wearable fitness technology

We May Not Be As Fit As Our Ancestors, But Health Technology Is Making Up For It

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Human beings are still evolving – and now more than ever, technology is an enormous part of the equation.

As times and human responsibilities change, so do our bodies: the modern American’s fitness level has lowered pretty drastically over time due to increasingly diversified tasks and, of course, improved technology.

Even if technology has reduced the need for extreme fitness and will likely never restore the strength of our ancestors, technology’s use as a health tool has also been evolving, too: most recently in the form of a plethora of fitness-tracking wearables.

But as wearable fitness devices make up a relatively new field, its efficacy has yet to be proven.

As fitness falls, innovation compensates

According to recent University of Cambridge research, today’s (male) student cross-country runners have about the same average strength as the average farmer 7,300 years ago.

But even that is a far cry from hunter-gatherer days, in which stone age humans would be considered “monstrous” by today’s standards (or today’s humans pathetic by theirs) from traveling long distances on foot regularly and hauling heavy objects.

But though our levels of fitness have fallen, with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes having risen due to inactivity and sugary diets, longevity, height, and weight has increased, and the brain has also evolved considerably.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Keoni Cabral via Flickr.

Powered by advances in public health and food production, some say that the rate of evolution since the 20th century (called “technophysio evolution”) has been super-powered due to the technology that saved human beings from malnutrition and infectious diseases.

What fitness tech will do for the body

Technology may enable inability in the cases of television and video games, but let us not forget what electronic gym equipment like treadmills and ellipticals have done for so many.

And even aside from fitness machines and medical technology, closer integration of electronics and the body means the ability to track health better than ever before.

Namely, a wave of new wearable devices are becoming available, most in the form of sleek health-tracking watches. Most of these promise to record steps and burnt calories; some, like Jawbone’s UP, even track sleep cycle and let you log moods and food.

Photo courtesy of Kazuhiro Keino via Flickr.

There’s even a new fitness wearable for kids, made by LeapFrog.

But as we’ve noted before, wearable devices, though promising, have been abandoned at a troubling rate after acquisition so far: half of those with fitness trackers put them down within six months.

Even so, preliminary studies have shown that tracking exercise and food yields results, with one study on older people found that fitness trackers lost 10% more weight than non-trackers.

Not to mention the market potential is huge: more than 17 million wearable devices, including smart bands and fitness watches, are expected to be sold in 2014.

Wearable future: to track or not to track

Varying sources say anywhere between 32 and 70% of American mobile users already track their fitness with apps, leading many to think that it is the mode of the future – capable of bringing and enforcing mass awareness on healthy habits.

Others find the constant counting maddening and stressful, and suggesting that once it helps you find the right balance, it may not be necessary – which might account for the high abandonment rate.

And worse, some, including the NY Times, have noted that a majority of devices aren’t living up to their marketing, yielding inconsistent or inaccurate results – relying more on advertising than medical understanding.

But as this is only the beginning, or the “Plymouth Rock” of wearable, as the NY Times calls it, the road is understandably bumpy. Like human bodies and brains, from origins of clunky strength toward an intelligent and nuanced future, the technology will evolve.

And as Apple has notably been on a medical tech hiring spree, snagging up many biomedical experts for the company, the prospect of an iWatch or even a whole array of medical and fitness applications could just be next on the horizon.

Jennifer Markert