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Wearable health tech devices like the Fitbit, pictured above, are worn by its users even outside the gym. "I don't mind sporting it wherever I go, because the design is sleek," said Fitbit user Kendall Todd in a Chicago coffee shop.

Wearable devices promise steps toward health

by Kristin April Kim
May 14, 2014

Wearable technology like wristbands and T-shirts are attracting increased consumer interest fueled by a desire to quantify physical activities and monitor personal health.


 The “quantified self” movement, or the idea that people can monitor themselves using personally generated data, has picked up traction with great speed. 


 According to U.K-based Juniper Research, the number of wearable devices shipped will rise from 13 million in 2013 to 130 million in 2018, and that size of the market will jump from $1.4 billion to $19 billion. 


 Furthermore, the global research group Mintel’s 2014 consumer surveys indicate that nearly a third of consumers would like to try technology devices that track exertion and progress, such as Fitbit: a wristband that tracks a user's distance traveled and calories burned. It also monitors how long and well its users sleep and wakes them up with a “silent” alarm; it flashes a light and it vibrates. 


 Such gadgets promise convenience and practical ways to stay healthy for many; the data is pushed to all of the users' other online platforms, said to allow users to remain fit and digitally connected without interrupting real-life social interactions. 


 David Kamerer, assistant professor at the Loyola University School of Communication, says that wearable technology is a part of a larger trend called the “Internet of Things,” in which many activities that were traditionally offline are becoming linked to a connected database online. 


 “The wearable technology trend seems to me a natural progression,” he said. “There are two reasons for a trend in this direction: one is marketing, and the other is that you can take advantage of game-ification to motivate people to change their behavior.”  


 In fact, Kamerer said, he was watching the evening news one evening when he saw that his Fitbit was at 9500 steps. In his pajamas, he walked around the apartment to reach 10,000. 


 “I wanted that reward,” he said. 


 To capitalize on the growing industry of measurement gadgets, Amazon Inc. opened an entirely new section for wearable electronics last April. Since wearable tech is a relatively new concept to many consumers, Amazon is dedicated to educating them about what products are the best fit for their lifestyle in its “Learning Center.” 


 But as the trend takes off, some users express concern about the accuracy of such devices. 


 “It just takes your height and weight, so the information you get is a generic computation,” said Bryan Rague, who received a Fitbit for Christmas.  “My friends have also repeatedly had cases where their devices won’t accurately record all the steps the took or the miles they ran. I think it’s just a useful tool for goal-setting.” 


 According to high-tech reporter Jack Smith, gadgets like the Fitbit are “a child’s toy” compared to biometric T-shirts, which take more accurate readings.  


 Fitness tracking startup OMSignal believes the best way to keep consumers interested is to directly insert the technology into their clothing. 


 While products like the Fitbit and Nike Fuelband stop short of tracking calories and distance, biometric T-shirts that are embedded with sensors that measure how deeply users are breathing, how they’re bending their bodies and provide what the company claims is a full electrocardiogram test. It plans to begin shipping its shirt line this summer.  


 Though the more sophisticated technology provides a greater level of detail and insight into one’s health, shirts and their tracking modules together start at $119, compared to Fitbits that start at $59.95. 


 But the trend extends beyond the gym walls. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, technology giants ranging from Sony to LG introduced devices that track heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and more.  


 There are numerous positive implications of the growing popularity of wearables in healthcare, including improving “population health”.   


 Though a relatively new term with no strict definition, David Kindig, M.D., Ph.D. describes it in the American Journal of Public Health as “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group.” The field of population health “includes health outcomes, patterns of health determinants, and policies and interventions that link the two.” 


 Finding ways to integrate, aggregate and analyze disparate healthcare information has been challenging and costly.  But since wearable health technology ties the three benefits of connected information, community and game-ification together, healthcare leaders and scholars are able to develop a clearer picture of how personal health relates to population health.  


 As the accuracy and scope of data improve, wearables hold the potential to reduce healthcare costs by identifying trends and commonalities among certain populations,  thereby enabling better preventive care,” wrote Vala Afshar, chief marketing officer of Extreme Networks.  


 Though the benefits of the wearable technology may be offset by concerns over accuracy, Kamerer summarizes it best: “We are a creature of habit, and if the devices can train us to lead healthier lifestyles, that’s great.”