Intelligent Machines

Gadgets for Getting in Shape

High-tech ways to meet fitness goals.

Jan 11, 2010
Two-thirds of adults in the Unites States are either overweight or obese, so it’s no surprise that one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is weight loss. To help those who may be struggling to stick to their goals, Technology Review looked at the best gizmos and gadgets to help. These devices track everything from calories burned to the amount of food eaten.Mandometer
This portable computerized weighing scale was developed by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. It tracks the portion size and rate at which people eat.
“People eat too quickly,” says Julian Hamilton-Shield, a professor Diabetes and Metabolic Endocrinology at the University of Bristol and a researcher at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, both in the U.K. “When people eat too quickly, the neuropeptides [small protein-like molecules] released from the gut don’t have time to tell the brain [they are] full, so the natural thermostat of the body, which controls how much food a person consumes, is circumvented.”
The Mandometer scale is connected to a small computer and measures the amount of food taken from a plate. This is converted into a graphical representation of how many grams are removed from the plate per minute. The user can see the data in real time, and how it compares to an ideal graph created by a nutritionist.
The device was originally developed as a treatment for anorexia and bulimia, but a recent study led by Hamilton-Shield used it for obese adolescents. Subjects who used the scale while eating “lost significantly more weight and more fat, enough to change their body mass index and benefit their metabolic health,” according to a study published online in the British Medical Journal on Tuesday.
This tiny wearable device tracks a user’s every move, even while she’s sleeping, using three-way motion sensors called accelerometers. It uses this data to determine useful information like calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled, even the quality of a person’s sleep. The FitBit can be worn on just about any article of clothing, but also on a wristband.
A user’s collected activity data can be displayed on the device, but one of the features of FitBit is that it automatically transfers the data to the Web when a user walks within 15 feet of a wireless charging stand. This stand has to be connected to a computer that runs the FitBit software. The cost: $99, but consumers will have to wait until February 17 for orders to start shipping.
Developed by Philips, DirectLife is a pocket-sized plastic device that also uses motion sensors to measure a user’s daily energy expenditure. These measurements are combined with the user’s age, gender, height, and weight before being converted to the number of calories burned during each activity. Unlike most exercise gadgets, DirectLife does not display numerical data; instead it uses green indicator lights to show activity level. A single green light indicates level zero, meaning there is little chance of waistline reduction. Each additional green light represents a 15 percent increase toward a user’s daily target.
DirectLife takes activity monitoring further than other devices by having fitness and nutrition experts assess a user’s activity data and recommend an exercise plan. These “coaches” are available to answer questions and motivate users. Another benefit: the device is waterproof.
DirectLife has to be worn in a user’s pocket or around her neck, and the data can be uploaded to the Web by connecting it to a computer. Cost: $100.
BodyBugg and GoWear Fit
This strap-on device (shown top) is equipped with sensors that measure motion, body heat, and sweat 32 times per second; an algorithm converts the data into an estimate of calories burned. The company says the calorie estimate is over 90 percent accurate.
A user must attach the device to a computer via a USB cable to see the results. A digital display wristband is available for an extra cost. The online component, which is only free for six months, features expert advice, calculators to determine progress, and a chance for users to create and manage fitness goals. It also includes one phone consultation with a fitness coach. BodyBugg is developed by BodyMedia. Cost: $249, plus a reoccurring monthly fee.
GoWear Fit (shown bottom) is a similar, but slightly cheaper, device developed by BodyMedia. It also calculates calorie burn and steps taken, but also monitors sleep duration and efficiency. Its online components are comparable, but less in scale. Cost: $199.95, plus subscription fees.
Smheart Link
The Smheart Link wirelessly tethers an iPhone to fitness sensors such as heart-rate monitors or exercise machines. It lets users manage their fitness routine using one of several free iPhone applications. The device was developed by iTMP Technology of Santa Barbara, CA. It measures 3.5 inches in length, 1.5 inches in height, and is .5 inches wide, and only weighs three ounces. Cost: $155.
Lose It!
The most popular weight-loss app for the iPhone is Lose It! This free application lets users set a weight goal and then, based on that, establish a daily calorie budget. A user must enter the food she ate and exercise taken every day. The software then displays how many more calories she can eat or needs to burn to reach her set goal. Cost: Free during the first six months of its release.
Smart Patch
This calorie-monitoring patch has yet to hit the market, but when it does, say experts, it will solve one of the biggest hurdles in dieting systems: caloric-intake monitoring without meticulous diary keeping or having a trained professional do the calorie counting. It uses a combination of sensors, electrodes, and accelerometers to measure the number of calories eaten and burned, and the net gain or loss in a 24-hour period. The patch sends this data via a Bluetooth wireless connection to an application on the user’s cell phone.
The smart patch measures things such as temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin conductivity, and is designed to be replaced once a week. It is being developed by the health-care company PhiloMetron.
Despite its name, users might not want to sip cocktails while wearing this device. It is a calorie-monitoring system being developed by Georgia Institute of Technology. It computes the amount of calories users burn through daily physical activity and sleep. The information is then transferred via Bluetooth to a PC, where the statistics can be analyzed with Web-based software.
The HappyHR straps to a user’s wrist or ankle. Its developers say the device could be commercially available this fall for $100, but they also plan to add more features, including respiratory and glucose monitoring.