Gadget Wonderland at the Gym
TL;DR: I share about my personal fitness history, and the gadgets that I use for fitness and health. I explain how each helps me quantify progress and keeps me engaged. I also cerebrate on the future of technology and physical training.
The Road from Fitness = Zero to Obsessive Quantifying
In February 2011, on the day i resigned from banking, I walked into a gym and signed up for a 2-year membership and 100 hours of personal training.
Before that, I had lived the typical un-athletic life of an Asian girl + junior banker: unfit and unsightly: skinny fat FTW. I spent all my waking moments either working or socializing over food and drink. Ghastly outcomes, as you might imagine!
Since 2011, my body has changed dramatically inside and outside, thanks to both gym and yoga.
Body Fat %
Between 2011 and 2013, i focused on building mass and getting leaner. This meant strength training and Muay Thai with my personal trainer. I lost the flab on my arms, which was a problem area I’d spent most of my adolescence hating. After becoming stronger overall, I gained 10–15% lean muscle in my upper body.
I started at around 27% body fat. By 2012 I had dropped to around 24–25% body fat. In 2015, I hovered around 23–24%. Today, in 2016 I’m around 22–23%, with greater lean mass than before. My ideal is to hit 20%, but I’m not too obsessed with that; I’m quite happy where I am right now
In 2013 I started getting acute pains in my left rotator cuff (where the shoulder meets the arm). This ended up being a regular occurrence because I travelled frequently, and with a heavy briefcase. Besides being painful, it also prevented me from doing chest presses, push ups and practicing Krav Maga effectively — this was something i really wanted to resolve.
Occasionally I would get pains in my knees, especially when I went hiking. This was worrying as I was young and didn’t expect my knees to start degenerating so early!
I consulted with my personal trainer who had excellent knowledge of anatomy, having also been a professional bodybuilder. I did stretches for my rotator cuff with light weights. I went to another personal trainer who specialized in gait analysis. I used knee guards while on hikes. Nothing helped!
At the end of 2014, I started going to hot yoga twice a week. In a few months, all my joint and muscle issues vanished! I didn’t expect it, and I’m not a passionate om-chanting yogi, but I have to say it worked miracles for me
(In addition, I can now touch my toes, which i have not been able to do my entire life. Woohoo.)
I used to have very low blood pressure and low red blood cell counts. Ever since exercising regularly, they have moved into normal ranges. I also get cold in my extremities less easily than before.
Question to readers: Anyone have a suggestion for how to measure circulatory function? Please leave a comment here! ❤
I also did a bone DEXA scan in July 2016, and my results were significantly above the average (0.8 standard deviation) for my age group. Considering that I don’t drink much milk because I am lactose intolerant, and that I have a genetic predisposition to poor Vitamin D absorption (read more about nutrigenomics here), the results were surprising. I don’t have data to compare to before I started exercising, but i reckon doing weights has contributed to my bone density results.
Have you gone through such a change in fitness levels later in life as well? How does your story differ from mine? What did you find most challenging? Would love to hear your comments
Technology enabled me to stay engaged and motivated during my conversion from fitness = zero, into a regular gym goer. I’ll go into some of my more successful experiments with technology at the gym below.
Heart Rate Monitor
I use a Polar heart rate monitor (chest strap), hooked up to the Digifit mobile application (recently renamed iCardio).
It charts my heart rate across a map of heart range ranges, from fat burning to anaerobic to VO2 max.
Knowing my heart rate allows me to time my rest and adjust the intensity of exercise based on my target heart rate zone.
Because my cardio ability and motivation levels fluctuate with sleep, time of day and mental state, knowing my heart rate allows me to push myself more effectively than if i were just trying to hit a target speed and distance.
In addition, I am undergoing a training program now to increase my VO2 max capability. This training involves keeping my HR at VO2 max for as long as possible.
Based on data from my heart rate monitor, I am achieving 17 minutes of VO2 max out of 40 minutes on the treadmill via what is effectively a HIIT cardio session, compared to just 30 seconds of VO2 max out of 15 minutes when I was focused on sustaining a run with no breaks before.
Moov A.I. Personal Trainer
The Moov is a band that I wear on my ankle. It uses 9-axis motion sensors — accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer -to track motion and evaluate form. It then feeds back the information to you in a pleasant voice of a “coach”.
I use it for 3 purposes:
Form: Moov showed me that my range of motion while running was way too short / narrow, at about 55 degrees per stride, compared to the ideal of around 70–100 degrees. It suggests, using the audio feedback, that I should try lifting my legs higher when lifting off, among other suggestions. This really changed my running form and I feel more athletic and efficient when running.
Cadence: Moov tells me via audio feed my actual cadence versus the target cadence. This has helped me run at faster speeds, by setting a target cadence and yet increasing my stride length at the same time.
