Gamified fitness: Minnesotans use health tech to challenge friends

Gamified fitness: Minnesotans use health tech to challenge friends

Not long after finishing her hour-long workout at Orangetheory Fitness in Edina, Emily Hansen received a text message from her daughter with a flexed biceps emoji.

Sharing fitness information is a daily thing for her family, Hansen said. The Hansens use Apple Family Sharing to track each other’s exercise activities through the Activity App. The app — on devices like the Apple Watch or iPhone — tracks how often a person stands or moves using GPS and sensors that measure acceleration.

During family pick-up games, they sync their devices to see who’s hitting the best exercise metrics. Sometimes they just check in to make sure Grandpa walks at least half a mile for his daily exercise.

From fitness studios to senior living communities, wearable technology has enabled a new generation of fitness enthusiasts to not only track their performance, but also see how they stack up against peers, friends and family. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, about one in five Americans use a smartwatch or fitness tracker.

For Hansen, a 39-year-old nurse from Bloomington who has been an Orangetheory member for the past three years, being able to view this real-time data — collected through Bluetooth-connected wearables that measure heart rate and count calories burned — is a spur to better performance. Sometimes it’s just to improve on her previous workout, other times to push her co-workers to see who can burn the most calories in a week.

“Seeing the change in my performance is super motivating,” she said. “The [feeling] burning calories was really helpful.”

You see the results

Wendy Petersen, 59, of Edina, keeps a close eye on her metrics on the treadmill at Orangetheory. Members wear OTBeat devices, the fitness chain’s line of wearable straps that track heart rate, distance and calories burned. Petersen connects the OTBeat to her Apple Watch to view both sets of data, as does Hansen.

Data from the wearables is displayed on large television screens in the studio, as well as on the treadmill and rowing machine dashboards, allowing members and the instructor to monitor everyone’s progress.

“For me, it’s, ‘Can I have something else?'” Petersen said, adding that her competitiveness often drives her to keep up with some of the younger members. “I can get into it [higher] zones or am I exaggerating?'”

The OTBeat devices sync with the studio’s exercise machines via Bluetooth, said studio manager and instructor Kat O’Leary. An adjacent app allows people to see their metrics and trends over a period of time. Purchasing the device is optional, and members can use it outside of the facility, O’Leary said.

Most people associate improved fitness with how they respond to exercise, such as feeling short of breath, O’Leary said. However, real data provides insight into when the human body ascends into higher calorie burning zones and how quickly it can recover. So people don’t necessarily always push themselves to the point of gasping for air, she said.

For Petersen, it’s about improving endurance and mobility to achieve a “new normal,” she said. After undergoing hip replacement surgery, she works out almost daily, either at Orangetheory or other gyms, or she plays golf and pickleball.

“It’s feedback on how we’re doing,” Petersen said. “Am I trending upwards?”

At Run Minnesota, the state’s largest running organization, coaches and trainers use fitness data collected from wearable devices to analyze a runner’s heart rate, mile splits, cadence, elevation gain and other details, said program director Danny Docherty.

The organization runs a training program in the spring and fall with about 100 people in each, Docherty said. According to him, the mathematical proof of their progress is what pleases people the most.

“It’s kind of like a reward,” he said. “You just have that instant sense of ‘I accomplished something’ and you have the proof, digitally.”

However, it’s easy to become obsessed with data. Staying away from the comparison game is a good idea for beginners, Docherty said.

“Everyone has their own fitness journey and you have to understand where you are at,” he said.

Making profits

Smartwatch manufacturers are seeing increased sales, with devices costing as little as $20 to $1,000.

During the pandemic, Kansas-based Garmin International, a maker of Bluetooth wearables and smartwatches, has seen an increase in demand for its products, Garmin spokesman Griffin Schaetzle said.

The company’s products include a range of smartwatches for runners and triathletes, as well as wearable devices for open water and pool swimmers. There are specific watches for cyclists that have sensors that track advanced metrics, Schaetzle said.

With Garmin smartwatches, users upload health and fitness data to the free Garmin Connect app, where users can track, analyze and share their metrics. Once connected, users can also participate in challenges.

In 2022, fitness accounted for 23% of Garmin’s $1.1 billion in revenue. In the previous two years, the category generated $1.5 billion and $1.3 billion. In the company’s 2022 annual report, the company attributed declining sales of wearable fitness devices to the overall maturing of the wearable fitness market.

In 2021, Google closed the acquisition of Fitbit for $2.1 billion, gaining almost 30 million users as customers. The Californian tech company is banking on the communal aspect of fitness to gain even more users, and has capitalized on that by allowing Fitbit users to create an online closed group with their friends.

In 2022, Apple reported $41 billion in revenue for its wearables, accessories and home products category, up from $38 billion in 2021. The company attributed growth in the category to the Apple Watch and AirPods.

Support, not comparison

Of Peloton’s 6.5 million members, 75% prefer to see a leaderboard during on-demand and live classes, said Jigar Padodara, the New York-based fitness company’s director of product analytics and data science.

A person’s rank on the leaderboard is visible during and after class, which is an incentive for those who want to place themselves at the top.

“We believe that perceiving the presence of others and their performance significantly increases exercise engagement and performance, both individually and collectively,” Padodara said.

By pairing heart rate monitors and other wearable technology with the Peloton app, people can see heart rate, distance, cadence and power metrics on Peloton device screens and smart TVs. Along with the Peloton Guide, a connected camera device that allows people to compare their movement to that of an instructor, users can make adjustments to maximize training, Padodara said.

Lifespark, a senior care provider in St. Louis Park, created a performance tracking dashboard for resident physical therapy sessions, said Peter Lutz, the company’s recently appointed chief information officer.

Staff create challenges such as steps and grip strength and award points based on how well therapy sessions go. These points are displayed on screens to show residents how they stack up against other Lifespark centers in Minnesota.

“It connects them with other people and connects them as part of a team with other centers,” Lutz said.

Megan Jones Bell is the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google, which also has its own Pixel smartwatch that syncs with the Fitbit app. She said there is a fine line between competition and the community they follow in fitness.

“One of the ingredients of effective behavior change is social support, and the key word is support,” she said. “… Comparison doesn’t help. Compassionate and supportive accountability does.”

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