Don’t get wrapped up in wearable tech

Blog by: Suryakant Tripathi

Slightly lost in the maelstrom of the iPhone 7 launch this month was the second coming of the Apple Watch. Its partnership with Nike, however, made sure no-one missed the watch’s repositioning as a fitness device. It was a shrewd move. Nike’s Run Club app is built into the Apple Watch 2, accessible right from the home screen, and comes complete with exclusive Siri commands. But, can wearable tech and virtual assistants really compete with the face-to-face personal trainer?

The wearable tech market is a growing and lucrative one. CCS Insight predicts 411 million smart wearable devices – worth $34 billion – will be sold in 2020. Of these, fitness-related gadgets are expected to make up the majority.

Nike’s Run Club app has been enormously successful – until now. Its latest redesign has been a misstep and seen the app fall to a two-star rating on iTunes. Nike’s foray into wearable tech with Apple may be equally out of kilter.

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Whereas a personal trainer may only see a client for a few hours a week, wearable tech can monitor users’ biometrics 24/7. From how many steps they’ve walked and heart rates risen to calories burnt and hours slept, wearable tech can be an all-seeing eye. Recent research, however, found that wearable technology that tracks users’ physical activity may actually hinder progress.

Wearing out willpower

A two-year study found that devices like Fitbits and Jawbone failed to motivate users to exercise more. The study deduced this was due to over-dependence on the device and developing a false sense of security rather than willpower and commitment. The researchers concluded that those who monitor their own exercise routines lose more weight than those who leave it up to the device strapped to their arm. In short, those who feel accountable for their progress – particularly when having to report back to their personal trainer, no doubt – achieve their goals.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the study will be disconcerting reading for companies such as Fitbit. Though Fitbit has been a leader in the overall wearables market, its stock prices have plummeted as more people drift away, novelty waning and expectations failing to be met.

That’s not to say that consumers aren’t receptive to the idea of a virtual personal trainer. Research commissioned by not-for-profit health body ukactive and retailer Argos this month found 57% of people in the UK expect to engage with personal trainers via televisions and computers by 2026. 20% think virtual reality will mean they can work out with their favourite athletes and sports stars.

The reality is not so far off.

Whereas virtual personal trainers have so far failed to prove their worth over time spent one-to-one with a qualified personal trainer in the gym, there may yet be a market in group exercise.

Reinventing the wheel

Cutting-edge New York indoor cycle company Peloton are showing that instructors can reach thousands of people outside of the studio, taking their class into living rooms around the world. A typical cycle session at Peloton can see 50 participants in the Manhattan studio, joined by a further 200 engaging virtually. Instructors interact with members, calling out screen names. If a Peloton subscriber wishes to, they can access over 30,000 other classes through their bike. The company has thousands of participants but only pays for the upkeep of one small studio and four cameras that broadcast each group exercise session around the world.

Peloton is part of what Mintel refers to as virtual fitness services. It is a small but growing trend; just 15% of consumers who are regular exercisers have paid for a fitness video subscription. 35% of regular exercisers still have a traditional gym membership, and desire interaction with an instructor or trainer.

Technology is changing how and where the fitness industry interacts with exercisers, making workouts more accessible and more dynamic for beginners and hardcore athletes alike. Where personal trainers continue to have the edge, however, is the ability to really know their client and to adapt and personalize where necessary.

The Nike app may congratulate its user with a “good job!” at the completion of 5k, but it stays schtum when it comes to critiquing the poor running technique demonstrated to get there. The virtual spin instructor may call out your screen name, but can they spot your recent injury? The app logging your deadlifts may track your personal best, but does it realise you could achieve even more with some watchful coaching tips?

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