Famous people and fitness wearables have one very important thing in common: Most often, what the public perceives to be an overnight success is, in truth, the result of many years (and countless hours) of hard work behind the scenes. This explains, at least in part, why there’s been such a lull between the first generation of fitness trackers (wrist-worn devices that were based on already existing technology and research) and the latest crop, which are designed to be worn on different parts of your body and are the product of cutting-edge tech and feedback from new clinical studies.
These next-gen wearables were worth the wait, though, because they’re designed to be so unobtrusive, you can set ‘em and forget ‘em. Which is exactly what their creators want you to do—not just for their benefit, but your own.
As a result, in 2023, you will hear people talking about (rather than see people using) continuous tracking wearables that are focused on showing you how your exercise routine is influencing your overall health—whether that’s by aiding better sleep, more balanced blood sugar, peak performance, lower stress levels, or a combination thereof—instead of purely keeping tabs on your heart rate, step counts, and closed rings.
Thanks to new research and development (over six years in the making), last fall, fit-tech brand Whoop finally made good on a promise it made when it launched in 2011 with the debut of its latest offerings. “We've always aspired to develop wearable technology that is either cool or invisible, [and] with the launch of Whoop 4.0 and Whoop Body, we have accomplished both,” Will Ahmed, Whoop founder and CEO, said in a press release last year. “I've been thinking about this technology for more than a decade, and I can promise you that this is the most innovative product we have ever released.”
The Whoop 4.0 has a five-day battery life (all the better for continuous wear) and is 33-percent smaller than its predecessor. Whoop developed unique algorithms to allow its latest device to collect data from your waist, torso, calf, and bicep in addition to your wrist. “The locations we’ve released have all been through hundreds of thousands of hours of testing and verification,” says Joel Lessard, vice president of apparel and accessories at Whoop.
The Experts Take
Co-founder of Eight Sleep
"Things are evolving, and where the technology for fitness...is going is more toward using data to offer personalized insights and coaching. That’s been possible in recent years because of the abilities of machine-learning and even AI. That's where this technology will continue to mature—seamless tracking design where the user shouldn't have to do anything."
Whoop released the 4.0 alongside a new line of workout clothing and underwear that have built-in pockets to house the device near the aforementioned body parts. Whoop Body, as this line is called, features Any-Wear technology that can automatically detect when you change the place you’re wearing the device. So say you decide to wear your Whoop on your wrist while you sleep, but then decide to slip it into your sports bra when you go work out, it’ll seamlessly continue collecting data despite the fact that it takes two different algorithms to do so.
Whoop is the gold standard of fitness wearables for people whose primary focus is performance, but physical gains are not the only reason people exercise. Moving forward, you’re going to see more brands tracking and offering exercise insights as a means to drive habit changes to reach goals like greater metabolic fitness, higher quality zzzs, or improved resilience to stress. Prepare to see much of this innovation coming from companies that have developed fitness technology around continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) and sleep trackers, specifically.
In terms of the former, there’s the startup Levels, a wearable brand founded in 2019 that snagged $38 million in Series A funding this past spring to increase product availability. Levels uses CGMs worn on the back of the arm or torso to give users feedback through its app and real-time notifications on how to optimize their exercise and nutrition for better metabolic health. “This could be a recommendation just to take a walk because your blood sugar is taking off vertically,” says Josh Clemente, a former space engineer (as in rocket scientist) and Levels co-founder. “Those sorts of simple, in-the-moment recommendations take the CGM data from just sort of a raw abstract metric and turn it into behavior change.”
Other CGM-based brands to look out for include Veri (which was founded in 2020 and raised $4 million to start shipping the sensor in 2021) and NutriSense, which launched in 2019 and raised $25 million in funding this summer to put toward continued growth. Then there’s newcomer Kahla, a female-founded startup that helps women understand how lifestyle factors, like nutrition, stress, sleep, movement, and their menstrual cycles, affect their metabolic, hormonal, autoimmune, and other health symptoms by using CGMs and a mobile app. Kahla is currently beta-testing with plans to launch early next year.
