Part 1: That’s Exertainment! The Fascinating History and Future of Fitness Tech

Fitness tech

In addition to being Women’s History Month, March brings us the gift of March Madness. To celebrate these themes in tandem, Distillery is kicking off a four-blog series that features fitness tech innovation and two tales of successful health-focused businesses founded by women, ClassPass and 23andMe. Welcome to the first blog in the series: part one of our look at the past, present, and future of fitness technology.


Part One: Fitness Tech Finds Its Foundation

As the Internet of Things continues to expand its reach into new frontiers of our lives and our work, it’s worth looking back at one of the very first industries to focus on inventing data-tracking, connectivity-enabling devices and iOS/Android apps that improve the quality of our lives: fitness. In part one, we look back at the earliest examples of fitness technology and the motivations behind its ongoing innovation.

“How am I doing?”

Fitness’ first technological innovations were a response to the simple, understandable desire to track performance by capturing clear data that answer the question “how am I doing?” While walking, running, or biking can be innately pleasurable, we can’t help wanting to know how far we’ve gone. More steps and more distance equates with more greater personal satisfaction. And that satisfaction? It’s motivating.

In addition, health experts have long acknowledged the importance of increasing aerobic fitness by using physical activity to elevate heart rates to target levels. So it’s unsurprising that another early priority was to create technology to accurately monitor and measure heart rates.

The Pedometer: So Cool Everyone Wanted to Invent It

It all started with counting steps. Way back in the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci first sketched out a conceptual version of the pedometer. The question of who actually invented the pedometer, however, has been under dispute for centuries. Some credit an English scientist who in 1674 developed a pedometer to help surveyors and mapmakers; others point to a French craftsman’s 1525 invention of a watch-shaped device that used a cord attached between the wearer’s belt and knee to mechanically count the wearer’s steps. Yet others bring up a Swiss watchmaker, a different French inventor, or even US President Thomas Jefferson. (In fact, Jefferson simply brought a pedometer back from France and popularized the device in the US.) Ultimately, the dispute proves exactly one thing incontrovertibly: that the desire to know how far one has walked has long been felt by inquiring minds worldwide.

So how did pedometers enter the global mainstream as a fitness tool? By way of Japan: In the 1960s, Japanese professor Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, concerned with a rising trend of obesity in the country’s population, undertook the research that produced the “10,000 steps a day” recommendation still embraced today. Effectively, the world was encouraged to set daily step goals to gain and maintain optimal health. Walking clubs began to spring up and pedometer use became widespread. Fortunately, as simple as it is, the pedometer is indeed motivating: According to the findings from a 2007 Stanford University research study summarizing the findings of more than 26 other studies, pedometer users walk 2,000 more steps a day than non-users and experience a 27% increase in overall physical activity levels.

Early pedometers used simple counters and a mechanical switch to detect steps. Today’s more sophisticated pedometers pair software with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) inertial sensors to perform the same function.

The Cyclometer: “It’s Nice to Know How Far You Go”

The Cyclometer was a simple mechanical device that used magnets attached to a bicycle’s wheel spoke and frame to sense when the magnet passed (i.e., once per wheel rotation). It calculated distance simply by counting the number of rotations and multiplying it by the wheel’s circumference, transmitting the information to an analog odometer visible to the cyclist. Invented in Connecticut in 1895 by mechanical engineer Curtis Veeder, he promoted the Cyclometer with the jaunty slogan, “It’s Nice to Know How Far You Go.”

Of course, modern cyclometers have a great many more bells and whistles than Veeder’s simple counter. Today’s models are programmable, able to adapt to different wheel sizes, and capable of monitoring things like current, average, and maximum speed, trip time, heart rate, calories burned, outdoor temperature, and altitude.

The Portable Heart Rate Monitor: Stats on the Go

In 1975, Finnish professor Seppo Säynäjäkangas was out skiing when a chance meeting with a coach and friend inspired a discussion on how athletes’ heart rates might be accurately measured during training. Säynäjäkangas founded Polar in 1977, filed his first patent — for fingertip heart rate monitoring — in 1979, and released the first wireless wearable heart rate monitor, the Polar Sport Tester PE2000, in 1982. The PE2000 paired an EKG- and radio-equipped chest-worn strap with a wristwatch that received and displayed the user’s real-time data. Credited with giving rise to high-intensity interval training, the PE2000 was a genuine game-changer for fitness. It’s worth noting that the annoying chafing of the device’s chest strap was also of great consequence: It encouraged Polar and other manufacturers to look for a way to get rid of it.

The GPS Sports Watch: Measuring Not Only How Far but WHERE

All the way back in 1999, Casio was the first to manufacture a global positioning system (GPS) watch. Their SATELLITE NAVI was the first watch to come with GPS functionality, allowing wearers to gauge directions and distances relative to their locations. The only problem was that, at the time, the United States military was actively scrambling satellite signals. That meant civilians couldn’t count on using GPS with the accuracy enjoyed by the military. That all changed in 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed an order stopping the scrambling and opening up the GPS signal to civilians. It was a landmark decision that changed what was possible for the future of navigation systems.

Garmin, a US-based technology company long known for their specialized navigational systems, didn’t take long to capitalize on GPS’ newly expanded potential. They registered the trademark for their AAA-battery-powered “Forerunner” GPS watches in 2001, releasing them to the market in 2003. Now, runners, cyclists, and other athletes could use GPS technology to plan and track exact training routes and capture increasingly precise data on distances traveled.

“Am I doing better?”

