News Column

How Will You Measure Up? New Health Monitors Can Tell

January 6, 2014

By Julia Savacool, Special for USA TODAY

If it's January, it must be resolution time, that once-a-year phenomenon where Americans vow to do good things for themselves, like lose weight, get in shape and lower stress in their lives.

If it's January, it also must be time for CES -- the once-a-year Consumer Electronics Show extravaganza in Las Vegas, where 3,200 exhibitors this week will showcase innovative new products for an expected crowd of 150,000 people.

One of the fastest-growing areas for new products: digital health and fitness devices, geared toward helping people tackle those New Year's resolutions head-on.

"We've seen dramatic growth in this category," says Karen Chupka, senior vice president of international CES and corporate business strategy. "In 2013, we had 169 companies showing in the digital health and fitness category. This year, we have 215."

The interest has been building for a while. The 2013 numbers were about 30% higher than the year before that as well, Chupka says. A big reason for the boom: better sensor technology.

What started 15 years ago with fitness companies creating basic pedometers has evolved into companies selling sophisticated heart rate monitors, GPS wristwatches and foot pods to help people work out more efficiently and reach their weight loss and health goals.

"There's been a continuous evolution of sensor technology," Chupka says. "Today's sensors are smaller than ever, but with greater sensitivity. They are more cost-effective as well."

Skulpt Aim is one product taking full advantage of the improved sensor capabilities. Founded by Harvard Medical School professor Seward Rutkove and MIT engineer Jose Bohorquez, the device measures body fat and muscle quality simply by pressing against the skin.

Smaller than an iPhone and light enough to be stored in a gym bag, Skulpt Aim, the company believes, will be a huge hit with the fitness market. The device already has earned recognition as an International 2014 CES Innovations Honoree for the health and fitness product category.

But beyond technological advances, manufacturers believe there is a deeper reason the category of DIY health and fitness devices continues to grow: an increasing desire by consumers to not only understand their personal health situation, but to take control of it.

"It used to be that when you were not feeling well, you'd go to one doctor for help, and then maybe another doctor for a second opinion," says Deborah Rozman, president and CEO of HeartMath Inc., a company that creates devices to monitor and regulate emotional responses. "Now, with all the information available immediately to people on the Internet, there's a sense of being able to educate yourself. Consumers feel empowered to take control of their own health, and they are seeking out devices that allow them to do that more effectively."

HeartMath and other companies are banking on the fact that consumers want to do more than simply monitor blood pressure or keep track of glucose levels. The newest players are convinced that people want help navigating the world of emotional wellness as well. A slew of new apps and their accompanying sensor technologies focus on getting people to relax, ease stress and manage anxiety.

"Our mission is not only to help people identify their emotional responses in various situations, but to take control of them," says Rozman, whose InnerBalance app aims to retrain the way the body responds to stress.

The latest batch of self-regulating devices tries to aid those who want to beat depression, lose weight, reduce stress or improve their fitness levels. The one thing you still can't get from technology, however: motivation. These apps work only if you actually get yourself to use them.


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Source: Copyright 2014 USA TODAY