When you next open Facebook take a quick peek at the “More” menu. You might notice that something called “Moves” is featured. Moves is an activity-tracking app that Facebook acquired In 2014. This June, the app was quietly released into the wild. Facebook wants to know when you’re active, and they’re not the only company that’s interested.
I joke sometimes with my running friends that we don’t take our watches on runs; our watches take us on runs. People who run are obsessed with statistics, and watches and other wearables for runners are becoming almost a must-have. Even weekend warriors want to know everything: pace, cadence, distance, vertical oscillation, VO2 max, etc.
Historically, runners have been some of the earliest adopters of wearable technology. We put pods in our shoes and strap bands around our chests to try to get the edge on our competition. The running industry has also seen phenomenal growth over the past several decades. Race finishers in the United States increased 300% between 1990 and 2013. The rapidly growing community means that more people are wearing running watches, ipso facto, more people are experimenting with wearable technology.
I used to work at a small running store in San Francisco. Many of the customers were fairly new to the sport of running. An avid runner myself, I relished the opportunity to get people out and exercising. One day a gentleman approached me to get my opinion on two versions of the same running watch. The first version featured a wrist-based heart rate monitor, and the other, simpler version didn’t have heart rate monitoring. He had recently started running and didn’t know if the heart rate monitor was necessary.
The advice I gave him was this: you probably don’t NEED the wrist-based heart rate monitor, but it might be fun to track various stats. He decided to spend a little more and left the store eager to take his new toy for a test run.
A couple of weeks later, the same man stopped by again. I asked him what he thought of the watch. He replied that on his inaugural run with the device he noticed that his heart rate was a little higher than it probably should have been. He decided to err on the safe side and visit his doctor. After various tests, he discovered he had an arrhythmia and the doctor recommended he ease off running and begin taking medication.
“You might’ve saved my life,” he said. We both laughed nervously.
A few months later I was helping a tall, soft-spoken gentleman with some running shoes at the same store. He was an unassuming, friendly guy pushing his baby around in a stroller and enjoying the crisp San Francisco afternoon. As he reached down to tie one of the shoes he was trying on I noticed a beautiful gold-plated smartwatch on his wrist. Before he was able to hide it in the sleeve of his jacket I asked, “Hey, which smartwatch is that?”
The gentlemen turned out to be none other than Alan Dye, Apple’s Vice President of User Interface Design (and apparent runner). He was wearing a not-yet-released Apple Watch, and he gave me a quick demo, probably against his better judgment. The one thing that stands out in my memory was his excitement about the health tracking capabilities of the smartwatch. He went on and on about how much he thought that was being overlooked by the general public, and spoke about its ability to change the way we keep track of our health. At the time, of course, I was more interested in the cool hardware itself.
The technology found in watches from companies like Fitbit, Apple and Garmin has, at times, left much to be desired, but the potential these products have to change the way consumers experience healthcare is nearly infinite. These devices, despite being still in their infancy, already have the ability to monitor much of our daily lives. We track our sleep, the calories we burn, the places we visit, the flights of steps we climb, even the number of minutes we spend standing versus sitting– all with the help of a phone in our pocket.
There is incredible opportunity when we can really aggregate this ever-increasing number of data points, not only for general health but also for business. And companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Apple is playing enabler with HealthKit: a simple way for app developers to create apps that can share health data. There’s third-party support from apps like Beddit Sleep Tracker to track your sleep, Map My Run to track runs, even apps that monitor calorie consumption, your sex life and your golfing habits.
The main difference between five years ago and today is that activity is being monitored more constantly than ever before. The most puritan member of the running watch community, Garmin, recently enabled all of its watches to double as activity trackers, bowing to the success of Fitbit and the Apple Watch. Runners don’t particularly care how many steps they take during a day when they’re burning thousands of calories running, but that kind of data harvesting is too valuable now for Garmin to pass up.
The growing acceptance of this kind of technology as the norm will force a revolution in the healthcare industry. Imagine a world where doctors can evaluate and cross-reference statistics and records about the patient sitting in front of them with a database of millions of people all over the world. The National Institutes of Health says that one of the key objectives of its national “Precision Medicine Initiative” is to test whether mobile devices can encourage good health. The results will surely help improve lives and perhaps even save them.