I was a professional athlete, and even I can’t make wearables useful
Fitness wearables are useless for me, and that’s a bad sign for companies who hope to make a real connection with people who exercise regularly.
I’m not just some schlub writer trying to break away from my work desk that doesn’t know a barbell from a dumbbell, after all.
I’m a former professional athlete who played a season of American football overseas for a pro German club. I was paid to play my sport, so by extension, I was paid to train. It was literally my business to know what my workouts were accomplishing, even without the strength coaches and personalized fitness plan I had in college.
In the last few years, I’ve seen my training habits shift as I’ve entered my post-competition life. But I still consider myself to be an athlete to some degree. I hit the weight room, Muay Thai mat, and jogging loop six days a week. Just about every workout lately has been tracked by one device or another, but I’m not sure exactly why. I don’t actually do anything with the data.
I love to exercise and I love tech, so I want to see the two disparate worlds join together in a meaningful way.
The gadgets can count my steps, sure, and track my heart rate — but what can they tell me while I’m working out that I don’t already know? What feedback do they give me that I can think about for the next workout?
Nothing. Not yet, at least. You’d need the services of a high-level coach or personal trainer to put the data to use, which goes against the whole purpose of using a device in the first place.
I’ve worn and reviewed a number of fitness trackers in my time as a tech reporter, so I’m not just disgruntled after a bad experience with one gadget or brand. They’re all equally meh in my experience, as each device promises new insights and tracking functionality but return little beyond new straps, thinner designs, and more step counting.
The middle ground
I admit there are exceptions to my gripes about the trackers. Simple wearables with pedometers are genuinely useful gadgets that have helped to prod people off the couch and out onto the walking trail to reach their step goal. Serious athletes with specific goals can use the more advanced niche devices to get an edge during training and competition, like Mashable super intern Molly Sequin in her path to Ironwoman glory.
But the wide appeal of these general fitness trackers is to give everyday exercisers in the middle of these two groups a set of tools to hack their workouts like never before, taking some aspects of “personal training” away from expensive private coaches and automating them.
I’ve found, however, that if I really want to use the data I collect, I’d need to keep exhaustive records. I’d have to go above and beyond to digitally monitor every single workout, logging every activity meticulously, maybe even creating spreadsheets to track patterns in my results that could lead to future breakthroughs.
That’s way more work than most people expect when they buy one of the flashy bracelets, and that’s why no one, including me, wants to actually use them. The closest I’ve come to a tracker that cut through the data was the Garmin vívosmart 3, but that came up short because it couldn’t accurately track weight training reps.
That’s a big part of why around 30 percent of people who buy them just stop wearing them, cutting the trackers out of their workouts completely.
I’m not the only one who thinks this, clearly, and the market is reacting. Jawbone, once considered Fitbit’s top competition in the space, recently shuttered its business, while TomTom’s CEO also publicly mulled eliminating the company’s wearable division.
But I still hold out hope that these mainstream wearables will soon be more than just step-counting bracelets. I love to exercise and I love tech, so I want to see the two disparate worlds join together in a meaningful way. They really should go together so well — one of the major focuses in sports training is efficiency, and a well-designed wearable should be the perfect tool to designing a clutter-free workout.
I wear my Fitbit Alta HR around the clock, just in case a use for the data it’s tracking becomes clearer with the new products or app updates in the future. I really want to hack my workout with some real-time, actionable, science-driven insights — the tech just isn’t quite there yet.
The overall wearables industry is in fine shape for the moment, with the Apple Watch and cheap trackers from Chinese company Xiaomi leading the way. The market is even expected to grow in the future, with projections to double by 2021.
But even with that growth, the “Wristband” category of the market, which would encompass the general fitness trackers I have beef with it, is expected to take up a much smaller share than it holds today. If fitness trackers do have a space in this new wearable landscape, it will be because their makers have found a way to actually make them useful to everyone — even if they’ve never spent a single day training as a pro athlete.