by Colin Milner
What will it take to age well?
This simple question has spawned industries around the world, as researchers, product developers and service providers all search for optimal solutions.
There is a growing thirst within society, among young and old alike, not only to manage the challenges of poor health, but also to embrace the opportunities associated with aging well.
The heartbeat of aging well? It might just be technology.
Today’s technology offers us the ability to fill the gaps, to meet new expectations and to connect in ways once left to the imagination of science fiction writers. The human touch must never be replaced. Yet we certainly are working hard at replacing humans—think robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as the environments we engage with; think augmented reality, virtual reality and holograms. These are only a few of the ways in which we will interact differently in the future.
Let’s consider a few technologies set to disrupt the fitness industry and the way we age:
Independence with technology
The merging of science and technology will continue to transform society in the months and years to come, and, with it, the possibilities to live well as we age. One particular technology to watch? Exoskeletons. This kind of technology promises to disrupt how so many of us function in old age.
Robotic exoskeletons (remember RoboCop?) are already worn to enhance strength, power and endurance in the workplace and on the battlefield. They are also utilized by therapy providers as rehabilitation tools for. A California-based market research firm reported last year that healthcare accounted for 54.1 percent of the USD$25.4 million in global revenues for exoskeletons in 2015, “owing to the high demand from rehabilitation, assisted living and elderly care.” The true potential for exoskeletons has still to be experienced, however.
Tech and aging expert Andrew Carle suggests that lighter exoskeletons could impact the need for wheelchairs, canes and assistive devices. Exoskeletons could also affect such things as home care and caregiving. And, yes they could also impact the fitness industry.
So, will frail adults function better with an exoskeleton suit? What about individuals whose lives have been changed by stroke, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) or Parkinson’s? How will exoskeletons impact the fitness industry? We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but indicators point to immense ripple effects.
Factor in the potential market for soft exosuits, which one CEO calls “powered clothing.” Made of technical fabrics, these garments sense where and when people need “a little bit of strength” and deliver it, says Rich Mahoney in a recent NBC News MACH article. Think about the potential impact in an aging society.
Who would have thought even a few years ago that we would entertain the concept of a fashionable robotic suit that could transform how we function and age? Yet, here we are.
Wearables for wellness
Another area of technology to pay attention to is wearables, which may reshape the possibilities for better disease prevention and health promotion. A recent MarketsandMarkets report predicts that the wearable technology market will reach USD$51.60 billion by 2022 at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 15.51% between 2016 and 2022. No wonder Harvard Medical School professor John J. Ratey, MD, calls wearables “the biggest thing in high-tech these days.”
Whether they are worn for health or performance purposes, wearables can tell your members, as well as their support teams (personal trainer, nutritionist, doctor, physiotherapist, etc.), what is occurring within their bodies in real time. Timely data provides opportunities for more immediate, precise recommendations. As an example, if individuals are training for a 5K walk, they (and you) can monitor performance indicators (such as heart rate and oxygen level) and adjust to improve outcomes. If tracking overall health is the goal, they (and you) can do so as well.
Wearables can be worn on a wrist or in a shirt, underwear or pants. It’s possible to use feedback from these tools to monitor changes in everything from blood pressure and blood sugar, to energy, memory and stability. Physicians can also be alerted if vital signs show change, and even when an immediate risk of heart attack is recognized. In fact, wearable technology may act as a first responder by dialing 911 when needed, sending an ambulance and using GPS to give directions.
In most cases, though, wearables will simply enable a team to provide real-time diagnoses and responses. This is a very important point. Our customers today demand more real-time precision health and fitness solutions.
This brings me to something that Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Joseph Coughlin, PhD, stressed in an interview earlier this year. “Wearables are becoming the new health platform, particularly for chronic conditions and the like,” says Coughlin. However, “the challenge for the Internet of Things and the related wearables market is that they become only the platform for the ‘medicalization’ of aging.” He believed they would fail if they did so.
According to Coughlin, “These technologies will become part of our lives when they introduce more than medical care in quantified living about how well I feel today. When it’s about how well they introduce fun, how well they remind me of places and spaces I’ve enjoyed, how well they remind me of how to connect with friends and family—so going well beyond shelter, water and ‘Did you take your medications today?’”
Whether for medical care, performance or lifestyle, wearables have the capacity to monitor and inspire change. But, these devices need to be fun and to connect us to more than our heart rate. As fitness professionals and organizations, we need to understand the options available, what they can achieve and what we can do to get the most out of them.
Transformation is underway
As a society, we want to live longer and live well. And we increasingly look to technology to help improve our function, independence and quality of life as we age. Advances in technology will provide new and additional ways for the active-aging industry to support older-adult health and well-being. This opportunity is not to be underestimated.
According to a 2016 white paper from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and the CTA Foundation, the active-aging market in the United States alone—older adults and their family caregivers—“represented a $24.4-billion market opportunity in 2015 and will grow to $42.7 billion in 2020.” This reflects a 12 percent compound annual growth rate over this period “for tech products that support a proactive way of living that balances growing older with the active pursuit of quality of life.”
Only the future will tell. But technology will surely help us re-imagine—and disrupt—the way we age.