Fitness Tech Needs a Workout

By Raymond Brooks

Many believe fitness is the secret to a long life. Walk through any workout room or athletic centre and it is obvious why. What isn’t obvious are the devices attached to gymgoers’ wrists, in pockets, or downloaded on their phones. Technology compliments fitness by offering performance review, heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking. As athletes improve however, the technology can’t keep up with their workout routines, often causing frustration and overreliance.

A 2016 study, Wearable Fitness Technology, from the University of Texas, looked into perceptions and acceptance of fitness technology. The study shows that “wearable fitness technology collects personal data through various tracking features … meaning the resulting motivations that follow will vary by user. Most health-related behaviours such as eating well and exercising regularly could lead to meaningful improvements in an individual’s health if they are sustained. If devices are to be part of the solution, they will need to create long-term, enduring habits.”

What better example of a long-term enduring habit than cross country running?

Runners can track their performances and improve their personal best. Photo by Galvin Zaldivar.

Cross country coach at Sheridan College Danny Webster says, GPS watches and heart-rate monitors can measure general exercise data, but not specifics. “So, the big thing with cross country is learning how to run by feel, so what I tell the team, is to learn how to use your inner GPS rather than the GPS on your watch,” 

A lot fo the time i see them becoming too relient on their watches in the middle of the race or the middle of a workout. And if they’re not hitting the pace that they think they should be, the race is already predeterminded to be a bad one. And in reality, they could be running a fantastic time,” he says. “Again, they’re not 100 per cent accurate. Every course read or run is different. There might be more hills, less hills, it could be a windy day, a hot day, cold day or muddy day.”

Webster thinks that many runners over-rely on their wrist-based coaches.  He worries runners get too bogged down in the metrics. 

Webster also acknowledges the inaccuracy of some devices. 

“There have been some really informal studies show that whether a person was wearing the watch on the right hand versus your left hand on a 400-metre track, the distance changed,” he says.

He isn’t the only one who has observed inaccuracies in a professional environment.

“A lot of the time i see them 
becoming too relient on their watches in the middle of the race or the middle of a workout. 

Toronto Kinesiologist Dillon Whitley, knows of at least 10 people who use fitness devices, but describes some drawbacks with the technology. “I wouldn’t say it’s the be all end all, because when we’re talking about averages, you have to be specific as to what population you’re thinking of.” He describes how fitness devices only rely on the information they have from heart rate or partial step count. Not from a hub or collaborative environment. Cole Czucknicki is a fourth-year kinesiology student and a cross country athlete. He has seen athletes use one such environment. 

“There are various websites online that you can automatically upload whatever workout you did, or run you did and that brings … social media aspects to that. Garmin Connect is an example of that.” He describes the Garmin app, which incorporates various devices and provides vital health data.

Czucknicki has also seen evidence that what keeps people exercising is consistent progression. He thinks that in diet or exercise, consistency is the most important thing. “If you feel obligated to get a certain number of steps in a day or to be at a certain activity level, and you have something reminding you, I can’t see that hurting. Most people have a hard enough time getting started,” he says.

That line of thinking is why fitness technology is popular to begin with. A tracking of regular exercise or casual walking, provides a positive boost in motivation for further exercise. However, some say that can be taken too far. 

Czucknicki mentions that some people might overdo it, but that is not concern for the majority of fit tech users. “Overtraining might become more of a concern,” but that he says “is not the vast majority … In my experience, most people have a hard-enough time getting started.”

Cross country coach and high performance centre coordinator at Humber College Teresa Arnini, says “most of our athletes are high achievers. When you give them the opportunity to get benchmarked [after a run], with the help of their conditioning coach, we can get them to perform to their optimal level. It really gives them that ability to learn more about themselves or know when to push themselves, because it’s development for them.” 

This is relates to technology affecting athletes’ personal goals, and athletes learning to judge themselves instead of by a parameter.

Leanne Henwood-Adam, is the fitness coordinator and fitness facility manager at Humber College. Her job allows her to keep an eye on the technology brought into the fitness centre. “As far as the technology in our area, we’ve looked at things and said, there’s just too many things that can break down. So, we’ve kept all of our treadmills fairly basic. We don’t have the big monitors on the treadmills or the bikes for someone to watch Netflix while they’re working out.”

Regarding fitness tracking, Henwood-Adam has a different opinion. 

A runner expertly jumping hurdles at Humber College. Photo by Galvin Zaldivar.

“We highly recommend them to everybody, because something as simple as just an old-fashioned pedometer has shown to be very motivating for people. Years ago, I started a pedometer challenge with very simple devices that were not that accurate at all. However, I gave out a bunch one summer and people got so into it. Just the idea that they were wearing that pedometer that was tracking how far they were walking, made them more conscious. I would hear stories about people who walked around their dining room table, or people doing marching steps in the elevator. So, those apps really have proven to me to be extremely motivating for people, and its really kind of cool because you’re not competing against anyone but yourself.”

In some ways, technology needs a major workout, in the meantime, athletes should use realistic goals, productive habits, and exercise routines to keep in shape. No matter how many bells and whistles a treadmill has included, it doesn’t make an athlete run. Running comes naturally to anyone who can take a step forward. Although technology has some benefits, it cannot replace that drive.

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