Smartwatches are becoming an increasingly valuable tool in the arena of sport performance, health, and fitness.

The ‘wearable device’ market is big business. According to International Data Corporation this market will grow by 15% in 2018, with 132.9 million units shipped. By 2022 the wearable device industry is expected to be worth US$14 billion, with smartwatches accounting for over 50% of this value.

Tony Weber, former Hawke’s Bay farmer – turned full-time athlete – is a self-confessed smartwatch junkie. “It took me 50 years to find my calling, but I think I have found it!” At 53 Tony participated in his first event – Coast to Coast – a multi-sport adventure race that takes you from the West Coast of the South Island to Christchurch. 

He adds, “In five and half years I have done two Coast to Coast, 19 marathons, and nine Ironman events. I have also done countless local events and half marathons. I have so many medals I have no idea what to do with them all. It’s so addictive, you just want to keep pushing yourself!”

Smartwatches can inspire wearers to change their lifestyle, but for athletes such as Tony, the benefits gleaned from smartwatch features – such as heartrate monitoring, pace, distance, time, VO2 max, and sleeping habits – go well beyond basic goal-setting and how many steps he’s taken in a day. 

Tony admits it wasn’t an easy transition. “I resisted getting a smartwatch for a while, I didn’t think technology was necessary, I thought they were gimmicky. But, I soon got sick of counting 160 lengths in the pool! Sometimes my thoughts would drift to things happening on the farm and I would forget how many I had done. I realised that if I was serious about this I would have to embrace technology”.

The original fitness tracker with a heartrate monitor hit the market in 1984. The Polar Sport Tester PE 3000. For the first time, this device gave athletes the ability to view and analyse their training data. Tony continues, “If I compare my first watch to the one I have now it’s mindboggling how sophisticated they’ve become! This latest watch pretty much tells me how often I fart! They just keep getting better. It measures everything, but the main reason I got it was for the heartrate monitor on my wrist. Gone are the days of wearing a strap across my chest”.

Addictive apps

Performance data captured on a smartwatch is collected and analysed via an app installed on your phone. It is these apps that make a smartwatch very palatable for an athlete. 

Tony explains. “The apps are really the nuts and bolts of it. Without the app the watch would almost lose its appeal. I am constantly analysing the information I receive on my phone. It’s almost as addictive as the training! I find the detailed data of an event I have just done hugely valuable.” 

“For example, in a marathon I can look where my pace dropped off, where my heart rate spiked, what my averages were, etc. This data helps me adapt my training program and forward plan for my next event. In a very short time the watch has helped me bring my marathon time well below four hours. A year ago my PB (personal best) was 4.14 hrs, now it’s 3.46 hrs, with room to move. It’s almost like having a coach on your wrist!”

For naturally motivated New Zealander’s like Tony Weber, the smartwatch has revolutionised the way they train. Tony is obviously enthusiastic. But can smartwatches be a useful tool in improving the health of everyday folk? 

Dr Carl Paton, Associate Professor of Health and Sports Science at EIT, believes they have a place in the tool box to good health, but notes they are not the complete answer. “They give people an opportunity to see what they are doing, and they love seeing the numbers. The apps are great for providing feedback, but the individual has to do something with that feedback if they want to make long-term, day-to-day changes.” 

The major advantage of a smartwatch is that you can wear it all the time with continuous data collection. However, motivational studies have shown that 50% of smartwatch users stop wearing them after six months of purchase. 

Dr Paton continues, “Well, that’s better than a gym membership, which on average only last 3 months! Human nature remains the same, people have high expectations that changes will happen quickly and easily. The honest truth is, for long-term benefits you need a long-term strategy. Behaviours and physiology take time to change.”

He feels that the sleep and daily step tracker are the most useful features on a smartwatch for a person just wanting to improve their basic health. “10,000 steps a day is considered the golden number for a healthy adult. And that’s not too difficult to achieve! Easy behavioural changes can be incorporated into your day like walking to shop instead of driving, taking regular walks around the office, or heading out at lunch time. People initially think 10,000 steps is impossible to reach, but really, it’s not. 

He adds, “The most crucial factor behind health is sleep. It is interesting to see over a week or month what your sleep patterns are and what habits you have fallen into.”

Smartwatches are not perfect. Dr Paton warns that the energy expenditure feature can be way off. He laughs “I would never base the amount of cream buns you can eat on how many calories the data says you’ve burnt! It’s based on wild assumptions!”

Smartwatches are definitely here to stay. The big players such as Apple, Polar and Garman keep tweaking the technology to keep the consumer happy. If you are lucky enough to be self-motivated, the watches are worth their weight in gold. But for others it may take other motivational prods, like group-based exercise, to stay on track. 

In the words of American post-punk band Timbuk 3, for smartwatches “the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades!” 

Royston Hospital is pleased to sponsor robust examination of health issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team.

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