Fitness Tech Flexes Its Muscles

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This is an intervention.

Your friends in the tech industry are concerned about your health. They're worried about how much (or little) exercise you get, what you weigh, and how well you sleep. In fact, they're a little obsessed with the question of how well you sleep. Ultimately, they just want to help you get healthy (well, and maybe make a little money, too).

This month's CES in Las Vegas featured more watches, armbands, key fobs, and other devices designed to track your activity than ever before. And many of those devices--and some stand-alone gadgets--can track your sleep, too: how long you snooze and how deeply.

The explosion of fitness devices reflects the convergence of two factors. One, of course, is the continuing (and alarming) growth of the American waistline. The other is further development of the technology needed for monitoring activity--mostly in the form of small accelerometers and other sensors-- yielding components that are small enough, cheap enough, and energy-efficient enough to permit manufacturers to design devices that can run for days on one charge, track everything you do during the day, and cost about $100.

Connect that device to a smartphone or PC and you have instant all-day access to detailed, ongoing measurements of how you're doing with your fitness goals. Hook the data into a social network, and you can enlist your friends to inspire--or shame--you into sticking with the program.

Here's a look at a few of the themes among new fitness gadgets featured at CES 2012.

All-Day Monitoring

Just keeping track of what you do when you're exercising isn't enough for today's breed of fitness devices. They're designed to keep track of everything you do, around the clock, including when you're asleep.

Fitness Tech Flexes its Muscles: FitBit Ultra
FitBit Ultra
Some of these devices, like FitBit Ultra ($100) and Striiv ($99) are essentially digital pedometers. Based on accelerometers, they keep track of the steps you take, the stairs you climb, and the calories you burn in the course of your day. Some, like the FitBit and BodyMedia Fit Link armband ($149 to $179, depending on model), also monitor you as you sleep.

The competing brands don't entirely agree about where the devices need to be worn to maintain accuracy. The makers of FitBit and Striiv aren't picky: They say you can clip one of their devices to your clothes, carry it in a pocket, or put it on your keychain.

Fitness Tech Flexes its Muscles: BodyMedia Fit Link
The BodyMedia Fit Link armband
The BodyMedia device is an armband that you must strap over your bicep. The developers say that wearing it there helps make the data it collects more accurate. BodyMedia also provides additional sensors that have to be in contact with your skin. Those extra sensors measure galvanic skin response (a fancy way of saying it knows when you sweat), body temperature, and heat flux (the rate at which heat dissipates from your body).

The Basis watch ($199, available soon) adds yet another sensor, to track your heart rate.

Extra Motivation

We all start a new diet or exercise program with lots of energy and dedication. But soon, our commitment wanes. The new breed of fitness devices aims to give us extra motivation to reach our goals.

Fitness Tech Flexes its Muscles: Striiv
Striiv, for instance, provides inspiration in three ways. You can link your exercise to charitable contributions, so that if you walk 18000 steps, for instance, a corporation will pay for a day's clean drinking water for a child in Bolivia. The Striiv system also gives you points (which the company calls "energy") for your activity. You can bet some of those points on your ability to finish a challenge, such as burning 400 calories in 40 minutes.

Fans of FarmVille will appreciate Striiv's Myland game. The device's small screen shows you your very own enchanted island. By being active, you can plant trees, build huts, and bring back the island's animals.

Some devices also try to harness peer pressure to keep you on the straight and narrow. FitBit, for instance, maintains its own social network where users can post their latest activity data and challenge friends to competitions or get their help in reaching collaborative goals.

Combining All-Day and Workout Monitoring

With its built-in heart monitor, the Basis Watch is well suited to monitoring both normal activity and workouts. But that's nothing compared to the data captured by Motorola's MotoActv (starts at $249).

Fitness Tech Flexes its Muscles: Motorola MotoActv
Motorola MotoActv
The MotoActv's GPS antenna enables it to track the route you run or bike, and keep tabs on your speed. And by pairing it with ANT+ sensors, you can use it to measure your heart rate or bike pedaling cadence. On yet another front, the MotoActv plays music and analyzes which tunes motivate you to go faster; then it plays that music more often in its rotation.

You can pair the MotoActv with your phone (if it's a Motorola Android phone) to see and answer calls and view texts.

Watching You Sleep

Perhaps because they get so little sleep themselves, tech entrepreneurs have become obsessed with helping the rest of us sleep better.

Why is technology necessary to monitor such a basic human function? "People are terrible judges of their own sleep," says Josiah Sewell of Fatigue Science, which makes a sleep monitor. "They know when they go to sleep and when they wake up, and that's it."

The makers of FitBit Ultra, BodyMedia Fit, and the Basis watch all claim that their devices monitor your sleep patterns, spitting out graphs that show how long you were in deep sleep and how often you were restless or just lying there waiting for sleep to come.

Fitness Tech Flexes its Muscles: Gear4 Renew SleepClock
Gear4 Renew SleepClock
Gear 4 is developing the Renew SleepClock ($200), an alarm clock/iOS device dock that uses the computing power of your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to gauge when and how deeply you're sleeping based on your movement and breathing. In addition to graphing your sleep history, the Renew SleepClock will wake you in the morning when you're in a light rather than heavy sleep, supposedly making the chore of getting out of bed less arduous.

But once you have all of these sleep charts in hand, what are you supposed to do with them? Many of the reps for the companies I talked to said that people will find their own solutions once they know they have a problem. They may go to bed an hour earlier, or cut out the espresso nightcap, or banish distracting electronic gadgets from their bedrooms (though not, of course, the gadgets that monitor their sleep).

Fatigue Science, though, has a more scientific approach. The company's ReadiBand won't be available for purchase; instead, you'll borrow it from your pharmacist (and likely pay a refundable deposit for it). You'll sleep with the ReadiBand on your wrist for a week and then return it to your pharmacist, who will analyze the data from the band and make recommendations for improving your rest time. In some cases, the pharmacist may recommend medication or an appointment with a sleep specialist.

The ReadiBand is already in use in Canada, and it should be available through Safeway supermarket pharmacies by this spring, Sewell says, with more outlets coming soon afterward.

With so many new fitness gadgets coming to market, anyone who could stand to get in better shape may be lacking only one thing: a good excuse not to make it happen.

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