Safety & Security

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Common Sense: The App Missing from Fitness Wearables

16 Apr, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

From consumer-friendly heart monitors to scales that measure body fat to apps that help count calories to wearable devices that track users’ steps, fitness technology has given weekend warriors the ability to map their fitness. It has also allowed them to compete against themselves and their friends – and to brag about the results on social media.

It just hasn't helped them to think.

Experts say too many people are putting numerical results ahead of common sense. Athletes who, in their haste to lower their calorie count, extend their workouts or beat their own time – or that of their friends -- are winding up with problems such as dehydration and overuse injuries, and those are the lucky ones.

In an article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, reporter Angela Gosnell notes that fitness devices do encourage some better behavior; after all, Fitbit CEO James Park stated in an interview that Fitbit users with friends take an average of 27 percent more steps than users without friends.

Unfortunately, the competitive instinct can get in the way of safety precautions.

For example, noted Gosnell, the Strava app, which tracks users’ bike rides, runs and swims using GPS, allows those users to pit themselves against other users, even total strangers. Unfortunately, in 2010, a Strava-using cyclist was killed, ostensibly while trying to better his time. His family filed a lawsuit against Strava, seeking to hold the company accountable for negligence. They argued that the app encouraged dangerous behavior, failed to ensure challenges were on safe courses and failed to warn about dangerous roads. Strava ultimately prevailed in court; as one columnist wrote in Wired Magazine, “Strava didn’t invent competitive urges; it merely came up with an innovative way to recognize our human imperative to improve, to win.”

Over the course of several years, noted Gosnell, Strava came back into the news repeatedly as the app being used by other athletes who were involved in serious accidents in pursuit of a record, and the #nostrava hashtag briefly gained momentum on Twitter. However, it does become evident that the user has to shoulder more blame than the app.

The Internet is rife with news of individuals who have sustained injury by overdoing it on a workout (either using fitness devices or not). And another dimension of the fitness app relates to their dependability as instruments of measurement. In one blog on personal injury trends, lawyer Stephen Burg notes that researchers at Iowa State University have found not all devices are accurate:

“Wrist-based health technologies use accelerometers and algorithms to estimate how many steps a person takes and how many calories are burned, The Wall Street Journal reported. According to Ken Fyfe, who designed some of the first activity trackers, an accelerometer on the wrist can do a good job of measuring steps because arms move in tandem with feet. However, because the devices use arm movement to track activity and energy expenditures, they can easily be fooled or not record excise. For instance, wrist-based devices will not accurately reflect the work put into cycling or yoga, Ray Brown, a professor at Colorado State University, stated, according to the Journal.”

In addition, users of devices sometimes overlook the need for professional health consultations; those who decide on their own to begin an exercise or diet program without seeing with a doctor may find themselves relying on a device that is unable to alert them to a larger and more serious health issue.

Sadly, the reliance on technology in favor of common sense is nothing new. When the GPS unit emerged, plenty of drivers found themselves listening to the directions – and paying no attention to street signs and other visible warnings. The end result: Cars driving off docks, cars jammed under low bridges and getting stuck on narrow roads – despite the fact the street signs told drivers not to follow GPS directions.

And then, of course, there’s always the pedestrian who tried to sue Google Maps after crossing a busy intersection without looking both ways.

“We can track how many calories we burn and how many steps we take, but smart decisions about safety have to come from within,” noted Gosnell in her article. “There’s no app for that.”

And it’s all fun and games until someone ruptures an ACL.

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