Is the Next Generation of Fitness Digital?

A week ago, I wrote a short opinion piece about the new Apple Watch and what it means for your health & fitness. In light of what I’ve been seeing in the sports performance and general fitness worlds recently, I wanted to expand on that topic today. The more and more I think about this topic, the more and more I’m convinced that numbers and metrics matter and that the next generation of fitness is digital. I think this era has finally arrived.

In case you missed it, Series 3 of the Apple Watch is gaining traction as the “fitness wearable” that might make you reconsider the utility of what was once a needless gadget. Why do I need a smartwatch when my phone can do everything it can, but much better? If you have never owned a smartwatch before, this generation of the Apple Watch might be a good place to start.

Highlights of Series 3 include:

  1. cellular capabilities that allow you to take phone calls, send messages, and stream music without having your phone on you
  2. a built-in altimeter to see how high you climb on your hiking, biking, or climbing expeditions
  3. a built-in heart rate monitor, swim-proof design, and GPS; in general, revamped hardware and software that allows you to measure your physical activity, workouts, health, and fitness across the board.

While the smartphone can be seen as a productivity tool for work, the Apple Watch can be seen as a productivity tool for health & fitness. There was once a time when you needed a different device for each of the dedicated functions listed above, but now it’s possible to have that and more on your wrist. It’s the same thing that happened to basic cellphones, which are now smartphones that have become indispensable in our everyday lives.

More and more people are using their personal electronics and software to track their health and fitness. You can use MyFitnessPal to track your meals, calories, and your diet. You can use Map My Run to track your jogs, running routes, distances, and times. And of course, you can track your weights and your numbers for your workouts with dedicated apps or Excel spreadsheets; the latter which are now more accessible than ever through apps built by Microsoft specifically for iOS and Android.

Everywhere you look, big companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google are embracing the digital and mobile revolution. The health & fitness field is just the latest domino to fall, because the timing is right. Just this week Forbes called Under Armour as the largest digital health & fitness company on Earth, and this blog is partially inspired by that article.

An athlete wants to get stronger and faster to perform better in her sport, while a busy father wants to shed inches off his waist and improve his well-being to keep up with his kids. The metrics that are most applicable to any training goal differ on a case-by-case basis; “sports performance” for the athlete and “fitness” for the father both need different metrics, some of which may be hard to quantify. But the fact of the matter is that is it easier now than it’s ever been to get immediate feedback and insight into your workouts than ever before.

We know that the Apple Watch is great for the expeditionary types who like to hike and explore. We now know that tracking your diet and exercise will be easier than ever, as it looks like many health & fitness apps have matured out of their start-up phase. But even in other cases, especially specific sports like soccer, or baseball, the technology has always been there to quantify on-field performance, game readiness, and athletic parameters. It is only recent that this technology has become inexpensive and accessible to all of us.

I know of a handful of examples both recently and from a while back where soccer teams tracked the movements of their players using GPS, which allowed the coaching staff to gain insight into how much their players were moving and how much they were working in practice. This allowed them to manage their players’ workloads and  tailor practice sessions on an individual basis to ensure that they were game-ready.

HRV, or heart rate variability, has been gaining a lot of traction recently as well, especially in fitness circles. The Bioforce HRV system comes to mind for me as a definitive way to measure HRV. It is widely accepted as a way to see how well you’re recovering from training sessions and how ready you are to crush your lifts that day…or have them crush you. HRV offers a window into your recovery and stress levels. The higher your variability, the more well-rested and ready you are for life in and out of the gym.

I’ve also seen more implementation of velocity-based training programs in the fitness world, especially now that Tendo units and other tools have become more accessible. But more importantly there is more research and anecdotal evidence, especially in our hyper-connected digital world, that shows the validity of VBT and how to use it correctly for your training goals, whatever they may be. (Needless to say, you should definitely have a good strength base, first!)

In the baseball world, I’ve seen more and more people quantifying performance with numbers, metrics, and technology recently than ever before. For starters, throwing velocity might be the most important metric of all in the sport; today, you can own a reasonably-accurate radar device to measure velocity that fits in your pocket for less than $300. Radar guns are still bulky and expensive (upwards of $700), but the Pocket Radar offers a viable option for amateur athletes to measure their velocity and see if the improvements they’re making are paying off. In the video below, you can see this Pocket Radar in action compared to a standard radar gun beginning at 0:52. For the size and price, it’s a great alternative for those looking to measure velocity:

I’ve also seen more implementation of technologies like HitTrax and Rapsodo for hitting and pitching, respectively, in the sport of baseball. And these technologies are no longer limited to just the 30 Major League ball clubs of the MLB.

With HitTrax, you can see vital metrics like pitching velocity, exit velocity off the bat, launch angle, and even projected distance and visuals of where a ball might land on the baseball field, and whether it would result in an out or a hit. With Rapsodo, you can track things like the velocity, spin rate, and spin axis of a pitch. This allows a user to “design” his pitches using instant feedback and data, allowing him to better judge what adjustments to make and how to make them.

This year, Major League Baseball has also embraced Statcast, which provides valuable insight into crucial plays and highlight-worthy hits. All the metrics mentioned above are measured in some part by the organization, and presented to audiences to show exactly what is going on in these plays on a quantitative level. It’s cool to see catchers pumping 85 mph bullets to nail runners trying to take extra bases, and just how short the time-frame is for such a play to unfold successfully.

So what does this all mean?

There’s a saying in the professional world, that “what gets measured, gets managed”. This is exactly what is happening in the world of sports performance and health & fitness right now. With better insight into our performance and our training, we can further optimize our workouts to produce better numbers and get closer to our fitness goals. Our qualitative goals can now be justified through quantifiable means. “I want to look lean and fit” now means “I want to get down to 10% body fat”; “I want to become a better baseball player” now means “I want to throw 95”.

The next generation of fitness is digital, and this is a good thing! The more numbers we have at our disposal, the better we can quantify and assess our fitness. Something like the Apple Watch is great for the general fitness client, while more specialized equipment and measuring tools may be necessary for athletes or serious fitness addicts. We just have to make sure we choose the right set of metrics to get the job done.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.