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Apps powering the revolution in fitness

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2016 will be a pivotal year for health and fitness tech
2016 will be a pivotal year for health and fitness tech

This year is already shaping up to be pivotal for the health and fitness industries, with companies like Apple, with the Apple Watch and Healthkit, and IBM with its Under Armour partnership, taking the lead in health tech.

Sales of wearables and connected devices are expected to hit $17.4 million in 2016, up 12 percent over last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. As with all hardware, it's likely to be the software and content that will drive adoption, say experts.

Apps on those devices are being super-powered by data analytics, giving rise to an increasingly personalized consumer experience when it comes to health and fitness. It's an area attracting a lot of attention from public companies, investors and entrepreneurs alike.

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For example, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo just announced his next move will be into the realm of health and fitness. "We are building a software fitness platform that re-imagines the path to personal fitness," Costolo tweeted on Tuesday.

Investors and entrepreneurs are pouring in cash, building an ecosystem of health and fitness apps that aim to be smarter and more effective than ever before. There were 68 deals accounting for almost $300 million in investment in the "Wearables and Quantified Self" space in 2015, according to data from Pitchbook.

Nutrition app Rise is one example of a startup leveraging mobile technology and big data to help people reach their goals when it comes to losing weight. Users are paired with a personal coach, then snap and upload pictures of their meals to get feedback in real-time. (Competitors include Noom Coach and MyFitnessPal).

"It's really not hard to follow a diet for a very short period of time — most people do — but to have that stick in your life, that's the problem that we are trying to solve," said CEO Suneel Gupta. "Our goal is really to give you the magic in effectiveness of working with the real human experts."

Gupta highlighted Apple for its leading role in driving the industry over the past several years. "Apple is a great example of a company that I think is starting to make health a real priority," said Gupta. "We have found more and more players — especially big players — that are increasingly relevant to what we are doing."

The app integrates with Apple's Healthkit and Fitbit data and is available for Android and iOS devices. Coaches combine users' food logs, activity information and draw on data from the app's 10,000 users to deliver tailored feedback on meals and suggestions on how to make healthier choices.

By creating a network of coaches and customers, Rise is able to offer its service at a fraction of the traditional cost of one-on-one nutrition consultations — users pay $40-50 a month on average. That's still out of reach for many, and the company is working to bring down the cost, said Gupta.

To that end, Rise recently launched a $9 per month slimmed-down version of the service for users who want to continue being coached once they have hit their goals.

Though Gupta would not reveal its current valuation, Rise has raised $4 million in venture capital funding from investors including Google Ventures and Greylock Partners. The company — which launched in 2014 — has tripled its user base over the past year.

Sports apparel company Under Armour is taking a different approach to personalized coaching. On January 6, CEO Kevin Plank announced a strategic partnership with IBM to bring Watson's smarts to its new UA Record app.

Watson will crunch data from Under Armour's 4.5 million users to deliver health and fitness insights and recommendations to users. Rob Thomas, vice president of development for IBM analytics, said some interesting and unexpected findings are already emerging.

For example, for certain groups of people who want to lose weight eating a good breakfast — traditionally something nutritionists recommend — may not help. "For this group, we found eating a good breakfast wasn't changing anything. What made a difference was when they actually focused on eating a good lunch," said Thomas.

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty and Under Armour Founder and CEO Kevin Plank announced a new "cognitive coaching" system powered by Watson.
Source: IBM

For another group targeting weight loss, Watson's analytics revealed that focusing first on their sleep patterns was the key to success. "If that group jumped right to exercise, but continued the exact same sleep and food regimen, nothing changed," said Thomas. By focusing first on sleep, then food, then exercise, users were able to shed pounds faster.

As Watson learns more about UA Record users, the goal is to add new capabilities over the coming year. For example, like Rise, the app will tackle nutrition coaching but instead of a real-life coaches, it will use Watson's visual recognition technology to analyze and provide feedback on meals. Time will tell just how accurate IBM's machine learning proves to be.

Watson is also tackling the problem of running in the rain. Drawing on IBM's trove of historic weather data and forecasts, the system will modify fitness program recommendations. (In October IBM announced plans to acquire The Weather Company's Product and Technology Businesses.)

IBM is partnering with Under Armour on Watson powered "cognitive coaching" system
Source: IBM

Another app taking aim at fitness is Runkeeper, which last Spring relaunched its brand to target its growing female user base and the large number of people using the app to walk, not run. (Fifty percent of users are now female and a third of the activities logged are walks.) The Boston-based startup has more than 50 million users.

The company is leveraging its brand recognition and data analytics into an ecommerce play. "We can tailor recommendations in terms of if a certain kind of person is more of a beginner for example, they have a different set of needs to someone who has been embedded in the sport for years," said founder and CEO Jason Jacobs.

For example, in response to requests from users and brand partners, it added shoe tracking to the app so users know how many miles they have put on their sneakers and brands know when to serve them offers. The company has partnered with New Balance and Saucony in the past and is in talks with other brand partners.

"The right gear at right time for the right needs, down to the granular level of how many miles are on your shoes," he said.

As brands shift from a wholesale model to a direct to consumer model, they are embracing digital and mobile and Runkeeper is helping them figure out how to do that, said Jacobs. The company is working with brands to build buzz around campaigns and activity challenges, taking a native advertising approach to raising awareness.

For example, Runkeeper plans to roll out a new feature in the app that unlocks access to exclusive merchandise once users complete a specific challenge. Other opportunities to leverage its data into ecommerce sales include mapping user location to weather patterns and sending offers for seasonal gear, or using sign ups for 5K races to trigger appropriate offers.

"It's not like tricking people, but providing a really personalized service," said Jacobs.