Not long after finishing her hour-long workout at the Orangetheory Fitness studio in Edina, Emily Hansen received a text message of a flexed bicep emoji from her daughter.
Sharing fitness information is a daily occurrence for her family, Hansen said. The Hansens use Apple's Family Sharing system to see each other's exercise activity 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 pickleball games, they synchronize their devices to see who attains the best exercise metrics. Sometimes, they just check in to ensure grandpa has walked at least a half-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 measure up against peers, friends and family. About one in five Americans use a smartwatch or fitness tracker, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
For Hansen, a 39-year-old nurse from Bloomington who has been a member of Orangetheory the past three years, the ability to view this data in real time — gathered through Bluetooth-connected wearable devices that measure heart rate and calculate burned calories — is encouragement to perform better. Sometimes it's just to best her previous workout, others to push her co-workers on who can burn the most calories in a week.
"Seeing the change in my performance is super motivating," she said. "The [feeling] of hitting that calorie burn has been really helpful."
Wendy Petersen, 59, from Edina, watches her metrics intently while 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 attaches the OTBeat to her Apple Watch to view both sets of data, as does Hansen.
The data from the wearables displays on large TV screens in the studio, as well as treadmill and row machine dashboards, allowing members and the instructor to track everyone's progress.
"For me, it's, 'Can I eke out some more?'" Petersen said, adding her competitiveness often fuels her to keep pace with some of the younger members. "'Can I get into that [higher] zone or am I overdoing it?'"
The OTBeat devices sync to exercise machines in the studio using Bluetooth, studio manager and instructor Kat O'Leary said. An adjoining app allows people to see their metrics and trends through a period of time. Purchasing the device is optional, and members can use it outside of the facility, too, O'Leary said.
Most people associate fitness improvement with how they're reacting to the workouts, such as feeling out of breath, O'Leary said. But the actual data gives insight into when the human body ascends into higher calorie burn zones and how quickly it can recover. So people don't necessarily have to always push themselves to the point of gasping for air, she said.
For Petersen, it's about improving endurance and mobility to reach a "new normal," she said. After undergoing hip replacement surgery, she exercises almost daily, either at Orangetheory or other gyms or by playing golf and pickleball.
"It's a feedback of how I'm doing" Petersen said. "Am I trending up?"
At Run Minnesota, the largest running organization in the state, coaches and trainers use fitness data gathered from wearables to analyze a runner's heart rate, mile splits, cadence, elevation and other details, said program director Danny Docherty.
The organization operates a training program in the spring and fall with about 100 people in each, Docherty said. Mathematical proof of their progress is what people find most gratifying, he said.
"It's kind of like a reward," he said. "You just get that immediate feeling of, 'I accomplished something,' and you have proof, digitally."
It's easy to become obsessed with the data, though. Staying away from the comparison game is a good idea for beginners, Docherty said.
"Everyone's got their own fitness journey, and you have to understand where you are in it," he said.
Smartwatch makers are seeing increased sales, with devices costing as little as $20 to upward of $1,000.
During the pandemic, Kansas-based Garmin International, a maker of Bluetooth-enabled wearables and smartwatches, noticed an uptick in demand for their products, said Garmin spokesman Griffin Schaetzle.
The company's products include a line of smartwatches for runners and triathletes but also wearables for swimmers in both open-water settings and pools. There's a specific watch for cyclists, which has sensors that track advanced metrics, Schaetzle said.
With Garmin smartwatches, users upload health and fitness data to a 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 revenue of $1.1 billion. In the two previous years, that category generated $1.5 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively. In the company's 2022 annual report, it attributed declining sales in wearables for fitness to overall maturation of the market for those devices
In 2021, Google closed its acquisition of Fitbit for $2.1 billion, gaining nearly 30 million users as customers. The California-based tech company is betting on the communal aspect of fitness to gain even more users and has tapped into this by enabling Fitbit users to create an online, closed group with their friends.
In 2022, Apple reported sales of $41 billion for its wearable, accessories and home products category, up from $38 billion in 2021. The company attributed growth in that category to Apple Watch and AirPods.
Support, not comparisons
Of Peloton's 6.5 million members, 75% prefer to show the 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 that leaderboard is visible during and after class, a stimulator for those who want to place toward the top.
"We believe sensing the presence of others and how they're performing significantly enhances workout engagement and performance, both separately and together," Padodara said.
By pairing heart rate monitors and other wearable tech to Peloton's app, people can see metrics on heart rate, distance, cadence and power input on Peloton equipment screens and smart TVs. Along with the Peloton Guide, a connected camera device that allows people to compare their movement to the instructor's, users can make adjustments to maximize workouts, Padodara said.
Lifespark, a St. Louis Park senior care provider, 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 for steps and grip strength, and award points based on how well therapy sessions go. Those points display on screens to show residents how they compare to other Lifespark centers in Minnesota.
"It gets them connected to other people, and it gets them connected as part of team against 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's a fine line between competition and community that fitness trackers walk.
"One of the ingredients in effective behavior change is social support, support being the key word," she said. "... Comparisons don't help. Compassionate and supportive accountability does help."