Retrofit Blog

Geek Chic: The Rise of Fitness Trackers

How wearable devices are changing weight loss

January 15, 2014

We're living in the age of the nerd. I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There are geniuses everywhere developing life-changing technologies, and we're the tech-hungry nerds who can't get enough. In fact, I think it's a great time to be alive. Look at all the innovation around you. It's prolific. It's exciting. In no time in human history has there been such radical change in such a short period of time. That laptop you bought last year? It's only half as powerful as what came out today. Your new smartphone? There's a sleeker model coming tomorrow, and when that's out, an even better one is ready to take its place. There's even a smartwatch these days. Perhaps it's hard to keep up with all the advances, but one thing is true: these changes are making life better for us. So much so that these innovations are even improving more than how we communicate, but also how we exercise.

The latest advancement helping people improve their health is the wearable fitness tracker. Just a few years ago, the idea of wearing an electronic device to guide your workouts would've been ridiculous. But today, it's the norm. So, in this fast-paced age of the nerd, workout gear is nothing less than "geek chic."

The best fitness trackers that define geek chic are coming from Nike, Fitbit, and Jawbone. Their devices are worn either as a wristband or a clip. And they certainly don't sacrifice style for utility. What they do is measure movement, anything from daily steps to calories burned to sleep patterns. And then they sync the information to your smartphone or computer. Sounds pretty cool huh? Now, with celebrities and trendsetters so eager to use them, it's no wonder we all want to as well.

Cool kids are really geeks

Writing for American Vogue, Chloe Malle cites the birth of this trend as the moment Serena Williams walked onto Centre Court at the 2012 Wimbledon sporting a Nike+ FuelBand. The FuelBand tracks the daily steps of the wearer and the calories he or she burns. Malle explains this is part of the "Quantified Self movement, which argues that by amassing digital data about our lifestyle we will be motivated to live more healthfully."

One aspect of the success of the fitness tracker is its versatility in style. Kanye West wears a Nike+ FuelBand. Next to his Cartier Love cuff of course. Malle explains that she even wore one to New York's posh Plaza Hotel, while wearing Valentino slippers and a pearl bracelet. After all, no matter how late it was that evening, she had to get her steps in. And while her mother teased her about it being an accessory for a younger person, her mother now owns one, as does her stepfather. "The three of us now fight to walk the dog on the weekend, a situation so novel it seems to deeply confuse Jerry, our Goldendoodle," says Malle.

The FuelBand isn't the only fitness tracker the hip and trendy are going for. In May 2013, notorious blogger Perez Hilton spotted actor Ryan Reynolds walking his dog in New York. What's interesting is that Hilton points out that Reynolds was wearing a Fitbit Flex Wireless Activity Wristband. The Flex measures the wearer's physical activity during the day as well as sleeping patterns throughout the night. "That's so cool! It can apparently even silently wake you and not your partner if you're sleeping next to a special someone," jokes Hilton.

Speaking of Fitbit, it appears the Flex is going to become even more fashionable. The company recently announced a partnership with upscale designer Tory Burch. So in case your Fitbit wasn't flashy already, prepare to have it become even flashier.

The UK's Daily Mail also covered the geek chic trend, writing, "She's evangelical about vegetables, obsessive about exercise and she won't let her children touch carbohydrates. Now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed the secret to her holier-than-thou lifestyle: the Up wristband."

The Jawbone Up has a built-in motion sensor that registers the time its wearer spends walking, running, or sitting. And to remind the wearer to get moving, it vibrates if it senses prolonged inactivity.

Cosmo Soave-Smith, author of the Daily Mail article, speaks of his own experience wearing the Up bracelet for four weeks, saying, "It noticed I've not been getting much 'deep' sleep, and correlated this with the convenience food I've been eating in place of real dinners. Then it suggested I eat leafy greens for a magnesium boost to promote sleep. I took my wristband's advice - and slept like a baby."

