Digital Fitness is a Digital Misfit

By October 8, 2015 November 27th, 2016 Exercise, Lifestyle & Stress

Running the numbers for real improvements in health and fitness.

John started tracking his daily footsteps with a wearable wrist device called a FitBit. Just by being aware of his activities, over a one-month period he was able to increase from less than 2,000 to almost 6,000 steps in a day. He soon discovered his co-workers were using an app to track caloric intake, and John hopped on board with that, too. Simply by monitoring his meals, he reduced his calories by about 20 percent. Next up, he was able to get a digital profile of all his blood tests in another app, so he and his doctor could easily and quickly compare new numbers with old. Digital fitness seemed more fun, and John was feeling good about bringing his health into the digital age.

But after six months, John realized nothing had really changed. Poor sleep, back pain, fatigue and frequent hunger meant his overall quality of life had not significantly improved. This despite all the data gathered in neat little bits. A visit to his doctor pulled him from the depths of denial, verifying what he felt: body fat was still high, along with weight, cholesterol and triglycerides. A fourth medication was added to his daily regimen to help with his acute depression. His doctor was warning him to live better, although no specific details about how to do so followed.

While John is not his true name, these issues are all too real. After decades of being swamped by health and fitness cookbooks claiming quick results, and ill-advised, confusing governmental recommendations, most of which don’t work long-term, we are now surrounded by more of the same in the form of digital debris. It’s certainly no surprise that the results are no different.

The problem is that data collection does not have a logical conclusion. Missing is the final and most important step — to formulate an individualized approach to improving fitness.

In addition, the digital fitness fad has not led to health improvements — essentially, people are getting fit at the expense of health. Consider these outcomes:

  • The high rates of injury. In some fitness programs, nearly 75 percent get hurt. In a published study on a running program designed to reduce common injuries, participants still had a 35 percent injury rate.
  • Disease risk is still rising. While obesity rates are soaring (now over 40 percent), it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The overfat epidemic — higher unhealthy levels of excess body fat — is an epidemic, effecting some 75 percent or more of the world’s population.
  • Slower death. While many people are living longer, they are dying slower as chronic disease is rising, despite the fact that most of it is preventable.

Now, published statements about this serious problem are appearing, but still no solution has been presented. The Aug. 1, 2015, edition of The Economist describes the booming fitness industry, with more than 50 million gym members in the U.S. alone, but states, “Yet the population has not got visibly healthier.”

Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, which now owns MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness and many other apps, boasts 140 million fitness enthusiasts, logging over a billion workouts so far in 2015. Despite growing more than 30 percent a year, Plank knows the problem: “The fact that consumers have no barometer for their health today is a mistake.”

In other words, just knowing how many steps one takes or their calorie count is not enough.

The mistake is that all this digital information is just numbers, and provides no actual guideline to better health and fitness. It’s more like an endless array of random Greek “zeros” and “ones” than a blueprint. Says Plank, “If I can look on my cellphone and I can figure out my bank balance, my stock price, or the weather in any given city — the fact that I have no measure or barometer of my health except for going to see a doctor every 12, 18 or 24 months, we think is really a crime.”

The digital age is bringing billions of people their own health and fitness data. But it’s been more fun than help, and it may be that the masses are about to realize they’re missing the most important component — real answers to their health needs. The crime is that we’re going through the digital motions, a game of counting steps, calories and seeing screen colors and hearing beeps, all while the world’s health and fitness continues to crash.

Health and fitness is not a video game. Its decline is a real problem that not only won’t stabilize, but is getting bigger. Americans now are sicker than ever, live longer in a state of dysfunction, and are less fit and more fat. What’s worse is this trend begins at a young age. In fitness tests, for example, the American Heart Association recently reported that today’s children are a minute and a half slower in a one-mile run than their parents were at the same ages.

What’s worse is that the ravages of health and of fitness are almost all caused by conditions that are preventable. That’s something the digital trend should be helping. For most people, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and the many other common ills of the modern age are the result of living an unhealthy lifestyle. Being given numbers that confirm this does not do much good without suggestions for healthy changes and the ability to re-run the numbers to see an improvement.

The solution is using this new technology as part of a plan for self-health management. This means using the data wisely to create an individualized plan for health and fitness, and using metrics to measure progress. Real lifestyle changes can result in real reductions — even eliminations — of unhealthy signs and symptoms, including excess body fat, fatigue, bad blood tests and poor sleep. Making the right lifestyle adjustments can lead to reduced risk of disease and illness, and a greater quality of life.

Granted, self-health management is a hard sell. It requires a better understanding about the brain and body, and tuning out the superficial government recommendations and corporate marketing of unhealthy products and workouts. But for those wanting improved health and fitness throughout their lifespan, it is the most successful program available and does not rely on luck. Using digital fitness to accomplish this is a very real and healthy alternative.

The new MAF app, due out later this year, will encourage users to better manage and individualize their health. In addition, through simple but detailed surveys, users can assess a variety of risk factors for problems such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other common conditions, along with carbohydrate intolerance, chronic inflammation, overtraining and other functional problems, which are causes of diseases. Users receive a digital report about their levels of risk for each, followed by suggestions about how to change the course of their lifestyle to help avoid potential disease and illness, thus instilling an important preventive approach. This allows users to address the cause of disease risks and other health and fitness dysfunction, rather than just treating symptoms and playing games.

12 Comments

  • Dan says:

    The app sounds interesting, but with over 80% of phones using Android, wouldn’t it be better to start with an android offering?

  • Lance says:

    This reminds me of when I started training with a HRM. It was cool to know my HR while training, but that data didn’t really mean anything. But once I started applying the 180 Formula, now the HRM is absolutely invaluable.

  • Polo Moreno says:

    Mommy knows better 40 years ago!
    But we keep having bad habits and no wonder app will help ‘ till we change them first!!

  • Dave Berlekamp says:

    Agree with your points Dr. Maffetone! I have a FitBit that also tracks my HR and have found it a useful tool (instead of a simple solution) to improving my fitness. I would be interested to see if the MAF app would have any connectivity between wearable devices such as these that could help users process this data and include it in charting their progress in their fitness plan?

    Thank you for your work! Your articles and podcasts interviews have completely revolutionized how I approach my own health and fitness!

  • Héctor says:

    A MAFF app is something I will be looking forward to use.

  • Iacob Gheorghita says:

    Good point!
    In fact we don’t need healthy people, otherwise who will buy our brilliant products for counting, running, getting slimmer?
    Yet, this doesn’t mean that counting is not important. On contrary it is. It is important to know which is your heart rate during training, or if today you have increased your speed comparing with the last month.
    I like the ideea that counting means nothing per se, it means only if there is a purpose.

  • Van says:

    Excellent advice! Although self-quantification has become a powerful tool for those who have learnt to interpret the data, it can also be a double-edged sword, and my feeling is that a lot of these new smart tracking devices are essentially being used as glorified CICO counters. Health can be measured, but the devil is in the detail and the neatly laid out summary statistics are often the least informative, and can often mislead.

  • Georgia says:

    I’m excited to hear about the release of the MAF app! Look forward to using it.

  • Matt White says:

    Good. But in the end, isn’t the advice the same it has always ever been?
    Eat real food, mostly veggies. Avoid sugar. Avoid easy taste hits. Eat for nutrients, not gluttony. Nothing to excess where treats are concerned. Move your body as much as possible. Break a sweat daily. Get to bed on time. Spend time outdoors. These are all basic things my Mom told me 40 years ago.

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