Sunday, March 2, 2014

Health tracking tech is getting big, time to get on board

I've been increasingly using, and writing about health tech in the past year. And the category is truly growing - not just in terms of users, but in the sophistication of the devices, the way that data is captured and presented and the inter-connectedness of apps that use the data that is generated. Let's look at some of the most cutting edge health tech on the market in this post, and then you can decide how much you want to spend :)

1) Analytics

Nike Fuel started the trend, but it has long since been outstripped by better technology.

At the more conventional end of the spectrum we have the Jawbone UP, the Fitbit Force and the Withings Pulse. All of them in a range of $100-$150 depending on the specs. Essentially all of these are advanced pedometers with some ability to measure additional stats like sleep, steps climbed, and in the case of the Pulse, heart rate as well. They are great for any person with a fairly sedentary lifestyle who wants to motivate themselves to be more active. There are two key differentiators between devices. The first is access to statistics. All devices now offer sync to smartphone apps but some, like the Pulse and the Fitbit Force, also let you view stats directly on the device, which is an advantage, for example during a workout, or while you are running.  

Jawbone UP


The second differentiator is analytics. As these devices amass daily stats over a long period, there is lots of analysis that can be run on the data. This requires cloud software, and analytics come at a price. To access more than the basic stats on a Fitbit, you need an annual subscription, the analytics come built in with the price of the Jawbone and Withings does not offer much. 

The cutting edge of health trackers are represented by the Basis Tracker, and the yet-to-be-launched Airo and Angel trackers. Basis represents a definite step up in both hardware and software. The Basis has sensors that track heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature and automatically sense the activities undertaken and calories burned. Where it really makes a difference is the quality of analytics. I know as a researcher that data is useless in itself, the value addition comes from the interpretation and recommendations that you make based on the data. Basis analyses the data to suggest habit changes, helping you with the trickiest aspect of a fitness regime - sustainable behavioural change. That's why I am excited about the Basis and I have ordered one. I will post a review once I have used it. Basis is on the more expensive side of the spectrum, priced in the $150-$200 range.

Basis Health Tracker


The Airo makes some very exciting claims that put it into a class by itself - it has a built in spectrometer and uses light wavelengths to detect nutrients that are broken down into your body and released after eating. Thus, it is able to not only detect the calories consumed but also the quality of the nutrition intake, supplementing the data on calories burnt through activities. This means that you no longer need to input your calorie intake physically - a task which is irksome and error-prone. If this works (and I am waiting to see if it does!), then it represents the holy grail of health trackers.

Airo


Angel represents a more serious effort, with a focus on collecting and transmitting data that can detect potentially dangerous conditions. It uniquely offers an open API, encouraging developers to create apps and programs that utilise the data. For people who are sensitive about the privacy of their data, this is a very important point. With many other health trackers, the data is stored in their cloud on their platforms and you need to check the fine print to ensure that your data is not shared or sold to interested parties - say, health insurance companies. With an open platform, you own your data and make a choice which apps you will use and whom you will share the data with.

Angel


2) Personalised coaching and training

Naturally as more and more fitness bands and trackers flood the market, they will attempt to target different audience segments. The Moov tracker, which just completed a successful crowd-funding campaign, is aimed at people who want a personal trainer. Moov is equipped with 3-D sensors to evaluate the quality of your workout - if you are doing bicep curls correctly, or enough push ups to meet your goals, and it will talk to you through your phone, giving you instructions and motivation to do it right - in real time! The companion app also offers video instructions - so it's like having a personal trainer each time you hit the gym. 



Interestingly, a similar device has just launched in India - the Goqii, a free device bundled with an annual coaching subscription. Your personal coach gets your stats live, can interact with you through voice or video calls and can give you advice or even a high five based on your workout stats. GoQii even lets you collect exercise karma points which can be redeemed as donations to charitable organisations. Goqii will retail free of charge in India, with a fee charged for the coaching service only - Rs.5999 for six months, or Rs.9999 for a full year.



The concept is an interesting one, as it brings a human touch and expert input - definitely a value add over pure analytics. What remains to be seen, is whether people are ready to pay over time for the value add.

3) Body Fat Analysers

In case you don't know it already, then it's time to throw away those bathroom scales, even the smart glass ones with digital display. Why be content with measuring only your weight when you can measure so much more; for example your body fat percentage, your BMI, your resting metabolism and the 'body age' which tells you exactly how unfit you are. If you don't need to hear all this, then how about analysing the quality of the air? How about scales that connect through wi-fi to a smartphone app and upload your measurements automatically?

It is definitely worthwhile to measure more than your weight if you are working out regularly. And especially if you are aiming for overall health and fitness rather than weight loss. Because a body fat analyser can help you to see if you are gaining muscle mass, which is the holy grail of gymmers, and it can also show you progress which may not necessarily translate into weight loss. You do not need to over-do measurements, once a month is good enough, but it's useful to keep a track of your stats.

Withings, FitBit and several other brands offer wi-fi scales which sync to an app and also to their own health tracker devices, rendering yet another input automatically. But as I mentioned, weight and body fat are not measurements that you need to take everyday. If you are comfortable with keeping your own track, then I recommend one of Omron's Body Fat Monitors. I like the HBF-375 model which gives some very cool stats like specific fat deposits on different parts of the body, against the average for your height, weight and gender. It's not the easiest device to learn to use, but it's Japanese made, accurate and trusted - this is a model you will find in most gyms today. It retails for between Rs.6000-8000 and is covered by warranty from Omron India.