Healthy Choices

‘Wearable’ tech tracks health with a flick of the wrist

Jenny Bauer, right, and friend Susan Veazey, both of East Sacramento, walk together at McKinley Park on Wednesday. Bauer uses a Fitbit to measure her steps. “I love this thing,” she says about her older style clip-on Fitbit, which a friend gave her. “It helps me be accountable. We live in a beautiful neighborhood and I love walking and seeing how many steps I take.”
Jenny Bauer, right, and friend Susan Veazey, both of East Sacramento, walk together at McKinley Park on Wednesday. Bauer uses a Fitbit to measure her steps. “I love this thing,” she says about her older style clip-on Fitbit, which a friend gave her. “It helps me be accountable. We live in a beautiful neighborhood and I love walking and seeing how many steps I take.” rpench@sacbee.com

Heather Dunn Carlton’s hot pink Fitbit Flex never leaves her wrist. It’s there at 5 a.m. each day, vibrating to wake her up and provide data on her sleep patterns. It’s there at the gym, to estimate her calories burned. And it’s there in her first-floor office at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, reminding her to occasionally climb some stairs.

At the end of each day, Dunn Carlton, 48, anticipates a small vibration from the Fitbit – an indication that her 10,000-step goal has been reached. If she’s fallen short of the mark, she’ll take a few laps around her Sacramento home.

“I want it to make the little vibration,” she said. “It gives you a little sense of celebration.”

The Flex is one of dozens of models in an emerging line of activity trackers, often called “wearables,” that combine tech savvy with social media to make people aware of how much – or how little – they’re moving each day. It is part of a larger trend among fitness consumers to track every step, compare activities with friends and share workouts publicly.

David Chernow, a Sacramento resident wearing a Fitbit during a recent lunch hour in Capitol Park, said he is planning to be more conscious about his exercise and use more tracking features in the new year.

“It has made a difference in little ways that I think make a big difference,” he said. “I park my car a little farther to make sure I get my steps in, and things like that.”

The fitness monitors, which are being actively developed by corporate giants such as Microsoft and Nike, as well as a handful of startups, expand on the step-counting abilities of the pedometer by collecting data on pace, calories burned, sleep movement, heart rate and even skin temperature. They come in a range of aesthetic styles, from bulky watches to sleek bands.

Most are “smart” devices that connect with a phone or computer, where users can store and track fitness data or compare it with friends using the same device. The new Garmin Vivosmart receives texts and emails directly to the band. Fitbit connects with a slew of applications that log food and exercise, as well as a smart scale that stores changes in weight and body fat. Prices for wearables generally range from $50 to $200.

Sales in activity trackers worn on the wrist are up more than 30 percent from the past year, and they are expected to become a billion-dollar category in the next five years, said Neil Schwartz, vice president of business development and market insights at industry watcher SportsOneSource. New products are coming onto the market every month, each one promising to help consumers see a more comprehensive view of their own health.

“As more people understand the process, you’ll see more people buying them and using them,” he said. “It’s the next evolution from a working out standpoint. People want to know more. We’re in an information age.”

Biofeedback, or information about one’s own biological rhythms, is a great way to change a person’s behavior for the better, said Sally Edwards, an exercise physiologist who runs international training and education company Heart Zones USA out of Sacramento. She developed the Blink, her own wearable heart rate monitor, and is currently writing a book about using activity trackers in schools.

She noted the Hawthorne effect – the tendency for people to perform better when they are being observed – which she said motivates some people to do better just because they’re wearing a tracker.

“That’s what probably holds people back the most – the lack of motivation,” she said. “Anything the wearables can put into their device that inspires or provides engagement will make a huge difference. ... This is going to be commonplace, and it’s going to be a commodity. You’ll just wear it, like you wear a watch or earrings.”

Dunn Carlton said she has changed her diet and exercise routine since purchasing the Fitbit Flex a year and a half ago. She’s made progress on her weight loss goals and has used the Fitbit to transmit data to her trainer.

Over the holidays, it helped her see the fitness value in simple tasks, such as shopping, cleaning and working in the yard.

“I can see it, have the app on my phone. ... I log into my computer and see how many steps,” she said. “Like tying a string around your finger to not forget something … it’s kind of that same reminder.”

But while these ultra-informative products might be popular, they have the potential for a negative effect on someone who is less confident about fitness, said Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of the Sacramento-based Eating Recovery Center of California.

When people hold themselves to a high standard, say a certain amount of workouts per day, it results in a “pressure cooker” where they think about what they should be doing instead of what their body wants and needs, the therapist said. This type of thinking gets especially negative around New Year’s Day, when people force themselves into new diets or exercise regimens.

The tracking devices, particularly the ones that involve calorie counting and weight watching in a competitive way, only “fuel the fire,” Lombardi said.

“Once we’re sharing the nitty-gritty details, it starts to shift,” she said. “There is an undercurrent there of ‘someone is doing more than I am,’ so I’m failing or not good enough. That doesn’t motivate people. It makes us disconnected from things we enjoy doing and hurts us for the long haul.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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