their step counts. However, that’s still a user setting the goal in the first place. If there’s one thing I learned from personal training for six years it’s that normal people tend not to be the greatest at setting difficult, yet achievable goals for themselves. They tend to aim low. With all of the data that fitness trackers collect, they should be able to create accurate, achievable goals for individuals and deliver motivation to help users achieve them.

With the Garmin Vivofit, we’re starting to see fitness trackers that are able to accurately measure and set incremental goals for users. However, I think it can go far outside of just providing step goals for each day. In the future, I think fitness trackers will be able to measure and predict things far outside of the surface health and wellness arena we’re currently in. It’s not completely unreasonable to think that your tracking device could detect exercise dependence or symptoms of over-training. With the combined look at nutrition trackers, it’s completely possible that tracking software could anticipate or identify signs of an eating disorder. Even mood disorders like depression aren’t out of reach. It’s really just a matter of harnessing the data and picking out key indicators. The data itself obviously needs to improve as well, which leads me to my next point.

Better Measurements Outside of Health and Fitness

I linked to this article by Jonah Berger in my post on Quantified Self. Berger uses a great analogy to describe the data we’re currently collecting with fitness trackers:

But just because a metric is easy to capture doesn’t mean it’s the right metric to use.More followers don’t actually equal more influence. More connections don’t necessarily mean more expertise. They may just mean someone spend a lot of time on the site.

It’s like the old adage about the drunk searching for his keys. One night a policeman sees a drunk scouring the ground around a streetlight so he asks the drunk what he is looking for. The drunk says “I lost my keys,” and the policeman, wanting to be helpful, joins in the search. After a few fruitless minutes combing the area, the policeman asks the drunk “are you sure you dropped them here?” “Not sure,” the drunk says, “I have no idea where I dropped them.” “Then why are we searching under the street light?” asks the policeman. “Because that is where the light is,” the drunk replies.

We’re collecting surface-level health and fitness data because it’s easy. It’s what we know. However, as Dr. Yoni Freedhoff points out, there isn’t anything magical about 10,000 steps per day. Rather than another fitness tracker hitting the market that measures the same stuff as everyone else with a flashier, longer-lasting device, I’d love to see a company hit the market with a product that measures entirely different metrics. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Social engagement – This would require a bit of integration with various social services and perhaps syncing with your phone contacts. Essentially, close connections and frequent interactions with others yield happier individuals. It’s no surprise that if you have absolutely no friends or contact with anyone other than your dog, you’re likely going to spiral into a bit of a sad mood. The tricky thing here would be that everyone interacts with their social circles differently so it would be hard to develop a definitive measurement.
  • Light exposure – Time spent outdoors makes you happier; it’s just science. It’s not unreasonable for a tracker to measure light exposure and then beep at you when it’s time to get out and move around.
  • Energy levels – By combining nutritional information with activity measurements, trackers could correlate eating patterns and dietary considerations to help users hone in their food intake. I realize that this forces tracking companies to assume a huge load of liability so I don’t expect the tracker to setup a custom meal plan. However, things like alarms to eat or drink at certain times based on your past performances could be beneficial. If eating breakfast every day leads to you taking 2,000 more steps during the day, that’s a beneficial piece of information and potentially a habit you might want to fall into.

All of the items mentioned above really fit under the same umbrella; I’d like to see lifestyle tracking devices rather than fitness trackers. It’s going to take a company that pushes the envelope in terms of device design, data collection, and data usability. It’s really not a stretch to think that some of these elements could happen. We’re just at the cusp of the quantified self movement. I can’t wait to see where we’re headed!

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