What activity trackers (including the Apple Watch) need to crack health and fitness

By Alvin Soon - on 12 Sep 2014, 5:45pm

I love the promise of activity trackers, that you can improve your health and fitness with the power of metrics and technology.

Sadly, none of the trackers on the market can really do that now. They can mostly nail the metrics down to varying degrees - how many steps you've taken, how many calories you burned, how much you slept - but they don't really help to improve your life in any significant way.

That's because they're all missing one thing: big data.

Imagine a service which tracks various biomarkers for you. This service can monitor you over time, and actually tell you things like how the reason you've been feeling tired lately is because your magnesium levels are unusually low. You take its recommendation and pop some magnesium pills, and viola, your tiredness goes away.

This service already exists in the US. Wellness FX takes regular blood samples and lets you monitor important biomarkers over time. By comparing your markers against what is optimal, you get actionable info on what you can do to actually improve your life.

That's an example of what big data can do. And it's a dream of what trackers can do if they pair up with big data.

Imagine the heart rate sensor on the new Apple Watch. What if the sensor could not only monitor your heart rate over time, but also detect unusual heart palpitations and log them against a database of heart rates? What if it could then send you a message, warning you that people with similar heart rate patterns have a higher chance of heart problems and you should get it checked out?

It would be a significant game changer. What if activity trackers could also measure other biomarkers the same way, like rising body fat or cholesterol levels? Wouldn't that be something?

The one company which has the resources to turn advanced hardware into commercial success would be Apple. But historically, the cloud and big data has never been their strong point. Google has big data geniuses in spades, but not the hardware know-how that Apple does.

It's inevitable that as technology improves, we'll all soon be wearing smart devices on our bodies. But to really wade into health and fitness technology and make a big dent there requires more than just good hardware. You need big data as well. While I might balk at the thought of spending US$349 on an Apple Watch, if it can help improve my health in significant ways I'll not only buy one, but buy one each for the rest of my family as well.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Former Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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