This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
A few months ago, I made a commitment to get back in shape. While ambitious self-promises are common around New Year's, I didn't bother fooling myself with that seemingly unattainable fantasy goal back then. Combine work and home obligations with my son's extracurricular activities, not to mention one turkey, chocolate, and wine-filled holiday after another, and who has time, much less motivation and energy, to work out?
I'm not alone. The Statistics Canada Canadian Health Measures Survey, based on data collected from 2,372 adults between 2015 and 2016, found that Canadians were only getting an average of 23 minutes of activity per day. This is less than half of what respondents thought they were getting before they were outfitted with accelerometers to track their apparently inflated claims. Only 17% of adults in the survey were meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of getting at least 150 minutes of "moderate-to-vigorous" physical activity every week.
In an Ipsos Reid survey, Canadians said time, laziness, and scheduling were their top-three barriers to getting exercise.
Fred Lilliehook, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Jabra, says people have less time these days because their commutes are getting longer and work/life balance is squeezed. So they have to work out anywhere they can, whether it's at home, the office, or even the airport, and do shorter workouts like interval training. They are also trying to eat better, focus on mental health, and get more sleep. "All of this," he says, "has been reflected in the technology available, both wearables and apps, that allow people to monitor, improve their health, and reach their training goals."
A World Obesity Federation (WOF) report predicts that obesity rates will skyrocket by 2025, with more than 10 million Canadian adults, representing 34% of those aged 18 and older, set to be classified as obese. The repercussions go beyond personal confidence: health problems can arise with obesity, including heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease. And this could cost the country close to $33.7 billion every year. Between 2017 and 2025, the total cost of treating obesity-related illnesses could run upwards of US$207 billion.
The Fitbit Versa has plenty of fitness and sports-related features; the new Versa 2 adda voice control via Amazon Alexa.
Fitness is no laughing matter. And a lack of focus on it is a far-reaching issue. While no one needs to aspire to look like a supermodel, nor be ashamed of the muffin top spilling over the sides of their bikini or their self-professed "dad bod," trying to be healthier is never a bad thing. That requires multiple lifestyle adjustments, but exercise and fitness are important parts of the equation.
So I began my journey, and joined a gym. I quickly realized not only how out of shape I was, but also how out of touch I was with gym culture and technology.
The Market and Opportunities
One of the biggest categories in sports tech is sports headphones. NPD Canada defines sports headphones as any pair that is water- and sweat-resistant. For the 12 months ending March 2019, dollars in this category were up 32% and units up 11% when compared to the previous year. The average selling price for a pair of sports headphones is $75, which is also up a healthy 19%. Overall, sports headphones accounted for 18% of the total headphones category unit sales. The top-selling brands on a dollar basis were Apple, Beats, Bose, Jabra, and Jaybird.
I took the Apple AirPods and the Jabra Elite Sport, both true wireless earphones, out for test drives during multiple gym visits and workouts in early May. And it's easy to see why they are both top-sellers.
The Jabra Elite Sport true wireless earbuds monitor your heart rate and provide audible guidance and feedback as you work out, serving as a virtual coach in your ears.
Hands-on the Apple AirPods
The sound quality is sufficient for use while you're working on fitness and want upbeat tracks to make the time pass. The seamless experience they offer when partnered with an iPhone and an Apple Watch is unmatched, right from the set-up pairing process. I tried out a pair with an Apple Watch Series 4, creating a playlist in Apple Music called Workout 2019, then accessing it directly from the Watch. As soon as I pop the Pods in my ears, the playlist begins playing automatically. If I take them out, the music automatically pauses.
I was able to leave my phone in the locker and listen hands-free. The Watch, meanwhile, logs activity and workouts as well. (More on that below). The case is small enough to tuck into the belt pocket of my workout pants, and I could comfortably leave them there while participating in a 45-minute workout class.
While the Hey Siri voice-activated feature is great, I didn't use it much at the gym for fear of attracting attention at seemingly talking to myself. I chose instead to control playback from the Watch itself. But with a predefined playlist on Shuffle, not much control was needed.
You'll get up to five hours of listening time and up to three hours of talk time per charge, with a stable connection thanks to the new Apple H1 headphone chip. If you run out, or realize the battery is almost dead before you head over to the gym, pop them into the wireless charging case for 15 minutes to get up to three more hours. To find out how much battery you have left, hold them next to your iPhone, or say "Siri, how's the battery on my AirPods?"
They sell for $270 with the wireless charging case, or $220 with the charging case.
You won't get a more seamless experience with an Apple Watch then connecting it to Apple AirPods while working out; sync music from Apple Music, and your workout playlist will play automatically once you get going, allowing you to leave your phone behind.
Hands-on the Jabra Elite Sport
The Jabra Elite Sport ($280) are designed specifically for sports and fitness use, though Lilliehook notes that, given Jabra's expertise in hearing aids and professional headsets, all of the company's headphones are designed to be versatile. So they fit comfortably in your ears, and provide great call quality.
Dubbed by ZDNet as the "Apple AirPods for those who sweat," the earphones are larger than the AirPods but come with a number of tips and wings to ensure a perfect fit. Pop the buds in and twist so that the tip of the EarWing fits into the ridge of your ear. They didn't initially feel as comfortable in my ears as the AirPods, but you get used to them over time.
