The following is a piece I wrote for personal training trade publication, PT Magazine, on how digital health is impacting the industry and what personal trainers need to do to adapt.
Welcome to the Digital Revolution
Before his death in 2011, Steve Jobs, the visionary leader of tech giant Apple was quoted in his biography that a new era was beginning. An era where the two industries of biology and technology collide to form a revolution of health, fitness and wellbeing.
Having never said much about biology when he was alive and creating revolutionary products such as the MacBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad, Jobs’ realization came as he was dying of his long fought battle with pancreatic cancer. “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson.
Technology is no stranger to disruption and has played a part in revolutionizing numerous industries in its wake including banking, publishing, media and marketing to name just a few and Jobs’ prophesy of an innovation led technology disrupted health and fitness world is at a tipping point and you need to be ready for it.
The Perfect Storm of Technology Advancement
Each day a new digital health product designed to help us live healthier and happier lives is released to the market making the PT toolbox of the future a complex system of smartphones, sensors, apps, data, GPS and biotech. Technology is no stranger to disruption and has played a part in revolutionizing numerous industries in its wake. CES, the largest annual consumer electronics trade event held in Las Vegas, exemplified this when at its 2013 event reported a 25 percent increase in companies exhibiting digital health products than on the previous year.
These technologies are empowering people to understand their own bodies in ways which were previously not possible. New health devices and services are providing data about the human body in many ways from analyzing cognitive functions including mood and stress levels to the sleep quality we are receiving each night to information about our heart such as RHR, blood pressure and heart rate variability.
These innovations can often be a technologically advanced model of a previously tried and tested health device. For example the Withings bathroom scales provide infomation that regualr digital scales have done for some time including weight, BMI and body fat percentage.
The difference is that these scales are Wi-Fi enabled and send the user’s weight data over the internet (or in ‘the cloud’ as it’s known) to an online database where the user – or their PT – can passively track and monitor it over time via the web or an mobile app.
Likewise Withings has a Wi-Fi enabled blood pressure monitor that similarly sends its data to the cloud and a user can track both weight and blood pressure variables alongside one another. [pullquote] These technologies are empowering people to understand their own bodies in ways which were previously not possible. [/pullquote] Other digital health innovations are of the more disruptive barrier breaking kind. Breezing, a new consumer device planned for launch in May this year will provide a user real-time data on their exact metabolic rate. A user simply blows in to the Breezing device multiple times throughout the day and the accompanying iPhone app analyzes the metabolic rate and creates a diet and exercise plan based on the user’s goals using the data collected.
The Zeo Sleep Analyzer, a headband device worn while sleeping, analyzes the brain as you sleep for REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, deep sleep and light sleep. REM and deep sleep are categorised as high quality sleep as the former helps cognitive function and the latter with physiological function such as muscle repair.
The Zeo syncs the sleep data to a mobile app which then records it to an online database that allows the user paint a picture of their sleep quality and habits. I have spent around 200 nights using the Zeo and initially found that the time spent in REM sleep was low.
Important to help the brain process information I wanted to increase it and found that people who are deficient in vitamin D often don’t get enough REM sleep. This was around the time I first analyzed my blood and through this analysis I found that I was vitamin D deficient, which of course correlated with the sleep data. I began supplementing vitamin D at around 5,000IUs per day and coupled with a number of other lifestyle changes I introduced including not working at my laptop directly before bed my REM sleep has since improved.
Optimizing Your Client’s Performance Using Blood Bioanalytics
The blood is a window of information in to the human body and there are numerous biomarkers in it that can be both measured and tracked to ensure that optimal levels are present for peak performance. Having the correct levels of haemoglobin, folic acid and creatine kinase helps strength and endurance. Glucose, total cholesterol and triglycerides can aid the body’s energy and metabolism, and optimal levels of vitamin D and calcium maintains bone and muscle health.
I measure around 16 biomarkers in my blood and advise others to do the same also. US based services such as InsideTracker provide a platform where the blood data can be uploaded and tracked alongside their research-based interpretation of optimal levels. Using InsideTracker my analysis found I was deficient in vitamin D (explaining my lack of REM sleep), vitamin B12 and iron. Using this information I have made the appropriate diet and supplementation changes to increase these levels to the required amount.
PTs have an opportunity to provide bioanalytical services like this to people embarking on a lifestyle and exercise programme using these platforms for ongoing analysis of the blood’s biomarkers.
Using DNA to Determine Long Term Health and Fitness Goals
Personal genomics is a growing industry that will revolutionise health and fitness. Ever since the first genome was sequenced research has found – and continues to find – connections between our genes and certain diseases, bodily traits and ancestry. One such company that offers this type of service is 23andMe, a US based personal genomics and biotechnology company that provides personal genotyping which, unlike full genome sequencing, one million of the body’s three billion genes are analyzed.
I have personally used the service and have advised a number of other individuals to do so also and the results can be enlightening. The physiological part of the analysis found that I had no working copies of the ACTN3 gene which makes a protein called Alpha-actini-3 found in fast-twitch muscle fibre.
Most world-class sprinters have been found to have at least one or two working copies of the ACTN3 genotype so this confirmed that a career in 100m has never been destined for me.
That doesn’t mean my running performance is weak however, but more suitable to endurance type events since many world-class endurance athletes are, like myself, found without any working copies of ACTN3. Low and behold, endurance running is more my thing as opposed to sprinting. Most world-class sprinters have been found to have at least one or two working copies of the ACTN3 genotype.
The benefits of personal genotyping are numerous. KNowing you’re at an increased risk of a certain disease can help you make changes to your lifestyle to control it and PTs have the opportunity to advise their clients from a genomic level to stay health from as long as possible.
Increasingly personal genotyping will be a core requirement for anyone serious about their health. The continued drop in price and new discoveries being made through DNA will personal genotyping a first step in a person’s new journey of health.
The Body Data Dashboard and the PT Data Scientist
The old adage ‘if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it’ has never been truer for digital health. The data provided by these new technologies helps people understand their bodies in ways which were previously thought not possible. So much so, tracking data will become easy as sensors increasingly become passive and ubiquitous.
The difficult part will be developing the skills to understand, interpret and make meaningful health based decisions on the data collected. PTs will need to add data analysis to their repertoire of skills. Understanding correlations and regressions will be a standard part in the advisory process when helping individuals reach their fitness goals.
Luckily help is at hand as new services are introduced to the PT industry such as Tictrac which provides a data dashboard for the human body. This personal analytics platform allows PTs to store and layer their clients’ health using data visualisation to make meaningful analysis. The PT has access to each of their clients’ Tictrac dashboard and can analyze and advise on their diet, progress and goals from a very detailed level. Everything from mood, stress, distance run, calories consumed and sleep quality can be tracked and overlaid to see patterns and correlations.
The digital health revolution is the gateway to improve health at all levels through technology and innovation. Health and fitness will be the first industry to experience both the disruption and opportunity this will bring. For the PT that embraces change, that can explain the complexities of technology in a simple way and that can implement digital health tools to help clients achieve their goals the opportunities are aplenty.