You’re also going to see fitness-tracking innovation and expansion from sleep tech companies. Sleep is an essential part of optimal exercise performance, recovery, and overall health. “It’s the time when you recover and adapt from your training,” says exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS. “You need good quality sleep to give your body the chance to heal from exercise-induced damage and for your brain to cement the neural connections that help you form memories and learn skills. Without good sleep, you won’t get the most out of your exercise program or sports training.”
To that end, when Oura Ring, the sleep tracking startup out of Finland (now valued at $2.55 billion) launched its Gen 3 device at the end of September, it went from focusing primarily on sleep and recovery to becoming a full-fledged fitness tracker thanks to the inclusion of new features like Workout Heart Rate (HR), which is designed to help wearers see how exercise impacts their sleep.
The wearable can now let you know how your body’s recovering and offer guidance on how to tweak your routines to optimize for both sleep and activity. Oura, which sold its millionth smart ring this past spring and raised $100 million in its latest round of funding, also announced at the end of October that it now offers period prediction capabilities (with policies in place to keep data secure and safe, as well as an option to opt out of the feature, in which case all period tracking data is permanently deleted). It has also partnered with the birth control app Natural Cycles—good news for anyone who likes to sync their workouts to their menstrual phases. The latest iteration of its ring comes with a seven-day battery life to make continuous monitoring more convenient.
“While many devices can help you push to meet performance or activity goals, Oura empowers you to optimize your health for longevity by helping you learn how much movement and recovery you should incorporate every day based on your daily body signals, such as heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), respiratory rate, and body temperature,” says Caroline Kryder, Oura’s science communications lead.
Similarly, Eight Sleep (its thermoregulating, sleep-tracking mattresses and mattress covers have been shown to increase stress recovery, as measured by increased HRV, by 19 percent in third-party verifications) is now offering its users more in-depth exercise feedback thanks to recently announced integrations with Peloton, Apple Health, Garmin, and Oura, as well as Google Health, Fitbit, TrainingPeaks, Polar, Zwift, and Whoop. You can now link these wearables with your Eight Sleep app, which will pull data from the devices to draw correlations between what you do during the day and how you sleep at night—then offer your insights to help you optimize for better sleep.
“And because of trends over time, it’s not just about when you did one Peloton ride, what happened to your sleep,” says the company’s co-founder and Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor Alexandra Zatarain. “It’s what we’ve seen over the last 30 days or six months. It'll tell you things like, on the days when you run or do X number of steps how much better you sleep. So whatever information it's grabbing from these other devices it's using to generate those insights.”
Part of the reason fitness tracking is evolving in this direction is because people are craving more guidance translating their bodies’ data to better health outcomes. “What users want is that sort of coaching; the end goal is habit change,” Zatarain says.
Until now, you’d have to be a scientist or a doctor in order to interpret the biometric data from your fitness tracker for yourself and understand if your fitness routine was improving your health in the way you wanted it to. “And then you have to interpret it, process it, identify the behavior change that needs to be made as a result of that data, and then act on it and make the change—most of the work is still up to you, which is really, really hard for a lot of people who are already busy in their lives,” says neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist Dave Rabin, MD, Phd, co-founder of Apollo Neuro.
The company, which launched in 2020 and closed its first significant funding round in March 2022 with $15 million, designed a wearable that uses sound vibrations to calm your nervous system—it’s the first to be scientifically validated (its technology was developed at the University of Pittsburgh) to reduce stress and speed up physical recovery both post-workout and during rest intervals. It can be worn on the wrist or ankle using a band, or clipped onto your hip, shirt, or even your bra—essentially anywhere it can have direct contact with bone…but preferably somewhere so unobtrusive that you forget you’re wearing it.
And that’s precisely the point. To do their job effectively, these new fitness trackers know they have to disrupt your life as little as possible in order to reduce the reasons you have to take them off. “Invisibility really comes back to a lack of distractions,” Lessard, of Whoop, says, “and that could be in the form of a screen that’s telling you you have a new message or it could be in the feel of a device on your wrist. If it’s invisible, it’s more that the device is adapting to you.” ✙