As of January 2014, Sony jumped into the wearable-tech game. It's launched the Sony Core, a Bluetooth-enabled "life-tracking" device. Like other devices, the Core tracks your physical activity and sleep, but it has a social dimension as well. It tracks the photos you take, the music you listen to, and friends with whom you interact most. Even with the added media, only time will tell how Sony stands up to its already established competitors in geek chic.

And Sony isn't the only one trying to modify fitness trackers these days. LG recently announced it is releasing one of its own in the spring. LG's LifeBand Touch will have smartwatch features, including call notifications and display. On top of that, it will have Heart Rate Earphones that measure the blood flow to your ears. And, of course, this device is pretty slick in appearance.

But let's not treat fitness trackers just as the bling of the moment. They really are more than just a fashion statement for A-listers. Sure these devices look sexy and can complement any outfit, but lets not forget, they're also highly effective.

Cool kids are making moves

Now, the whole point of these fitness trackers is simple: track movement. After all, movement is the key to staying healthy. For instance, an everyday activity like sitting can be detrimental. Consider the following from a New York Times article titled "Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?"

The posture of sitting itself probably isn't worse than any other type of daytime physical inactivity, like lying on the couch watching "Wheel of Fortune." But for most of us, when we're awake and not moving, we're sitting. This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops - "the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse," [Marc] Hamilton says - leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides for "vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream," as Hamilton puts it - plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.

Fortunately, wearable fitness devices help people keep track of their daily activity and avoid the pitfalls of being sedentary. And all this while looking like a star.

As an exercise physiologist with Retrofit, I track a client's baseline activity data, and then guide the client in setting up goals to increase his or her activity levels. I do this while educating the client on the importance of maintaining a high activity level and staying active throughout the day. I also work with clients to find opportunities for movement in their day, and I create strategies to help them take advantage of these opportunities. Each client gets either a Fitbit One or a Fitbit Zip with their Retrofit program. With their Fitbit, they can track their activities during the day. And you know what? They love using their wearable fitness devices.

This also gives me valuable information on each client's progress. The two main goals I set with clients for their fitness trackers are:

1. To increase their total amount of daily movement. And therefore increasing the number of calories they burn. We set a total step count goal for the day, and the client aims to achieve this total step count day after day. Burning calories helps with weight loss, but there are also many other benefits of keeping active throughout the day.

2. To spread out activity throughout the day. Inactivity is not good for the body. There are many negative health effects of long periods of inactivity. When setting a step goal with clients, I also encourage them to spread their steps out throughout the day. This helps to ensure that long periods of inactivity are broken up. The Fitbit helps create awareness of these trends. If a client gets to work at 9:00 am with 1,000 steps and then leaves at 5:00 pm with 1,500 steps, there wasn't much activity throughout the workday. I'll help the client figure out ways to mix in more activity by doing things like taking the stairs more, scheduling walking breaks, and walking to co-workers' desks instead of emailing, texting, or calling.

Based on these two simple goals I set, Retrofit has found remarkable results among clients who completed a 12-month program. Based on clients who tracked their daily steps using their Fitbit devices, we've found that:

  • Clients that achieved 10,000 steps per day or more lost on average 10.2% of their body weight.

Quite simply, inactivity is bad. That's probably obvious to us all. But if we can quantify what we've accomplished over the day, we're more likely to stay on a path to self-improvement. And let's not kid ourselves - if we can look good getting healthy, we're going to do it. So I encourage one and all to embrace geek chic. You just might like how you look.

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Scott Brunning Exercise Physiologist & Wellness Expert

Scott Brunning is an Exercise Physiologist and Wellness Expert at Retrofit. He holds a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology and is a certified Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Having helped hundreds of people lose weight and get fit, Scott dedicates his career to helping individuals find their own personal pathway to health and fitness. Scott practices what he preaches, so he can often be found at the gym or running around Chicago.

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