Is AI the Future of Health and Fitness?

Before it leads to humanity’s demise (joking, joking) could Artificial Intelligence be harnessed for the greater good – to help us all live longer, happier and healthier? Writer Sam Rider investigates.

The recent headlines around the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are scary – and getting scarier. Have you heard the one about a machine tasked with making paper clips leading to the demise of mankind?! Among these doomsday scenarios, however, there’s also real cause to get excited about the role AI could play in helping us get stronger, run faster, recover quicker or even live longer. But, at what cost?

Rise of the machines: Where are we now?

From a research perspective, it’s a little too early to say how beneficial – or harmful – AI could be for our health and longevity. Most studies focus on how the technology could be used to predict heart attacks or diagnose cancer, rather than improve our one rep maxes. That said, AI’s role within the fitness industry is well beyond the beta stage.

Since 2014 Eight Sleep, the US smart mattress maker, has relied on AI to help users fall and then stay asleep. Fellow US nutrition company SmartPlate has used advanced photo recognition and AI to help people identify, analyze and track their meals since 2011.

Nutrition companies like DayTwo and Levels are similarly drawing on AI automation to trawl through the most efficient dietary interventions for large populations while recommending individualized solutions.

Fitness app Freeletics was also quick to recognize the potential of machine learning. Since 2017 the German-based outfit has deployed a “human-augmented AI algorithm” to generate infinite customized workouts for its 55M+ worldwide users.

Man versus machine

“Freeletics just got smarter than a human personal trainer,” a November 2020 press release boasted after an upgrade to this software. With AI’s input, the app creates bespoke workouts from scratch to precisely cater for every user’s unique needs, goals and ability.

This year US-based wearables maker WHOOP unveiled the 4.0 strap, enabling the device to read which exercise you’re performing, the weight you’re lifting and reps you’re nailing, feeding yet more ammunition into the AI ecosystem.

Kristen Holmes, WHOOP’s VP of Performance, believes the next logical step will be integrating its current AI with natural language models such as GPT-4, unlocking the potential to make wearables a far better coach than humans.

It follows the steady rise of AI trainers including Tempo, Tonal, VAHA, Altis, ALFA AI and Exer AI, tech companies leveraging computer vision to provide real-time form corrections and weight recommendations.

The technology is far from perfect now, but soon could transform at-home exercise routines from follow along videos that have barely advanced since Jane Fonda’s aerobics era to interactive PT sessions that correct your form with every repetition.

Ultra personalization

Harnessing the data recorded by your smartphone, smart watch, smart mattress, smart mirror – smart fridge, even – companies like Runna can now devise individual training plans at scale. And at £15.99 per month, the British startup can do this while lowering the financial barrier to entry, democratizing access to elite-level coaching.

“When people talk about AI they think of LLM (Large Language Models) like ChatGPT, which have been grabbing headlines, but the reality is that if you think of AI in fitness you are probably thinking of something else,” Runna Co-Founder Ben Parker tells Huel.

“For example, Runna uses an incredibly sophisticated algorithm that processes huge amounts of data, allowing us to insert a myriad of different inputs like your speed, endurance, current running ability, schedule, availability and, of course, your goal to create a hyper-personalized training program just for you,” he adds.

Runna’s expert human coaches, like Olympic marathon runner Steph Davis and Olympic triathlete Beth Potter, write the training plans. They then work with engineers to develop “algorithms, rules and constraints” that tailor each plan to the individual – something, Parker says, “wouldn’t be possible if you simply asked ChatGPT for a running plan”.

“This is where our approach, which leverages human expertise with automation, ensures we have confidence in every program we put out in a way that cannot make a mistake like a conventional coach might,” he adds.

This final point from Parker prompts the question, could AI spell the end of the PT as we know it? Who better to answer than AI itself. “While AI can augment and enhance the fitness experience, personal trainers bring a human touch, expertise, and individualized support that AI cannot fully replace,” ChatGPT replied, diplomatically.

What could go wrong?

Some industry veterans are rather more… erm.. realistic about AI’s potential to disrupt the personal training sector. “It will be a game changer like nothing else that we have ever witnessed before,” says Nick Mitchell, Founder and Global CEO of Ultimate Performance.

A barrister turned city banker turned renowned personal trainer, Mitchell has built his PT empire with human interaction at its core. Each client is matched with a single PT for their entire training block, while behind the scenes its tech team tracks performance data to provide both clients and trainers with an extra layer of accountability.

It's a model that demands a sizeable investment of commitment, man power – and cash. A 12-week transformation package, for example, can cost north of £4,600 (roughly £147 per hour). Might AI cannibalize this traditional PT market? Mitchell isn't so sure.

“The biggest wellness trend of 2023 will be the attempted incorporation of Artificial Intelligence,” he says. “I say ‘attempted’ because it’s doubtful we will achieve tangible success this year, but there will be a veritable flood of investment and, in the medium term, this will utterly change how people manage their health and fitness needs.”

Used wisely, Mitchell believes AI will help people make better dietary choices, smarter exercise decisions and improve adherence to training plans. It could, he says, even draw on information gathered from medical records and self-tracking apps to identify health risks, while alerting users to preventative measures.

Technology will make some of the things PTs currently do redundant, he adds, but it won’t make the role of the PT redundant.

“While AI will rightly cause enormous job dislocation across a huge swathe of industries, in the wellness space I think it will be almost entirely additive. The consumer will have fewer excuses and far more empowerment. The PT will have hitherto unthinkably intelligent tools in their toolbox,” says Mitchell.

“Yet none of this will replace the need for human partnership, empathy and accountability that is an irreplaceable constituent of any successful wellness program, especially those aiming to fix the kind of longstanding bad habits that have led to the current obesity epidemic.”

What does the future hold?

As the technology gathers pace, and tools like WHOOP emerge to track ever more data about the way we eat, sleep, train and repeat, our workouts are destined to get smarter, more sophisticated and more effective.

“AI will enable a level of personalization that’s never been possible before,” Runna’s Parker says. “It will be able to ingest enormous amounts of data, such as sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability, and activity data, that a coach simply wouldn’t have the time to.”

Parker says this will mean your training schedule will automatically adjust in real-time to external factors, adding: “Imagine if you slept badly last night. Your fitness app would automatically use AI to adjust your workout optimally and instantaneously.”

Could your next PT be a robot then? Perhaps, but, Parker says, real-life PTs will still have their place. “Ultimately we see coaches plus AI as the future, rather than AI making coaches obsolete,” he concludes.

So the PT’s job is safe – for now – and we can look forward to a level of personalized exercise and diet precision that will virtually eliminate the trial-and-error, one-size-fits-all approach man has had to contend with for the past two million years.

But, as we’ve seen with the recent Senate hearings in the States, Artificial Intelligence comes with a lot of unknowns. The rate of progress in health and fitness is primed to enter warpspeed; now regulation and intellectual law must keep pace with it to safeguard us all in case it ever goes wrong.

Words: Sam Rider

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