Unsurprisingly, now that we could know how we were doing, we craved the option of tracking our performance over time. While a pencil and a log sheet could do the trick, it was a labor-intensive process that failed to provide instant gratification. Once technology advances meant that complex operations could be packed into yet smaller packages — like watches and other wrist-worn trackers — the fitness world was absolutely ready to get onboard, helping users to set goals, track achievements, and embrace fitness as a game worth winning.

Smartwatches for Fitness: Time for Your Workout

The history of fitness-focused smartwatches began much, much earlier than 2015’s Apple Watch. At the very minimum, we can go all the way back to 1984 and the release of the Polar Sport Tester PE3000, the successor of the PE2000 described above. The PE3000 featured an integrated computer interface that allowed users to view and analyze their own training data.

It wasn’t long before other watchmakers caught on to the idea of integrating tracking and training functionality. Notably, Casio also manufactured some early-model fitness smartwatches, including 1991’s JC-11 (calorie, step, and distance tracking), 1991’s BP-400 (blood pressure and heart rate monitoring), and 1993’s RPS-100 series (calorie and activity tracking, including laps, pace, and pitch). In addition, Garmin’s 2003-released Forerunner 201 and 301 GPS watches contained training software and enabled users to upload training data to their computers.

Fitbit: Delivering Wrist-worn Fitness Worldwide

Fitbit is rightly credited with bringing fitness tracking technology to the masses. Founded in 2007, Fitbit’s first product was the Fitbit Tracker, a small plastic device that you could clip to your clothing or strap into an included wristband. In addition to functioning as a pedometer, it used a motion sensor to follow users’ movements in three dimensions, tracking not only what you did (e.g., walking, sitting, running, sleeping) but when, creating a log of your activities over time. The tracker worked alongside a web portal that helped users track their data.

While the Fitbit Tracker’s original $99 price tag wasn’t cheap, it was still accessible. The product quickly caught the fancy of users of all ages and fitness levels worldwide. And thus, Dr. Hatano’s “10,000 steps a day” mantra echoed anew across the globe.

Nowadays, Fitbit manufactures fitness trackers and smartwatches in an incredible range of different models and price ranges. Fitbit’s user-friendly Android or iOS mobile apps help users track and analyze their fitness, sleep, weight, and diet data.

How did Fitbit conquer the fitness-tracking world? For many reasons, including these:

  • Fitbit understood that the gamification of fitness was central not only to making their devices a focal point for users, but also for making them fun. The app encourages users to set goals across categories (e.g., total daily steps, step-number minimums for a set number of hours). You can also set up challenges to compete with other users and compare your progress. Fitbit says the social element works: On average, users with friends on the app take 700 more steps per day. The company is also exploring new ways to let users connect on the platform, posting pictures and sharing news about achievements. In other words, Fitbit has been one of the first trackers to fully capitalize on the concept of creating community and using it to engender healthy competition.
  • Fitbit clearly understands the importance of ensuring accessibility and privacy. The different price points and devices widen their audience. Devices are accessible on 200+ smartphones — more than any other fitness tracker. And you can opt in or out of sharing your data.

Smart Glasses: Now You Don’t Even Have to Look Down

Having emerged only in the past decade, smart glasses are a still-developing entry into fitness tracking. For athletes who want to view their data continuously and in real time, smart glasses offer an enticing option. The glasses use augmented reality (AR) technology to overlay fitness data across the user’s view in a fighter-pilot-type experience. Some models can take HD pics and videos via voice command.

Thus far, the cycling community has been the most enthusiastic about embracing the technology: The Solos and the Everysight Raptor are head-mounted display (HMD) smart glasses specifically for cycling. Recon Instruments, however, is cultivating a wider sport footprint with their Recon Jet pair, suitable for runners and triathletes in addition to cyclists.

Smart Scales: Tell Me More

Smart scales are another recent entry into the fitness-tracking field. The scales appeal to users who are eager not only to track their fitness performance, but also to track its results on their bodies. Gone are the days of scales dispensing only one piece of information (your weight). Today’s smart scales can tell you your body mass index (BMI), your bone density, and the percentage of your body made up by fat or water. (These measurements are taken via impedance, or mild electrical impulses that the scales send through your body.) They can track your stats day to day: If you pair them with a fitness tracker via a WiFi or Bluetooth connection, they can transmit your data to the app of your choice. The scales are so dang smart they can even support multiple users, using your historical data to recognize who’s standing on them.

Drones: A Bird’s Eye View on Fitness Performance

According to several industry reports, drones are an inevitable component of the future wave of fitness-tracking devices. As the Director of Technology and Innovation for the US Olympic Committee Mounir Zok explains, “If you want to imagine the athletes of the future, you can imagine maybe each one of them running with a swarm of small drones around them.” Indeed, startups and enterprises like Staaker, FlyPro, Ehang, and DJI already offer drones that can follow and film you as you exercise.

Stay tuned for part two in the series, coming March 19th. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, fitness enterprises and startups have focused on making fitness yet more fun, motivating, and — most importantly — convenient. In particular, part two examines how computer gaming, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), our yearning for community, and our irrepressible desire for optimum convenience have played a role in shaping the ongoing evolution of fitness tech.

Want to find out more about how Distillery helps startups and enterprises to build the products that people want next? Let us know!

In addition to being Women’s History Month, March brings us the gift of March Madness. To celebrate these themes in tandem, Distillery is kicking off a four-blog series that features fitness tech innovation and two tales of successful health-focused businesses founded by women, ClassPass and 23andMe. Welcome to the first blog in the series: part one of our look at the past, present, and future of fitness technology.


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