Writer Sam Rider delves into some fitness trends on the rise, and looks at which ones should be on your Christmas list and which fads are better left in 2023.
Every year, sure as a hangover follows NYE, fitness fads rise then fall as resolutions make way for reality. The select few, however, endure, proven to stand the test of time, to become useful tools in your workout arsenal.
As we enter the festive season, we’ve dug into the latest research to run the rule over the gadgets and gizmos clamoring for your credit card’s attention.
Here are five that we believe are worth your time, and two you’re better off without. Just remember: your fitness is for life, not just for Christmas.
Wearables and fitness tracking are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been ranked #1 in the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual worldwide survey of fitness trends for the past two years running (and ranked #1 for six of the past eight). But as we enter the age of artificial intelligence (AI), previous constraints on their potential have been blown apart.
Today’s trackers can monitor blood pressure, oxygen saturation, body temperature, respiratory rate and diagnose potential heart conditions via an electrocardiogram (ECG). The Ava bracelet can predict ovulation, the Oura Ring knows how your diet will disrupt your circadian rhythm, and the WHOOP 4.0 strap can calculate the cardiovascular and muscular strain you’re putting yourself through due to stress, anxiety and exercise.
It’s only a matter of time before we’re outsourcing all our workout programing and diagnostic testing to these ingenious devices.
Given the lucrative stakes involved it’s little surprise this topic is well scrutinized – and recent research shows their promise for helping identify signs of neurological decline, ward off childhood obesity and even prevent the spread of infectious disease.
The main takeaway for the average exerciser, however, is that wearables can act as powerful motivators. One observational study from 2020 found that 83% of people who use them find their motivational cues, rewards and badges help them keep fit.
Since the early 2000s red light therapy – also known as low-level light therapy or photobiomodulation (PBM) – has gained attention for its potential to improve skin health, reduce pain and inflammation, and enhance athletic performance.
Exposure to low levels of red light, it’s believed, helps power up the mitochondria in the body’s cells, making them function better and repair faster. For most mere mortals, this expensive treatment was out of reach, reserved for the MVPs of the NFL and NBA. Now companies like US-based tech firm Kineon are changing that.
Using targeted LEDs and infrared laser diodes strapped to the target area, Kineon has designed a commercially-viable device that it claims can help boost sports performance and relieve chronic pain like osteoarthritis and plantar fasciitis in as little as five minutes per day.
Despite PBM sounding like a relatively new concept – one you might have heard muttered in a GCSE Biology class if you were paying attention – it’s a topic that’s been extensively researched. Kineon, in fact, point to 6,000+ papers since the therapy was first discovered in the 1960s exploring its many benefits.
One 2017 study notably found that when RLT was used both before (to mitigate the damage of the workout itself) and after treadmill workouts (to accelerate recovery), endurance increased three times faster than for the control group.
The cat is out the bag with cupping thanks to A-list celebrities and athletes, like Jennifer Anniston and Michael Phelps, seen sporting little round marks on their bodies after their latest treatment.
The alternative therapy, which can be traced back as far as Ancient Egypt, involves creating suctions on the skin to promote blood flow, boost immune function, remove toxins and reduce pain.
While most commonly practiced by purveyors of traditional Chinese medicine, DIY cupping devices like the TheraCup by Therabody and Achedaway Cupper – which can also deliver red light therapy simultaneously – have started to emerge.
Surprisingly, for an alternative medical treatment, it’s generally positive. A 2018 review of studies noted that cupping therapy can promote peripheral blood circulation, reduce inflammation and boost cellular immunity.
Another study from 2019 noted that although “no single theory exists to explain the whole effects of cupping” some theories include that it helps increase the flow of lymph in the lymphatic system, stimulates increased blood flow through the release of nitric oxide and uses counter-irritation, or pain to reduce pain.
Of course, not everything on this list needs to break the bank, and one simple piece of kit that’s been notably trending in functional fitness circles is mouthpieces (also known as gum shields this side of the Atlantic).
While traditional mouthguards, the kind you’re likely accustomed to if you’ve played rugby or hockey, are built to protect your teeth, mouthpieces for CrossFit like the New Age Performance 5DS (£25) and AIRWAAV (from £32) are designed to optimally align your jaw during exercise for improved stability and airflow (as well as to protect your gnashers).
While studies specifically investigating the merits of mouthpieces are scant, a 2016 paper looking at isometric grip strength noticed a significant improvement when the jaw is clenched, concluding that it would be advisable to use a bite-aligned mouthpiece to improve strength and performance.
A 2018 study equally noted a significant improvement in leg press performance when using a bite-regulated mouthpiece. In each case, it is theorized that clenching – just like gripping a barbell tightly for a set of squats – triggers a phenomenon called concurrent activation potentiation (CAP) that can have downstream benefits for the main muscles you’re working.
Ever since Therabody founder Dr Jason Wersland brought the first Theragun device to market in 2016, the massage gun market has exploded in popularity with consumers. And yet physiotherapists and industry veterans have always remained skeptical.
Designed to activate muscles before exercise and accelerate recovery after, they mimic the therapeutic technique of tapotement massage therapy, in which percussive strokes are applied to the muscles by a cupped hand to promote blood flow.
Fun to use though often eye-wateringly expensive, the best thing about them is you can administer this therapeutic treatment to yourself, without having to pay a stranger to poke and prod you.
A new systematic literature review on the effect of percussive therapy delivered by massage guns suggests Dr Wersland and Co. might be onto something. Published in April 2023, the authors from the Open University found 13 relevant studies on the topic published since January 2006.
“All studies had limitations in methodological quality or reporting of findings,” the authors noted, yet “a significant relationship” was found between percussive therapy and an acute increase in muscle strength, explosive muscle strength and flexibility. The review also found that multiple treatments helped reduce experiences of musculoskeletal pain.
Now that your Christmas stocking is well and truly stuffed, here are a few trends we believe are more fad than fact, and best swerved until more evidence comes to light.
Sleep is the nut tech giants are still desperately trying to crack.
Some, like smart mattress maker Eight Sleep, who’ve designed a bed that warms or cools to keep you in your optimal restful sleep phase, show promise. But others, like temple massaging, forehead warming smart goggles and eye masks, in our opinion, do not.
As if to underline the point, a recent study by SleepScore Labs – a leader in sleep research and innovation – investigated the merits of Therabody’s new-ish SmartGoggles.
The research included just 20 participants and although 82% of users reported feeling less stressed, they only saw an average 4% improvement in time asleep when strapping on the goggles before bed.
Connected hardware for home workouts is on equally shaky ground. Just ask any of the hundreds of people who've been laid off by Peloton, Tonal or Hydrow in recent months. And if the sales figures for loss-leading fitness device Mirror are anything to go by, this is another pricey fad you’re better off avoiding.
In September, Lululemon announced it would stop selling the much-maligned hardware by the end of 2023, after learning that its $500 million acquisition was essentially worthless.
That’s not to say these pieces of kit are totally useless, but given how reliant they are on a single company’s content, if they suddenly shut up shop you could end up with a bricked device. That said, Mirror does at least double as a smart piece of furniture.
Words: Sam Rider
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