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Wearable technology keeps hooking people as COVID lingers
Sep 22, 2021

Wearable technology keeps hooking people as COVID lingers

Sales of devices like smartwatches grew during the pandemic, partly because they support health and fitness when you're not going to the gym.

During the pandemic, especially with gyms shut down or just less appealing, people bought a lot of wearables. Those are smart devices that you wear on your body — in your ear, on your wrist or as a patch, even — that track your activity in some way, like your vital signs or how much you move.

Look at global sales of smartwatches. They jumped by almost 18% in 2020, according to Gartner. The research firm also forecasts that spending on wearables will grow to more than $81 billion by the end of this year.

I talked to Ramon Llamas, a research director at International Data Corp., about why wearables got so popular during the pandemic.

Ramon Llamas: We saw a lot of interest over here because these devices really do a good job of tracking your health and fitness. It’ll tell you how many steps you’ve taken in any given day, what your heart rate is, how many calories you burn, and those are all important things. But at the same time, having to do it from home because you can’t go to the gym, and to track it with a smartwatch or a fitness tracker made things so much easier, so that a lot of the guesswork was eliminated. You didn’t have to have a huge, expensive piece of machinery sitting in your bedroom or in your living room. You could do all your exercises at home instead.

Ramon Llamas smiles for his headshot wearing a dark blazer and brown tie.
Ramon Llamas (Courtesy International Data Corp.)

Marielle Segarra: I wonder, do you have any wearables? Have they changed your behavior … taught you anything about yourself?

Llamas: [Laughs] the answer is a resounding yes, and I’ll tell you why. You know, I was in a situation not too long ago, where I visited my doctor and I thought I was in really good shape. I’m the kind of guy who goes to the gym four or five times a week and exercises. I try to eat well. And the doctor came back to me and said, “Ramon, your cholesterol is too high. And you’re, you need to lose about 25 pounds.” And I said, “I thought I was doing well.” And she says, “Well, you’re doing OK, but you could do better. And according to the data that we have, you need to do better.” So I employed a wearable to help me track my runs, and I became a fan of the treadmill and using my wearable on the treadmill. I made it a game in which my goal was to beat my time and beat my distance each and every single time because I figured if I could do that, you know, I must be getting healthier. I also have a Fitbit scale that my smartwatch connects to, and all these feed into the app. And I can see how many calories I burned. I can also see how many calories I’ve consumed because I also use the Fitbit app to keep track of my food log. I also saw how, which direction my weight was going and my body mass index, how those were starting to trend as well. And so I had a, let’s say a constellation of, of devices and applications that I had to use to try to get my weight down and get my health back in order.

Segarra: So it’s interesting. In that case, your wearables, they didn’t tell you there is a problem, but you use them to help you get healthier.

Llamas: Exactly. I also use it to make sure that I was getting enough sleep because I used to be a big night owl — staying up to close to midnight on most nights. Now I find a lot more value going to bed earlier, no later than about 9:30 or 10 o’clock, if I can help it. I found out that my best, you know, workout time was going earlier in the morning. But, for my wearable to tell me, “Hey Ramon, your cholesterol is too high”? No, a wearable did not do that. Instead, it helped me keep track of my journey, and I’ve gotten there.

Segarra: You’ve been covering this space of wearable technology for years now. What sorts of new features or devices do you see this space diving into in the next five years?

Llamas: I’m hoping to see that wearables become a lot more prescriptive. Right now, wearables do a great job of collecting my descriptive data. What I want to know is here, what can I do better based on all this data. We saw that with Fitbit, not too long ago. One of their capabilities in their Fitbit premium app is that it will take a look at your performance for the past several days and say to you, “Hey Ramon, today’s a good day to go do five miles.” Wow. Now I have a coach on my wrist telling me what to do because it knows my patterns. It knows my behavior and adjusts accordingly. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

Ramon talked about how wearable technology has evolved over the past few years. One big change: Devices have gone from simply tracking your physical activity to taking measurements and making judgments about your emotional state.

Like at the end of last year, Amazon came out with its Halo fitness band, which says it can tell you about your tone — how you’re coming off — by listening to your voice. Do you sound happy, hopeful, confused, worried, bored? And you know, it could be easier to hear that kind of feedback from a device than from a human like your partner or your boss.

Llamas also mentioned that wearables might be able to tell whether someone has COVID-19. And there is some research on this. Scientists at Stanford and Case Western have shown that basic smartwatch data on heart rate and sleep time can indicate when someone has a presymptomatic case of COVID.

And after all this talk about wearables, we wanted to hear from people who might use them.

At Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, New York, this week, our producer Stephanie Hughes found a couple of folks working out.

Two personal trainers were practicing “animal flow,” which they described as a mix of capoeira, yoga and modern dance. 

Personal trainers pose in semi-bridge position in Fort Greene park.
Personal trainers Roger Franco, left, and Sun King practice “animal flow” in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. Franco bought an Apple Watch during the pandemic, which he uses to keep track of his heart rate. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace).

Sun King: All right, let’s start. Right foot. Switch the left foot. 

These guys are into fitness, and one of them, Roger Franco, bought an Apple Watch during the pandemic. 

He already worked out a lot — running, lifting weights — also, you know, stuff like animal flow. But he said that when he met the goal set by the watch, it made him feel good. 

Roger Franco: It kind of like gives you praise, like a good feeling. Like, oh, I won [laughs].

In another part of the park, our producer talked with Becca Keener, who was dancing on her own in the grass. She does not own a wearable device. Though she was, at one point, obsessed with hitting certain fitness goals. She isn’t anymore. 

Becca Keener: It’s most important to be, like, in the experience, for whatever purpose you’re doing it for. You know, relaxation, or, like, if you’re working on strength training, and like the mind, muscle connection, that’s really important.

Keener: If you constantly think, “I got to hit this number, I got to hit this number,” that can kind of take you away from that work.

Stephanie Hughes: Have you been that person before?

Keener: Oh yeah [laughs]. Yeah. I hate her now. 

But Keener said she would try a tracker that could accurately measure her breath or heart rate while sleeping. 

Keener: I’m curious. I just want that as information to track, like, how well I’m doing in terms of, like, regulating my nervous system and other markers. I just would like to know where I’m at. 

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer