Don't Sleep on Wearables...a Primer for Digital Fitness

As discussed in our recent whitepaper, Content, Community and Technology: Digital ecosystems for fitness brands, we've found that there are five essential pillars of a unified digital fitness experience. This article follows the first in a series -- Time to Focus on Your App -- to spotlight the second pillar of digital fitness: Your wearables.
Wearables are here to stay

Even before COVID-19, fitness and digital had been on a path of convergence. As remote fitness takes root more deeply, wearables are quickly transforming from basic data capture tools to sophisticated feedback devices that responsively support a broad population...encompassing people with medical conditions to professional athletes and everyone in between.

While they’re still great as heart rate monitors and step trackers, wearables including sleep/activity tracker Oura are being used to control the pandemic. Wearable technology is poised for big growth in the coming years, as people become more attuned to holistic health concerns. And for digital fitness, wearables will be a game-changer in increasing connectivity to their end users and unlocking stronger athletic performance.

Pillar #2: Wearables

“Wearable integration is the single most important variable in helping a consumer along their fitness journey.” -- Mohammed Iqbal, CEO of Sweatworks

This quote rings true in our conversations with a variety of industry leaders. Wearables accompany customers on every stage of their lives, monitoring everything from heart rate to calorie burn to sleep quality, and the insight and transparency that comes from leveraging tracking data is not available through any other means. Wearables are essential for brands who want to fully integrate into their customers’ lives and springboard into other aspects of health and fitness.

From a simplicity and UX standpoint, wearables are the easiest way to track health data. Bypassing the need for spreadsheets, periodic heart-rate tracking (for example, between sets) or qualitative self-reporting, wearables are a powerful tool for customers and fit tech companies alike. The wearables space has actually existed since the 1970s, but big brands have only recently made major forays into the space.

We spoke with Tom Fowler from Polar, the same company that first introduced the wireless heart rate tracker more than 40 years ago. Today, Polar produces a wide range of consumer and professional wearable health trackers - everything from a $150 watch for casual joggers to professional-grade athletic tracking equipment used by dozens of teams in all 5 major sports leagues.

Fowler has been in the wearables vertical for almost a decade, and he emphasized the increasingly valuable ways that data from wearables can be used. “We’ve gone from simply tracking data - recording activity levels - to being able to surface actionable insights that can transform the quality of a customers’ health and life.”

He then shared the story of a Polar customer who had suffered from low quality sleep for most of her life. In Fowler’s words, she “simply believed she was one of those people who have no choice but to be exhausted all the time, despite getting 8+ hours of sleep each night.” Through a feature of her Polar Ignite watch called Nightly Recharge, she learned that her autonomic nervous system was never quieting down at night, and was recommended a weighted blanket. Through that simple fix, she corrected her sleep quality (and the course of her life) and began feeling truly rested for the first time in almost 30 years. It’s easy to imagine the loyalty, gratitude and product benefit that this kind of experience generates.

Wearables also help to optimize the workout experience, and not just through motivating higher caloric burn or planning the structure of a Crossfit session. San Francisco-based asensei, led by Steven Webster, has invented a new category of wearable that isn’t a watch or an app but a network of tracking sensors that are stitched into exercise clothes. Appropriately dubbed “(App)arel”, asensei’s workout gear is designed specifically to optimize form, with multiple motion sensors tracking full-body motion (think of the way NBA players don dozens of motion sensors for their individual style of movement to be captured for video game integration). In asensei’s case, instead of being stuck onto the body like band-aids, the sensors are literally stitched into the fabric of their (App)arel, and monitor isolated body motion and full-body form continuously.

During the planning stages for asensei, Webster spoke to several medal-winning Olympic rowers. Their emphasis on the consistency and accuracy of great form being a dominant factor in success led asensei to first pursue adoption within the rowing world. The company now also develops wearable garments for yoga, strength and conditioning training, mobility training and other sports.

The crux of asensei’s platform is to enable “Connected Coaching” for activities in which technique and form is critical to safe, correct practice and to getting better. With total transparency into an athlete’s form, coaches have the greatest insight - and can therefore get the best performance out of their athletes. In Webster’s words, “the idea is to put the voice of Tiger, Jordan, or Serena in your ear, telling you what to focus on next, to become better at the craft” - and the basis of it is the scientifically accurate tracking that asensei’s (App)arel enables.

The primary takeaway from both Polar and asensei is that the raw data recorded by wearables has limited value as it becomes more common. The true value add for wearables lies in leveraging this data to make recommendations that would otherwise go unmade - whether that’s improving movement and form, suggesting an additional set at the end of a workout to hit a heart rate goal, or recommending a rest day.

From a quantitative standpoint - measurement, tracking, and recommendation-making - wearables are fundamentally important. And as digital fitness companies continue to leverage wearables’ unique strengths, their importance will only continue to grow.

Our next blog article will focus on the fourth pillar of digital fitness: Training Content.

To Be Continued…

We hope this was a helpful primer on Wearables for digital fitness. For additional details, you can also download our complete whitepaper at Content, Community and Technology: Digital ecosystems for fitness brands.