Wearable gadgets to track health are taking off

Amanda Hill doesn’t stand at the sink while brushing her teeth. Instead she does it while going up and down stairs.

Why? To boost the “flights of stairs” score on an electronic gizmo that logs her every move.

Jessica Carlson goes for extra runs to stay ahead of family members sharing a friendly competition over the daily calorie and step counts recorded by their gadgets:

“I know my husband and my mother wouldn’t judge me if I don’t get 10,000 steps, but … ”

Well, they might smirk.

During the past year, these folks and millions like them across the country have donned wearable electronic devices and downloaded apps on cellphones to track everything from how many steps it takes to walk off the calories in a Whopper (a lot) to how well they’re sleeping at night.

Some have dubbed it the “Quantified Self” movement, and it’s expected to grow rapidly. A Pew Research Center study earlier this year found that 69 percent of Americans track a health indicator for themselves or a loved one. The majority – 60 percent – monitor weight, diet or exercise, but others record blood pressure, sleep patterns, headaches. About 21 percent collect and analyze this data using an electronic device, a website or an app.

Technology firm ABI Research estimates that the total market for wearable wireless gadgets in fitness and health will grow to 170 million devices in 2017, up from 21 million in 2011. These armbands, clips and patches collect and automatically share biometrics in an online format that can be tracked by cellphone or computer and shared with others.

Brands like Fitbit, Jawbone UP and Nike Plus track fitness, sleep patterns and even moods. Other types of wearable wireless devices also are gaining traction.

Devices for cellphones can monitor your heart rate and rhythm with a touch of the phone screen. Armbands can help diabetics track their glucose levels. Another product uses a smartphone’s microphone to measure lung capacity.

Buyer-beware warnings have arisen over the devices’ accuracy and the security of personal data. People need to check privacy policies of apps to prevent the information from being used in ways they might object to, such as targeted advertising.

Safety concerns have led federal officials to jump into what has been a fairly unregulated field. Last week, the federal Food and Drug Administration announced it would begin regulating mobile medical apps, but only those that could harm patients if they don’t work as intended, such as devices that monitor irregular heart rhythms and transmit the data to health care providers.

Jessica Carlson, a 30-year-old Norfolk resident, became interested in tracking her fitness with a wearable device after hearing about the technology through social media.

No big surprise there, since she’s a digital media adviser for Sentara Healthcare. She follows several fitness blogs, where she first heard about gadgets like Fitbit and Jawbone UP. She also began seeing postings on Facebook and Twitter.

Friends with wireless monitors – usually armbands or clip-on devices – were posting the number of steps they were taking daily, their mileage, calories burned, flights of stairs climbed.

They were earning fitness badges and getting “You’re almost there!” alerts.

It was as if an electronic gauntlet had been thrown down.

Carlson took the plunge and then persuaded her husband, Brian McCutcheon, to get one of the gadgets, too. Soon, they had a friendly competition going: “My husband always beats me, I don’t know how he does it.”

She runs; he golfs.

They walk the dog together, but even that can lead to different step totals. On a walk last week, McCutcheon stopped periodically to romp with the dog and play fetch, so his goal alert went off before Carlson’s.

McCutcheon, a 35-year-old Department of Defense employee, has used a Jawbone UP in the past and now has a Fitbit Flex.

Husband and wife track different measures. For instance, Carlson logs what she eats using a free app called MyFitnessPal that monitors food intake and calories. She uses another app at the grocery store called Fooducate. She scans the barcode, and up pops nutritional information and a grade.

Poor grades go to foods high in artificial sweeteners and salt; good grades go to natural foods, high in fiber and nutrients.

McCutcheon doesn’t track his food, but he does monitor his sleep patterns.

One of the devices he used would vibrate at the time in his sleep cycle that would be most natural to awaken. He can download his data to see which nights he slept well and which he tossed and turned. Recently, for instance, he learned that a couple of beers and a late-night snack had taken their toll.

The couple automatically share their daily stats with a few friends.

“If I see someone who only has 2 or 3,000 steps,” McCutcheon says, “I know they had a lazy day.”

If his own numbers are down, he’s likely to step it up a notch.

“I don’t want anyone to think I’m a slacker,” he says.

Several benefits drive the popularity of these devices.

Tamara Morgan, assistant director of fitness and wellness at Old Dominion University, says one of them is simple monitoring. Call it the power of knowledge.

Another is being able to see the data over time, in a chartable fashion, right on your cellphone or tablet screen.

And there’s no getting around this factor: competition. The social media crowd is all about keeping up.

Of course, some people will abandon their exercise routines – there are probably plenty of the devices in sock drawers along with old pedometers. But even if you only compete against your own numbers and time, the data can be helpful.

“You can challenge yourself,” says Morgan, who monitors her heart rate during runs. “You don’t have to do it in a group.”

That was the intent of Amanda Hill, a 39-year-old Norfolk mother of three who started using a Fitbit last year. At first, she was surprised how hard she had to work to tally 10,000 steps in a day.

Her device monitors flights of stairs, but her bedroom is on the first floor so she doesn’t use stairs that much. The solution: brushing her teeth while going up and down the stairs. She’s a dental hygienist, so she takes her time.

Once she started tracking her numbers, she became more vigilant in wearing the device.

“If I forget it, oh my gosh, I’m so upset. ‘I walked all this way for nothing?’ It’s like a little person.”

The day she helped run a carnival at her children’s school, she logged 50,000 steps. Another day, she went to Busch Gardens and for a run, boosting her step count to 30,000, which brought this bit of self-praise:

“I rocked it today.”

She’s a little miffed, though, that some activities don’t move the meter: “My Fitbit doesn’t respect yoga at all.”

Kenneth Crane, 47, of Virginia Beach began using a BodyMedia armband, tying it to the MyFitnessPal app, early this year. After tracking his numbers, he calculated how many extra calories he needed to burn a week – 7,000 – to lose some weight.

He’s lost 32 pounds since then.

And 39-year-old Bevan Calo of Chesapeake recently found an app that allows him to donate money to his favorite charity, according to the miles he runs.

“More motivation for me to run,” he says.

McCutcheon uses an old-school expression to describe the power of the gadget.

“It’s like having a string on your finger,” he says. “It’s a cool daily reminder.”

Elizabeth Simpson, 757-446-2635, elizabeth.simpson@pilotonline.com


Posted to: Health News

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