The front page of The New York Times recently had a teaser for a big science story headlined, “The Monitored Man.” It was an illustration of a biker surrounded by gears, graphs & data, along with this summary of the piece:
“A reporter spent six months wearing as many as four digital gadgets at a time tracking his physical activity — 11 monitors in all. He discovered that he didn’t move as much as he had thought, but more than the trackers said he did.”
This caught my attention for a few reasons:
1) If one of the world’s most influential media outlets is publishing a long, serious look at the latest wearable fitness gadgets, then the digitalization of exercise has officially arrived.
2) Like many tech trends, this one doesn’t always live up to the hype. Reporter Albert Sun discovered that fitness trackers sometimes aren’t as informative or accurate as one would hope. For instance, while they’re pretty good at tracking the number of steps you take and other common body movements, they’re surprisingly not good at measuring the exertion of a real physical workout: “Activity trackers usually don’t measure exertion, only motion. Company officials say that intense exercise is just a small part of the average consumer’s day, and that it’s more useful to capture the bigger fitness picture.”
3) I’ve recently learned quite a bit about digital fitness, for personal and professional reasons.
Since my book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, came out nearly four years ago, I’ve met all sorts of tech innovators at book-related events and conferences such as South By Southwest. I’ve worked with a handful of them on projects aiming to take the digital revolution to a smarter, deeper place (here’s one). Along the way, I’ve learned that we’re just at the start of an enormous shift. We’ve only begun to figure out the best ways to use these tools to communicate, run organizations, govern ourselves, raise our families, play, think and create.
Most recently, I’ve been working with a start-up called Koko that’s applied digital technologies to fitness in a totally new way. Founded in Massachusetts, Koko now has fitness clubs in nearly 30 states. There’s one in my town and that’s where I first got to know how the system works.
Basically, Koko’s technology designs an exercise program for your body and goals; guides you through every workout at the club; modifies the program as you grow stronger; provides a nutrition plan that supports your objectives; and gives you constantly updated data on how you’re doing. Imagine a brick-and-mortar club where the machines are the trainers, and all your fitness data is constantly tracked and analyzed in the cloud – that’s Koko, the world’s first truly digital gym.
So if you read the Times story and were disappointed that wearables aren’t quite the miracle they appear to be, don’t worry. Somebody has figured out not just how to measure your exertion in real time as you work out, but how to shape and drive the workouts themselves.
The Monitored Man enjoys the somewhat limited benefits of today’s wearables. But by the end of the story, Albert Sun says he’s “less captivated” than he once was by fitness trackers. “Now I almost never look at the data that they collect.”
Real fitness is about more than passive tracking. It’s active, dynamic and, if done well, life-changing. Using Koko’s system, I’ve gotten fitter than I’ve been in many years. Checking my data now, I see that over the last ten months, my strength has increased 60%, and I’m down about 15 pounds. This has required dedication and sweat, but thanks to the technology, it’s also been fun and incredibly interesting. Being a Quantified Self is especially nice when that self is getting healthier.
I’ve written a lot about how digital devices affect the mind, for better and for worse. It turns out the stakes are just as high for the body. Intelligent machines and data-driven fitness can make us all healthier, while allowing exercise to fit more comfortably into our lives. And the good news is, this is not just a passing trend – it’s the future.
illustration: Otto Steininger/The New York Times