From exercise TV shows and Wii Fit workouts to smart yoga pants and wearable trackers, fitness tech continues to help make healthy habits a part of everyday life.
Technology and exercise have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Since the “godfather of fitness” Jack LaLanne launched his resistance machines in 1950s, the U.S. fitness movement has evolved to include Jane Fonda’s ’80s video craze, Billy Banks’ Taebo in 1990s and Pilates in early 2000s.
“In some cases, as with jogging and running shoes, the fitness was there before the technology, so it drove the innovation,” said Shelly McKenzie, historian and author of Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America.
“In others, it was the other way around: The technology, such as video and portable music players, was a tool that people used in different ways,” she said.
Workouts on the Small Screen
As screen technology has advanced—from television and the VCR to gaming and video streaming —so have the ways in which fitness experts have connected with their audience.
Juicing, gyms and home workouts all got their start from Jack LaLanne, who launched his first “physical culture studio” and TV fitness show in the 1950s.
“People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” the late fitness celebrity said, according to JackLaLanne.com. “The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks, and they would lose their sex drive.”
Still, LaLanne’s workouts caught on, and since then many other fitness gurus have attracted audiences with their workout styles and regimes. Judi Sheppard Missett’s Jazzercise owes its toe-tapping popularity to TV. It was Jane Fonda’s 1982 release of her first workout video that helped make VCRs the must-have new technology for every home.
“At that time, gyms were these sleek, chrome-y big city kind of things,” said McKenzie. “They weren’t in the middle of the country. So if someone was interested in exercising, and their town didn’t have a gym, videos became an option.”
And it’s not only passive viewing. Exergaming, or exercise video games, first boomed with 1999’s Dance Dance Revolution, hitting its highest note with Nintendo’s Wii Fit, which launched in late 2007. Five years later, the exergaming equipment set a Guinness World Record with more than 23 million devices sold.
Today, trainers can interact with clients in real time through one-on-one or virtual group class settings using Skype and FaceTime, as well as on fitness sites such as Wello and EMG Live Fitness. Exos, a company that builds health and performance plans for professional and amateur athletes, employees at large companies and the military, also uses online training videos and personal data tracking to help take people to the next fitness level.
The Rise of the Machines
As early as the 1950s, Jack LaLanne developed resistance machines—he is credited with inventing the Smith machine, used for weight training exercises such as squats. But weight training didn’t have mass appeal until Arthur Jones introduced his first Nautilus machine, the Blue Monster, in 1970.
His machines used pulleys, or cams, to provide resistance on muscles throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise—a revolutionary idea at the time. To Jones, these spiral-shaped cams resembled the shell of a nautilus.
“Weightlifting was kind of an intimidating thing before Nautilus—you had to know what you were doing,” McKenzie said. “People could suddenly walk into a gym and do a circuit of weightlifting without any prior knowledge.”
With the advent of specialized equipment, she said, the gym became a fitness destination and memberships at places like Gold’s Gym became increasingly popular.
People began exercising in the context of a club, said Jonathan Black, author of Making the American Body. “Fitness got a huge boost when it became a social activity,” he said.
While gym trends have gone back to basics with free weights and to functional training modes such as CrossFit, today’s fitness clubs still boast treadmills, stationary bicycles and other equipment like Precor’s Elliptical Fitness Trainer (launched in 1995). The elliptical allowed people to enjoy the cardio benefits of running without the impact to their joints, eventually leading to Pilates machines that isolate movements and help with body alignment.
Wearables Make the Athlete
Exercise existed before rubber-soled sneakers and specialized technical fabric, but these innovations made those activities far more comfortable. Then, wearing these skin-tight materials became trendy, with brands like Lululemon championing body-conscious stretch clothing that can be worn all day, even when wearers skip the gym entirely.
“Workout clothes became important because if you wore those items outside of the gym, it became clear that you were that person who just exercised or were going to exercise,” said McKenzie.
This isn’t a totally new phenomenon either. Nike’s founder Bill Bowerman took running shoes from the track to the mainstream with the now-iconic Cortez sneaker. Jane Fonda popularized spandex, a unique synthetic fiber that’s woven into cotton or polyester to create a comfortable, supportive and sweat-wicking fabric.
Activewear maker Under Armour built its entire empire based on moisture-wicking fabrics, which harken to the 1986 introduction of Coolmax, the first synthetic material designed to dissipate perspiration, keeping the wearer drier and cooler.
Today’s fitness clothing technology has gone next level, using sewn-in sensors to create socks and sneakers that keep track of distance traveled and cadence. There’s also shirts that measure heart rate and respiration, a calf compression sleeve from BSX Insight that determines lactic acid threshold to optimize workouts and yoga pants that help wearers perfect their alignment.
Digitization of Performance
Measurable metrics have always been an asset to exercise; after all, fitness goals are often quantifiable: calories burned, weight lost, distance traveled or heart rate achieved. Being able to view and record that data has broad appeal for both motivation and recordkeeping.
Some could say the quantifiable fitness trend kicked into gear with the 1960s invention of the modern pedometer designed to track a person’s 10,000 daily footsteps. That technology evolved into wearable innovations that leveraged GPS to track runs and fitness bands that track biometrics.
The Basis Peak smartwatch, for example, uses tiny built-in sensors to track heart rate, movement, perspiration, skin temperature and sleep patterns. It automatically detects when the wearer is walking, running, biking or sleeping, including the phases of sleep. It even controls music so people don’t have to reach for their smartphones and interrupt workouts.
These wearable trackers can provide powerful psychological sense of accomplishment, according to Itai Vonshak, general manager for wrist worn innovation at Intel’s New Technology Group, which includes the BASIS smartwatch.
“There’s an old adage that you can’t improve what you don’t measure,” he said. “We can measure the heck out of stuff now.”
The time span between when a person starts a new fitness plan to when they start to feel and look better can be months, so seeing data measuring daily effort is valuable.
“Digital feedback gives you sense of completion. When forming new habits shortening the feedback loop creates the virtues circle of action and reward,” said Vonshak.
As these tracking technologies evolve, they will have to help people not only collect data but also provide fitness fanatics with easy to understand, actionable insights for continuous improvement. This could be the health and fitness world’s biggest challenge for this decade.
“This whole category of products really should be about the fullness of your life,” Vonshak said.
“It’s not just about measuring your steps and sleep. It’s about helping you change your habits, making you healthier and happier. Wearables will become indispensable when they will bring people a sense of accountability and positive reinforcement for doing the right things.”