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Can wearable technology and gamification make people healthier?

July 14, 2014

I’ve always been interested in new technology and the potential it has to change behaviour. For this reason, the eye-catching explosion of wearable devices that focus on healthy living has captured my imagination. Innovations in running shoes to track distance, smartphone apps to measure calories, smartwatches with GPS and heart rate monitors, bracelets with step counters etc. all make understanding diet, exercise, and cardiovascular health easier than ever.

While early adopters pick up new devices and habits first, mainstream is likely not far behind. I’m already seeing my friends and family gain an amazing level of insight into their diet, activity, and health through simple devices, websites and apps with cool looking dashboards of distance, calories, and other metrics. But even more amazing are the changes in behavior I’ve seen as a result. My wife is hitting the gym more often, evening walks with the kids is becoming a family tradition, even my mom is getting her swim on! To me at least, it looks like tapping into our competitive spirit by turning diet and exercise into a game could have a positive impact for healthcare.

According to a report released last month by private foundation The Commonwealth Fund, experts consider the UK’s National Health Service to be the world's best healthcare system. In contrast, Canada lags behind in 11th place - propped up only by the United States. Quite rightly, some of the indicators are up for debate, but clearly there is room for improvement. Yet of equal importance are efforts to improve community health before illness occurs. Indeed, a recent study by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary found that billions of dollars could be saved or reallocated in Canada's healthcare system via preventive programs that focus on individuals in poor health. “The piece that is missing out there is how do you make people healthier?" asks report author and healthcare economist Herb Emery.  

Is affordable wearable technology an innovative new way to make people healthier? I don’t think we know enough yet about how successful it could be with those most at risk of illness. But the time feels right for an important conversation between researchers, entrepreneurs, doctors, policy makers, and the public about what wearable technology could mean for some of Canada’s healthcare issues.

The science will take time to plan, implement, and report on. But I’m already excited about the potential for wearable technology to improve health and wellbeing for all Canadians.

Jon Garner is the Research and Communications Coordinator at SFU Public Square, and a graduate student in the School of Research and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. His research explores the impact of wearable technology on behavior in a parks and protected areas context. Jon can be contacted at jon_publicsq AT sfu DOT ca

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