Two mics in each bud help filter out background noises, and the earphones did a great job of filtering out wind noise when I wore them during a brisk walk on an especially windy day. With hear through, you can press a button to be more aware of your surroundings, ideal if a friend is trying to tell you something at the gym, or you're running outdoors and want to be more aware of your surroundings.
They run for up to 4.5 hours of play time, or up to 13.5 hours when using the portable charging case.
What really sets these earbuds apart is the Jabra Sport Life app and the in-ear heart rate monitor that deliver on-the-fly heart rate information.
A soothing voice comes through your ears not only letting you know what your heart rate is, but also coaching you to keep in the right zone. While wearing them on an elliptical machine and treadmill, I received constant coaching whenever I dropped out of my target heart rate zone so I knew to move faster to keep up.
It measures VO2, assessing your body's ability to absorb oxygen and determines your fitness level so you work out in the correct VO2 range, including your heart rate zone. (Note: you'll need to run the test outdoors on a straight path, without doubling back, in order to complete it accurately.)
Automatic Rep Count tracks movement via sensors in the earbuds, and provides a countdown on your smartphone's screen, along with feedback via in-ear notifications. Select workouts from the app you can follow along with, complete with videos that show you the correct way to do different exercises. Pace Predictor takes into account your training, current fitness level, and times you've been running/cycling and can predict how long it will take you to complete a distance, and help you improve your time. It will also analyze your training and provide live feedback, advising when and for how long you should rest in between sets and workouts.
The Jabra Elite sports true wireless earphones give you cnostant coaching while you work out.
Smartwatches and Fitness Trackers
On the wearables end, NPD Canada reports that units and dollars for fitness trackers are down over the past 12 months by 24%, though the average selling price of $138 has remained steady. But smartwatches, defined by wristworn devices with full screens that can also receive notifications and access app from connected devices, are on the rise. These devices, like the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and Fitbit Versa, also track fitness-related data, including sports and activities, sleep, and heart rate.
According to eMarketer, about half of adult wearable users regularly wear a smartwatch, and that's expected to rise from 51.9 million in 2018 to 67 million by 2022.
In Canada, Statista says that there are roughly three million wearable device users, and the category is worth US$228 million in revenue in 2019, with the expectation of 6% annual growth for a market volume of US$287 million by 2023. User penetration is 8.1%, expected to rise modestly to 8.5% by 2023. Not surprisingly, the largest user segment is those aged 25-34, accounting for 31.6% of all users, according to Statista Global's Consumer Survey (July 2018), followed by 35-44-year-olds (25.8%).
Fitbit has found in its studies that the majority of people are looking for either a tracker or a smartwatch, with tracker customers desiring something that's more focused, slimmer, lower profile, and without added bells and whistles, while the smartwatch customer wants advances features.
But many of the latest smartwatches can not only log data, but function as a personal trainer in your pocket, too.
During my fitness regimen, I tried out two premium smartwatches with a heavy focus on fitness features: the Apple Watch Series 4 (starts at $519) and the Fitbit Versa ($250).
Hands-on the Apple Watch Series 4
Aside from being the perfect iPhone companion for notifications, apps, smart home device control, and more, the Apple Watch is also an ideal fitness companion.
It not only detects your heart rate in real time, but also provides notifications if your heart rate is too high or low, depending on figures you predefine in the app. This can help you detect potential issues if your heart rate unusually rises during a period of inactivity, for example.
Features in the Workout app are specific to different activities, such as cadence and pace alerts for runners. If you are behind or ahead of where you want to be, the Watch will gently tap your wrist to urge you to pick up the pace or slow down.
At the gym, the Watch can pair with compatible equipment like a stair climber or treadmill so you can sync data like your heart rate, speed, and calories burned.
It can automatically sense certain workouts if you forget to manually add them before you begin. Three minutes into a cardio workout on an elliptical machine, the Watch buzzed and read "It looks like you're working out? Do you want to start logging?" The suggested activity popped up (it was correct) and I was able to select it and start recording the exercise. There are a variety of exercise options from which you can choose, from outdoor walks to high-intensity interval training, rowing machines, stair steppers, hiking, yoga, and swimming. If you don't see the activity you're doing, select Other, which will provide you with the calorie equivalent of a brisk walk if sensor readings are unavailable.
On the Watch face, you can customize the complications to see data that's most important to you, like music, heart rate, calories, and more.
Apple Watch users have become obsessed with "closing their rings," meeting daily activity goals for movement and active calories, exercise minutes and total exercise time, and standing versus idle time.
Musically, as noted, I easily played tunes from Apple Music using my phone, or by syncing music for listening even when my iPhone was out of range. With the Cellular model, you can get a plan specifically for the Watch that lets you make and receive calls, reply to messages, receive notifications and more while away from your phone. This is useful for busy professionals who don't want to keep their phone with them while working out, but also can't risk missing an important client call or are waiting for a critical e-mail.
Battery life is up to 18 hours, so you'll need to recharge it every day, ideally overnight which means no sleep tracking (which would have to be accomplished through a third-party app anyway; more on this later).
(Note: The Apple Watch Series 5 was recently announced with new fitness-related features and more upgrades.)
Go to the next page for our review of the Fitbit Versa, and more....