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Get with it: The continued rise of fitness apps

Consumer interest in fitness apps and hardware continues to rise: smartphone apps, fitness tracking devices, GPS watches, and heart rate monitors.

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Former world champion gymnast Sui Lu teaches a basic fitness class at a Shanghai university - Copyright AFP Jessica YANG
Former world champion gymnast Sui Lu teaches a basic fitness class at a Shanghai university - Copyright AFP Jessica YANG

The evolution of tracking apps has penetrated into almost every lifestyle sector. The fitness industry is one of these and the technological boom has been matched by a rise of the health-conscious consumer.

Consumer spend data suggests wearable fitness tracking tech and apps have been welcomed with open arms by sports enthusiasts, and this demand is feeding into a process of continuous development.

According to research undertaken by the bike retailer, Leisure Lakes Bikes, there are a number of interesting innovations to take note of.

Ben Mercer from the mountain bike division explains to Digital Journal how far the app concept has penetrated the consumer market: “It all started with the weight monitoring app MyFitnessPal and progressed to Fit Bit and Strava. Nowadays, a wrist lacking a Fit Bit looks odd, and for cyclists, athletes, and sports enthusiasts, Strava is the go-to social network.

In terms of what has allowed these applications to become a sensation and provide value for money to the consumers, Mercer says the “answer is innovative technology that’s based on advanced tools and smart hardware.”

Going back to the beginning, Mercer observes: “In the 1980s, Polar watches were designed with wireless heart rate monitors. This came about amidst the heyday of low-intensity home workout videos that emphasised consistent heart rate monitoring by hand throughout the workout. Think Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons digitalised into a Polar watch.”

This was followed by 3D accelerometers as the next step in fitness tracking technology. According to Mercer: “They measure movement and vibration in a 3D space. We now know these as pedometers, and they are available for free on the Google Play Store. But the first phone that was able to track the user’s physical activity was Nokia’s 5500 Sports handset in 2006.”

This brings Mercer’s analysis to today and the convenience of wearable tech. Here Mercer  finds: “There are hip wearables such as Fitbug; wrist wearables in the likes of Fit Bit, Jawbone, and smartwatches; wearable cameras including Go Pro; and augmented and virtual headsets in the likes of Microsoft Hololens.”

He adds: 2The hardware technology that informs these innovations is quite fascinating. Bioimpedance sensors, for example, collect information, from the resistance of body tissues to electric currents, in order to monitor heart and respiration rate. To ensure that stress levels are normal, skin response sensors measure body temperature and heart rate. For cyclists, runners, and swimmers, accelerometers track motion to collect data about speed, cadence, and distance to aid performance.”

These innovations have matched growing consumer demand. Mercer states: “In the UK alone, 80 percent of recreational athletes, who took part in a Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) survey, reported using fitness tracking technology in 2016. This includes “smartphone apps, fitness tracking devices, GPS watches, and heart rate monitors”.

This survey also finds that 62 percent of the respondents claimed that they use two or more devices. Wearable fitness trackers (37 percent) were slightly more popular than smartwatches (18 percent).

Mercer  next ponders whether fitness tracking technology has made a positive impact on people’s fitness routines and health?

Mercer’s assessment, going back to the survey, is that “93 percent experienced an improvement in healthy behaviour. 75 percent claimed that the use of tracking apps was followed by an exercise boost. In fact, 10 percent of respondents started exercising twice as much, and about 25 percent increased their exercise routine by at least one more day.”

Drawing on a related sector, Mercer also sees: “Fitness tracking apps have revolutionised the cycling industry too. The world of cycling wouldn’t be the same without GPS mapping and route recording technology that provides you with an interactive insight into your performance. That’s especially beneficial for mountain bike riders who need off-road guidance to take them to the next level.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also influenced the demand for fitness technology. Mercer says: “During the lockdown, the demand for fitness apps skyrocketed. Due to lockdown restrictions, people weren’t able to attend their regular gym sessions and classes anymore but were still in need of guidance. That’s why fitness apps that provide personalised training plans for indoor and outdoor use flourished. One such app is Freeletics. Its usage increased by 50 percent between March and June 2020 and reached two million UK users.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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