The New Age of Digital Fitness | Body | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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The New Age of Digital Fitness 

  • Annie Internicola

Mike Olsen still has the polo shirt that he wore in 2008 when he was at his heaviest—283 pounds, to be exact. "It reminds me of an umbrella now, or a hammock," he says. Six years later and 100 pounds lighter, thanks to a fitness and diet revamp that has melted the pudge off and replaced it with muscle, you'll find him sporting different clothes—and one telltale gadget on his wrist. "It's a Fitbit, and it's one of my favorite tools," says Olsen, 33, of New Windsor. "It keeps track of how many steps I take each day, how many miles I travel on foot, how many calories I burn, how many flights of stairs I walk up—I don't know how it does that, it blows my mind—and how many minutes I've been active," he says. "Oh, and it's also a watch." One of several motion-tracking wristbands on the market these days, the Fitbit helps him set and reach his daily goals, which are anything but modest. The five-foot-eleven, sixth-grade English teacher strives to take no less than 20,000 steps and burn 3,500 calories daily. "I don't hit that every day," says Olsen. "But at night if I feel my wrist vibrate to let me know I've reached my goal, it's a great feeling."

Survival of the (High-Tech) Fittest

These days, if you want to work out, plug yourself in. If you need to lose weight, log on. Time for boot camp? Boot up. Gadgets, apps, and social media tools for health and fitness are all the rage. Wearable activity trackers like the Fitbit, Jawbone, and NikeFuel are the accessories of choice for the fit and wannabe fit alike. (Despite a recall of its Fitbit Force model earlier this year after some customers complained that the device gave them rashes, Fitbit still leads the pack with 67 percent of market share.) Don't want to invest in a multipurpose wristband or clip-on tracker? There's a motion-tracking app for your Android, too, such as the free Pacer pedometer. For calorie counters, food-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, Daily Burn, and My Diet Diary will crunch the numbers. There are even "smart scales" like the Withings Smart Body Analyzer, which do a lot more than give you your weight; they also measure your body mass index, heart rate, and air quality. (No, they don't tell you your fortune.)

As if to validate the runaway trend in health and fitness techware, Apple announced last month the creation of HealthKit, a new platform that will act as a single interface on your iPhone to assemble data about your health—everything from your sleep quality and weight to blood pressure and nutrition. The technology will become available to iPhone users in the form of a new Health app introduced with iOS8, due out this fall—and one of the most amazing features will be its ability to send critical health data directly to your doctor. Could this be the future of preventive care?

Local digital entrepreneur Dan Stone believes that it is. Stone, who is a principal at Evolving Media Network, a Kingston-based digital design-and-build firm, has embraced the cyber health trend with the zeal of a tech geek—if not an exercise junkie. "I'm not trying to be superfit," says Stone. "Instead, I'm using these devices to create more awareness." Stone has three gadgets in his arsenal—a Fitbit Flex, a Withings scale, and a Withings blood pressure monitor. Each one costs about $100, but Stone says it's a worthwhile investment to have key information about his health literally at his fingertips. As for HealthKit, Stone will be an early adopter. "I want to have all the data [that my gadgets collect] in one place, but to do that right now you have to engage in some hackery. What HealthKit will do is give you one centralized location to report the data." If it all seems futuristic, Stone points out that the technology has been going in this direction since the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s. "It's part of a whole movement called the Quantified Self—which is a group of people who focus on using computers to log personal information and aggregate data about themselves." You might think of it as the Me Generation morphed into the Virtual Me Generation—a kind of cyber-navel-gazing that has the potential, if we use it right, to make us healthier in the long run.

Real Foods & Online Inspirations

Olsen may love his Fitbit, but initially, it was a much more primitive form of technology that helped him revamp his body. It was a security video camera. "I was at one of those Putt Putt mini-golf places, and I went inside to get my gear. I looked up and saw a very overweight, unhealthy-looking man from behind on the [surveillance monitor] screen. The first thing that came to my mind was, 'Wow, that guy is really fat.' But then I took a step forward and he took a step forward. I took a step backward and he took a step backward. I didn't break down and cry," says Olsen, "but it was the worst feeling ever, to know that was me. It was my rock bottom. I had a two-month-old daughter at home, and I didn't want to be the dad who couldn't play with her because he was too big to move. I knew from then on that I needed to drop weight and not feel like that and look like that."

