Can The Internet Make You Healthier?

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Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Jason Jacobs (@jjacobs22), the co-founder & CEO of RunKeeper, a mobile fitness platform for runners and other fitness enthusiasts.

People are leading busier lives than ever before – working longer, sleeping less, stressing more, working out less frequently, and eating the wrong foods. As a result, it’s gotten more difficult for an increasing number of people, myself included, to stay in shape. Unfortunately, there’s no pill you can take or button to push to ‘make it all better.’ Staying in shape requires developing healthy habits across a number of key areas over a sustained period of time (hopefully, a lifetime).

Different things motivate different people when it comes to increasing physical activity. Some are data junkies, who long for more data to analyze and to hold themselves accountable. Others are social creatures that thrive on the encouragement they receive from others. Some are competitors, and do their best when head-to-head. And still others are at their best when you turn things into a game and dial up the fun. The key is to identify your personal motivational drivers, and then set up a routine that best aligns with them.

Many of the characteristics described above can already be found in the physical world – join the gym, sign up for a group fitness class, take lessons from a personal trainer, participate in a running club, etc. These are all good options for people who have the time, the resources, and the flexibility in their schedules to make these options work. But what about for everyone else?

Well, there’s good news for everyone else. Exciting innovations are occurring on a number of fronts, making it possible for the emergence of a new kind of platform – a virtual fitness platform. I believe so much in this future that I am building a company to try to make it happen faster. These platforms will embody the best attributes that exist in the in-person physical world, and enable people to access them virtually, from wherever they are, whenever they have time, easily and inexpensively.

Several convergences are happening in parallel that will elevate these platforms from a cool niche for early adopters or data junkies to powerful systems that gain mainstream, global adoption. One is the rise of smartphones as mobile computing devices. Many applications that used to require expensive, standalone devices are now harnessing the power of smartphones instead. This means that instead of purchasing an expensive fitness tracking device, in many cases, the phone is becoming a worthy and inexpensive (or even free) substitute.

Another exciting trend is the emergence of connected health/fitness sensors. More and more health/fitness data is being collected from increasingly powerful sensors, ranging from smartphones to wi-fi bathroom scales to sleep monitoring devices, and beyond. Even equipment like treadmills at the gym is becoming connected, and more sensors collecting additional biometric data are emerging almost weekly. The fitness sensors that collect this data are less expensive, easier to use, more powerful, lighter, and more accurate than they have ever been before. It’s also easier to get the collected data off of these devices, and to store and gain meaningful insight from this data over time. Ultimately, aggregating the data from these devices and equipment in one place will enable users to correlate their data across categories, and to spot trends in order to gain insight into their individual health drivers in a way that has never been possible before.

The final piece to fall into place is the online social revolution. Web services are able to foster user experiences that more closely simulate real-world interactions. Participate in a virtual community, train with virtual activity partners, get cheered on by virtual spectators, follow virtual training programs, and get trained by virtual coaches. The more realistic these virtual experiences become, the lesser the need to make special trips to the gym, pay for personal trainers, or sign up for in-person fitness classes; you can get comparable results virtually for less while enjoying greater flexibility.

Virtual platforms have a fundamental advantage over their counterparts in the physical world that will enable them to deliver far better results over time – access to data. Data about individual users that empower them to make changes to their health. Data about the aggregate community that allows users to see how they’re doing against others who are like them and have similar goals. And data that fosters the optimization of the platform itself over time, as it learns how to continually make changes that enable the aggregate community to get healthier. As the components of virtual platforms continue to evolve, they’ll continue to deliver better results across more aspects of people’s health/fitness.

Global health is gaining more and more mind-share as people realize the scope of the obesity problem and the corresponding costs that come with it. As virtual health/fitness platforms evolve, they have the potential to fundamentally alter the state of world health in a positive way, by empowering people to better manage their health on an individual basis, by making these tools accessible to the masses, and by using the aggregate data sets they generate to continually self-optimize and improve the way that their services are delivered.

There are several contenders vying to be the virtual platform that makes meaning of all of this data. Some are device manufacturers like Garmin. Others are footwear/apparel companies like Nike or Adidas. And some, like Google Health or RunKeeper (our platform) are taking more of an open, input-agnostic approach. It is still the early phases of this platform evolution, and while there may ultimately be consolidation, there is more than enough room in the meantime for several interesting companies to get built.