Getting Help in Working It Out

Hearables, wearables and magic pills are arriving to make it easier to exercise — or even to avoid it

Vi headphones by LifeBeam, a new kind of wearable exercise aid, provide training instructions tailored to an individual’s particular workout needs.
Vi headphones by LifeBeam, a new kind of wearable exercise aid, provide training instructions tailored to an individual’s particular workout needs.

Vi speaks to you through AI-powered earbuds.

“How far have I run?” you ask.

“2.7 miles,” Vi answers.

“What’s my heart rate?”

“122,” she says.

And then she plays drum music and urges you to get in sync with the beat. It’s a way of increasing your cadence and making your workout harder. As a reward, she may say, “Good hustle, souljah” before urging, “Let’s hit another hill.”

It’s like having a personal trainer in your head, reacting to how you respond to instruction and what your body is doing. Vi would not have been possible just a few years ago. Artificial intelligence distinguishes these new virtual coaches from earlier fitness trackers, combining with rapid advances in bio-sensors and materials science to bring the training regimes and performance measurement used by elite athletes to weekend warriors.

Vi is an example of what’s called a “hearable” — a smart in-ear device. There also are wearables — apparel that tracks metabolic data — as well as 3D body scanning to track an athlete’s movements and genomics-based workouts and diet regimes. There’s even an exercise pill in the initial stages of human trials.

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Backed by more than $2.6 billion in investment over the past five years, entrepreneurs and scientists are working to get us off the couch and moving. “We truly feel we have a bigger mission than just creating some cool tech,” says Omri Yoffe, CEO of Vi’s maker, LifeBeam.

“We’ve been able to gather fitness data for quite a while, but now we’re teetering on the edge of the virtual coach, and the AI is the most important part,” says Paul Saffo, a noted forecaster and Stanford University professor.

Saffo calls the advent of AI-driven virtual coaches that offer analysis and instruction a game changer. “People pay a lot of money for the instruction you can only get in person,” Saffo says. “A personal trainer can tell you, ‘Don’t lift weights that way or you’ll get carpal tunnel.’ Or, ‘You’re pronating your ankles when you run.’”

For a fraction of the cost of human instruction, Vi and other AI coaches do this. Lumo Run is a sensor that monitors and instructs you on correct running form. It’s available as a standalone device or integrated into apparel. Moov’s sweatband measures heart rate and other data and offers real-time coaching. There also are apps like Carrot Fit, which leads you through a “7 Minutes in Hell Workout.”

But what about people unable to exercise, those with injuries, the elderly, or those hooked up to ventilators? Researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla have tinkered with a compound called GW1516 to create a pill that delivers the benefits of aerobic exercise. It’s in initial clinical trials and could be available in two or three years for those with heart conditions, pulmonary disease, Type 2 diabetes or muscular dystrophy.

The appeal for other populations is obvious. Michael Downes, senior staff scientist at Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, who has worked on GW1516 for 15 years, explains that the compound mimics the benefits of a workout, from losing weight to neurogenesis, the corresponding increase in brain cells from physical activity. “It’s a nice way of tricking your body into thinking it has exercised,” he says. But he quickly adds that it shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for actually working out.

At the end of the day, these advances signal a new approach to exercise, making it less of a slog and, hopefully, more beneficial. “I’d love my little AI coach to nudge me and say, ‘I know it’s raining out, but in 5 minutes you’ll be warm, so get your butt outside and go for a run,’” Saffo says. 

Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal’s editorial director.
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