Safety / Impact: Moov also measures the impact with which I am striking the ground, measured in g’s. This is MASSIVE for me because preventing knee joint issues is obvious and avoidable. When my impact is too high, it suggests leaning forward so that my shoulders are above my feet when i land.
For those whose interest is piqued, you can also use Moov for swimming, cycling and boxing!
I use the Nike Training Club mobile application for functional training routines. I swear by this app as the wide variety of workouts and very hot male and female models make it compelling to keep coming back to. (Did i really say that? Oops. Just bein’ real)
I also use the Jefit mobile application to record weightlifting sets. Mostly I find it useful for remembering the weights I have done on each machine, so I can keep increasing weight.
Other Health Related Gadgets
Outside of the gym, I use these gadgets to monitor my health.
Spire. My favorite recent gadget purchase. This is a breathing monitor I wear inside my shirt. It sends an alert to my mobile phone when it detects tense breathing.
When things get a bit intense at work, resulting in shallow, erratic breathing patterns, this has been FANTASTIC in reminding me to pause and take a few deep breaths.
Basis Peak. I use this mainly to track sleep patterns. When I was shopping around for fitness wearables, this had the most accurate heart rate monitoring and sleep analysis.
It samples your heart rate 32 times every second (e.g. vs every 5 minutes for FitBit when I was in the market; FitBit has since increased their sampling rate).
As a result of greater sampling rates and better algorithms, the Basis Peak’s sleep analysis is a lot more detailed and meaningful. I can verify for this — it’s very accurate at detecting when I am sleeping vs when I am simply lying in bed; on the other hand, the FitBit is very bad at making that distinction.
Unfortunately, after its acquisition by Intel and a series of unfortunate product issues, it’s undergoing a global product recall and may never see the light of day again…
Gadgets to Lust After
I recently came across these two gadgets, which are going to make me poorer soon.
Apparel with sensors to detect which muscles are firing. It also measures heart rate and breathing rate.
*pause for dramatic effect* This makes me so excited, I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.
I predict this could tremendously improve form in functional training and weightlifting. Using feedback from the sensors one could commandeer the right muscles to fire, and the wrong muscles to step back.
For example, a common problem I have with back exercises is my arms do more work than they should; using the information from the Athos sensors, I could experiment with my grip and isolation techniques so that my back muscles are firing as they should. They currently don’t have sensors for the abs, but when they do it might be helpful when doing core work, being mindful to avoid straining the lower back.
Unfortunately for me, the full women’s set is not yet available. If you are a dude, lucky you. Go here to buy a set for around US$700.
This is a US$400 sensor that measures reps and provides analytics on your weightlifting movements.
For example, you stick it onto your barbell (it’s magnetized), input the barbell weight in the mobile app, and start squatting. It’ll count your reps, tell you how much work you are doing, how much power you are generating, and other more nerdy stats.
The data allows you or your trainer to do detailed analysis of your workout, optimizing the weights and reps you do for maximum effect. It’s modeled on a particular philosophy called Velocity Based Training.
I’ll avoid a lengthy discussion on this for the moment, mostly because VBT is new to me and I find the user interface needs a lot more simplifying, so I’m not yet ready to take the leap.
Nonetheless it seems to be the industry geeks’ favorite wearable so far in the weightlifting category! I can’t wait for Moov to add weightlifting to their repertoire.
Brain-Flossing the Future
If I were a personal trainer, I would start learning another skill right now. Wearable tech and A.I. empower the individual to develop better form while being pushed by well-developed algorithms. In addition, they confer the convenience of on-demand usage and the appeal of social networks, making the value proposition of a fixed schedule, one-on-one personal trainer even less compelling.
My wishlist for the future includes:
- Real-time metabolite monitoring. Google’s contact lens for glucose monitoring is a great first step in non-invasive, real time metabolite monitoring. One application could be to monitor potassium and magnesium levels in the bloodstream, which are used up during exercise. With real-time data, one could replenish adequately and avoid conditions like cramping and fatigue
- Customized Nutrition. Pre- and post-workout protein shakes based on my actual workouts. How much protein and what amino acids do I really need, based on the routine that I just did — cardio vs weights, fast twitch vs slow twitch muscle fibres…? Perhaps Soylent can partner with Athos or Beast on something like this
- Haptic apparel for yoga. Apparel that provides haptic feedback to provide the right form correction for each individual. Often times in yoga classes I can’t tell which muscles to focus on for each move, leading to a clumsy pose or one that doesn’t achieve it’s goals
- Virtual Reality training, integrated with sensors. So many possibilities, ‘nuff said.
What gadgets do you use? Do share your experiences, good and bad!