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21 October 2013

Stephen Davies, director of digital health at Ruder Finn UK, explains why digital technology is the future of physical activity.

You could say there have been three major advancements in physical exercise in the last sixty years. The scientific evidence that exercise made us fitter and healthier was the first.

Exercise itself was once doubted as a means to improve health. As early as the 1950s there was skepticism that middle-aged men who were engaged in physical activity at work experienced less coronary artery disease than men who did not. It was only until further research was carried and the resulting evidence proved the theory, that government's began to actively promote the benefits of exercise to the public.

Think about that for a moment. Exercise and all its wonderful benefits were only recognised and supported around five or six decades ago.

Secondly, nutrition and its effect on performance and health is a relatively new advancement. It wasn't until the 1970s - thanks in part to the influx of bodybuilding - that exercise physiology laboratories at universities opened up to study trained athletes.

The 1980s saw the introduction of the field of sports nutrition and by the 1990s athletes also began to train harder and for longer periods than in the past. Nutrition was widely recognised as a way to support training and speed recovery. It became clear that the intensity and duration of training were major influences on athletes' nutritional needs.

Enter Digital. Health's latest advancement.

As we move further in to the digital age the rate of change you're about to see in health and fitness will be mind-blowing.

Technology has played a part in fitness for years. Everything from the humble barbell to the complex machinery found in gyms up and down the country were all technological advancements at one time or another.

This is not your average rate-of-change and the convergence of technology and biology is moving at an advanced speed.

As well as becoming a cheaper service, DNA research is making greater connections between our genes and health. Through personal genotyping services such as 23andMe, we can discover if our genetic composition is more suitable to endurance or speed sports. Soon it will tell us what exact sports we are suited to from a genetic level.

Services like InsideTracker allow us to see if our blood biomarkers such as vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and a host of other important nutritional elements are in their optimised zone, for which blood needs to be extracted by a needle and sent to a lab.

Soon, however, needles will be a thing of the past. Companies in both the US and Europe are in a race to go first to market with their patch-like sensors that can analyse the blood from outside of the skin, which will then send information to an app so the user can see in real-time how their blood levels are performing.

The Zeo Sleep Analyser, a headband device worn while sleeping, analyses the brain for REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, deep sleep and light sleep. REM and deep sleep are categorised as high quality sleep as the former helps cognitive function and the latter with physiological function such as muscle repair. The Zeo syncs the sleep data to a mobile app which records it to an online database that allows the user to understand their sleep quality and habits.

Breezing, a new consumer device planned for launch this year will provide a user real-time data on their exact metabolic rate. A user simply blows in to the Breezing device multiple times throughout the day and the accompanying app analyses the metabolic rate and creates a diet and exercise plan based on the user's goals using the data collected.

The road ahead is an exciting one but that's not to say there won't be bumps along the way. The digital health revolution is the gateway to improve health at all levels through technology and innovation. Health and fitness will be the first industry to experience both the disruption and opportunity this will bring.

Every revolution requires that tipping point of acceleration and adoption, and while we are not quite there yet you should be ready for when it happens as it will arrive quicker than you think.

Stephen is a director of digital health at Ruder Finn UK and blogger on digital health at http://bionic.ly

Read Together: summer 2013

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