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How fitness trackers are replacing clunky exercise machines

Major manufacturers are upping the ante in the race for supremacy in an increasingly lucrative and hi-tech market

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 9:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 5:33pm

Personal fitness devices have come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci first sketched his idea for a mechanism to calculate the daily distance troops travelled on foot as intelligence for army manoeuvres.

These days, the closest most of us will get to military engagement is the battle against obesity. In pursuit of fitness and a slimmer waistline, we need no longer fill our homes with clunky exercise equipment. A wireless tracker no bigger than a wristwatch, connected to the home’s secure network, can give us all the incentive we need to get off the couch and start moving.

As one technology writer penned about their touted benefits: “Just put this thing on your wrist, and suddenly you’ll be privy to a treasure trove of data about how you live your life. And, even better, your device will offer simple, painless, achievable tips for how to improve your life. It’s like a miracle pill, but with technology.”

Soon enough, fitness trackers (or “wearables”) quickly became mainstream. Water cooler conversations flowed around Fitbit versus Jawbone, the main players early on. And now, something for the ladies - Misfit’s Swarovski Shine - launched in March. Tracking smarts hidden behind dazzling purple crystals, anyone?

These things record our daily activities – or lack thereof – including how much we’ve moved, the calories consumed, and the quantity, and quality, of sleep – the idea being to help us stick to the personal goals we’ve set.

Of course, you have to actually use them, which a vast number of people don’t seem to do, once the novelty wears off. According to Weston Henderek, director of wearables at United States market research firm NPD Group’s connected intelligence practice, many languish in drawers because they didn’t tell us much more than we already knew.

British market analyst Juniper Research says it is the software, not the hardware, which will drive these devices forward. That’s the conclusion of a paper which forecasts that annual revenue from connected health care and fitness services will approach US$2 billion by 2019, nearly six times the US$320m value estimated for this year. The report’s author, James Moar, notes: “Connected fitness and health devices provide a way to collect biometric data, not interaction platforms. People want to interact with the devices at app level – the draw is the information. Because of this, and the omnipresence of sensors, the importance of the hardware will diminish at a much faster rate than other consumer electronics market segments.”

So manufacturers are upping the ante. The highly anticipated Apple Watch, coming soon (expected launch date April 2015) is the first Apple product made to be worn. It’s “more relevant”, representing, the brand says, “a new chapter in the relationship people have with technology”. It does actually keep time, and lets the wearer stay in touch with their significant others by sending them a tap or a sketch, or even their own heartbeat.

The motivational aspect comes as rings recording all activities and the progress these are making towards your daily goals, and real-time stats for the most popular workouts. Over time, the device will learn the wearer’s activity and fitness levels, using that information to suggest improvements. The watch is compatible with a slew of apps, including airlines, news, travel and social media channels, to keep your mind on the go as you train.

The Microsoft Band had a head start – launching late last year – with its GPS function enabling the wearer to track their runs in detail, without needing to carry a bulkier smartphone. An optical heart rate sensor for 24/7 bpm readings combines the peak and resting heart rate to help the wearer train at their best.

In what some may argue is a case of multitasking gone mad, e-mail previews, calendar reminders and call, text and social media information are de rigeur on both models, headlining a list of brands which now vie for market share.

Then there’s the Smart Helmet from LifeBEAM, a fitness tracker designed for cyclists that monitors heart rate and counts calories as you pedal, and connects to a smartphone, fitness app or GPS device.

The Sensoria Fitness smart sock feeds information on a runner’s pattern and technique to an app via Bluetooth in realtime. The same brand has also brought women athletes a sports bra which measures heartbeat.

Digitsole, the first connected heating insole, will track your fitness data, and warm your toes at the same time – just set the desired temperature for each foot and let the built-in thermostat work its magic.

Since we’re in the age of inclusiveness, what would life be like without a fitness tracker for your dog?  Pet trackers such as the Tagg work via a GPS beacon in Fido’s collar, sending the owner a text or e-mail alert if they escape a predefined “safe zone”, with directions to their location. Another device, the Whistle, stores a wealth of information on puppy’s walks, play time, naps, and even diet data.

So if you can’t bear to be disconnected from your dog during those long hours spent at the office, the internet of things is here to fix that, too.