Olsen's initial, predigital attempts to change his diet and lifestyle resulted in slow progress. "I would drop 10 or 20 pounds, but then I'd get stuck and have to change something at the gym or in my diet," he says. It took him four years to shed the first 50 pounds—but he dropped the last 50 pounds in just the past two years. In the end, it came down to food choices. "I was really able to lose a lot of weight and get healthy because of what entered through my lips. I'd been eating foods that were very unhealthy; as a new dad, it had been easier to go through the fast food drive-thru. Gradually, I changed that. When I made the commitment to eating real, whole foods, it was like taking Earth medicine. I feel like a brand-new person."

Something else happened in the last two years that helped Olsen transform: He tapped into the power of social media. "Instagram is where I do most of my fitness and health posting," he says. "I put my journey on there." Olsen, who goes by the handle EatRightTrainRight, has about 1,000 followers on Instagram and posts about once a day; he also uses Twitter. "I'll put up a recipe, a workout, or whatever I'm doing—whether it's walking the bridge, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or taking the dog for a walk. I like to remind people that getting fit doesn't have to mean going to the gym." Social media keeps him accountable, and it also gives him a chance to see what like-minded individuals are doing. Such information-sharing has been invaluable. "People that I follow would post links on the negative aspects of wheat or sugar or alcohol. I was able to see, wow, this is why I'm not as healthy as I want to be—because I have this or that in my diet. I used to think I could eat a three- or four-dollar bag of pretzels after school, but that wasn't a good choice. Now I'll have almonds or bananas or Greek yogurt, something with real nutrition. Instagram brought all that to the surface."

Motivation, Yes—Accuracy, No

Not everyone is waving their pompoms about the digital health and fitness craze. Keith Laug—a personal trainer and the owner of Hudson Valley Fitness in Beacon—views the new trend with cautious skepticism. He doesn't use apps or gadgets himself, but quite a few of his clients come into his boot-camp classes or one-on-one sessions wearing activity trackers like the Fitbit or NikeFuel. "They have varying results, because the accuracy of these devices is not that great," says Laug. One client used two different activity trackers when she went out for a run and got two totally different results. Another client's wristband signaled that he reached his goal at eight in the morning, before he'd even started his workout. Laug has also seen gadgets get lost or broken, especially during activities that involve sweating or water. "A lot of clients will use one for a while and get something out of it, but then they'll see the inaccuracies and it just turns into a fancy watch," he says.

"Every month, there's another technology coming out, another app or wearable; they're trying to tackle the inaccuracies, but it's going to be hard to do," adds Laug. "Especially when it comes to measuring your fitness levels. With that, you're better off working with a trainer or fitness professional to get an accurate reading of where you're at." Offering the tech-expert point of view, Stone agrees that step-tracking technologies still have a good deal of kinks: "Your body has a lot of motions to it, so figuring that out through a gadget on your wrist isn't easy." But he ensures that other device features, like blood pressure monitoring and GPS, are trustworthy. And despite his grain-of-salt talk, Laug concedes that apps, gadgets, and social media can be great motivational tools. "If it's going to get you up off the couch and moving, I'm all for it," says Laug. "But you shouldn't be relying on it."

My Gadget, My Self

As first-generation technology, digital fitness is still evolving; whether it's a passing fad or here to stay remains to be seen. With the endless proliferation of apps and gadgets, it seems like any day now we'll all have USB ports installed in the backs of our heads. A teched-out life is not for everyone—and many of us will prefer to tune into our own bodies without the help of a gadget. And clearly, not all of the devices will stick around; some will appeal only to a select geek population. One new wearable called the Lumo-Lift attaches to your lapel and lets you know when you're slouching—kind of like a Virtual Mom. Is too much technology a bad thing? While the risk of radiation from most of these gadgets is minimal, many apps require the near-constant use of cell phones—which do put out serious radiofrequency energy that can impact health. But most of us have a cell phone attached like a fifth limb anyway. Why not get more out of it?

As the science morphs and transforms, many people—including Olsen, who continues to inspire with his story—will take advantage of the self-knowledge that it offers. Sleep tracking, step counting, BMI indexing, heart rate monitoring—bring it on, says Stone. "Data like this might help you make better diet choices, get out for a walk, go to bed earlier, and really see the relationship between your health and the way you're living your life."

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