By Stephanie Walden, Contributor
Part 1 of 2
Though health, fitness, and wellness have long been considered close cousins, the industries have traditionally operated as distinct disciplines. A patient might visit a doctor to cure their chronic migraines, a personal trainer to lose 15 pounds, and a spa or meditation center to recuperate after a stressful work week.
In each of these scenarios, treatment options are prescribed in a vacuum and often with an air of vagueness. A physician might suggest a patient start cardiovascular exercises, but is unlikely to recommend a specific gym or program. A massage therapist may provide temporary relief from a knotted back, but likely won’t have expertise in how to make your workday less stressful.
Data-tracking tools that monitor everything from stress levels to sleep quality are part of the shift behind combining the approach to mental and physical health as one.
But thanks to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and virtual reality (VR), this atomistic approach to mental and physical well-being is changing. Today, the interplay between health, fitness/nutrition, and wellness is experiencing an unprecedented level of crossover—and the shift is underpinned by data-tracking tools that are capable of monitoring everything from stress levels to sleep quality.
The Hyper-personalization of Fitness and Nutrition
The global wellness industry is now valued at a staggering $4.2 trillion, tracking at a rate of 12.8 percent growth between 2015-2017. Martin Tobias, CEO of Upgrade Labs, a Los Angeles-based biohacking and recovery clinic, explains that increasingly sophisticated—and, more recently, actionable—data collected by fitness trackers, AI, and IoT-infused health solutions has been a catalyst driving the industry’s explosion.
“Wellness has been an area that’s been incredibly resistant to measurement,” says Tobias. At Upgrade Labs, however, measurements are foundational to customers’ health regimens.
Unlike traditional gyms that simply record new members’ weight or BMI when they enroll, Upgrade Labs evaluates a full 32 data points to establish users’ “baselines.” These touchpoints include factors like blood biomarkers, body fat, extra-cellular water (inflammation), and basic cognitive function.
AI algorithms then analyze this data and combine it with on-site trainers’ expertise to generate a “protocol”—or personalized workout and treatment plan—that’s funneled directly to smart fitness machines, which adapt and optimize users’ workouts. Sessions at Upgrade Labs may also include treatments like cryotherapy or time in a “virtual float tank,” a sensory deprivation chamber intended to induce a deep, meditative state.
Members’ aggregated information then goes into a data pool that informs future treatment recommendations. The data fuels Upgrade Labs’ AI engine, which self-adapts and refines protocols based on users’ results.
The business model differs drastically from that of traditional fitness centers, which are typically based on the premise that most people will use a facility for a few weeks or months and then lose interest. The dynamic nature of Upgrade Labs’ AI engine relies upon a continuous influx of data and monitoring patient progress over time.
“We do think that most [traditional] gyms want people to come, get value, and keep coming—but it is a challenge,” Tobias says. “There is no optimal amount of time with a fixed end for us. We believe all humans—from world class athletes to people like you and I—can always improve. We want our members to stay with us for a long time, see amazing results, and know that we can always upgrade their health, wellness, fitness even if they may have hit a peak.”
Tobias also suggests that Upgrade Labs’ AI system provides a more promising basis for fitness-focused research and development than traditional methods—typically, expensive and small-scale studies, the findings of which are extrapolated to millions of patients.
“When you talk about AI, that’s the power of what a data platform can do…”—Martin Tobias, CEO, Upgrade Labs
“When you talk about AI, that’s the power of what a data platform can do … [it responds to] the actual state of your body instead of just giving people generalized treatments that are built on population models,” he says.
Upgrade Labs is just one dot in a chaotic landscape of WellTech companies capitalizing on user demand for hyper-personalized “data selfies,” or digital biometrics profiles. The spectrum covers everything from bespoke vitamin and supplement kits like care/of and Thryve to nutrition platforms like Viome and Nutrino, which analyze users’ biochemistry profiles to offer personalized diet and lifestyle recommendations.
“In order for any technology to provide a true benefit to the patient, it needs to fit within the healthcare team approach and not be a standalone solution.”—Jackie Elnahar, CEO, TelaDietitian
Jackie Elnahar, CEO of TelaDietitian, a platform that connects registered dietitians with customers and enterprises seeking customized nutrition plans, suggests the emerging WellTech market represents a larger shift toward holistic wellness snapshots. “In order for any technology to provide a true benefit to the patient, it needs to fit within the healthcare team approach and not be a standalone solution,” she says. “De-fragmenting healthcare tech tools is going to be important for both providers and patients.”
Mental Health, Emerging Tech, and Accessibility
Similarly to the physical fitness industry, the mental health sphere has long been stunted by a lack of large-scale, quantifiable data.
“Mental health is often considered an invisible illness,” says Connie Di Gennaro, the COO of BioBeats, a company that creates digital products for data-driven insights about mental well-being. “But the truth is that it’s not at all—there are multiple measurements that can be taken. … But without [the right] information, naturally there’s a gap in understanding.”
BioBeats’ core product is an app that complements a wearable device called BioBeam, which collects passive data like sleep quality, daily activity, and heart rate variability. Paired with exercises like mood journaling and tests for basic cognitive function, the platform helps users recognize patterns, glean insights related to interoception (the science behind the mind-body connection), and adhere to personalized solutions such as deep breathing exercises.
“This collection of data allows you over time to understand not only how you feel and what the majority of your feelings are—for example, if you’re generally quite happy or generally quite anxious—but you’re also able to see that breakdown of different feelings,” explains Di Gennaro. “On top of that, you’re able to know where and when and with whom those feelings [occur].”
“When you incorporate pattern recognition, you’re able to identify things before they actually manifest.”—Connie Di Gennaro, COO, BioBeats
Artificial intelligence, notes Di Gennaro, is central to BioBeats’ product. “When you incorporate pattern recognition, you’re able to identify things before they actually manifest,” she says. She goes on to cite stress and burn-out—a condition recently recognized by the World Health Organization as a medical condition—as phenomena that can be monitored and perhaps even mitigated by apps like BioBeats.
Dr. Navya Singh, founder and chief clinical and operations officer of wayForward, a digital mental health and wellness platform based on cognitive behavioral therapy, reiterates Di Gennaro’s assertion that emerging tech like AI will pave a path for more holistic mental health efforts.
“We are already using AI as part of our intake, as well as in mental health screening and diagnostic processes,” she says, predicting that technologies like natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) will become integral elements of patients’ and mental health professionals’ decision-making in the next several years. Using AI to precisely calibrate treatment plans and allocate appropriate expertise and resources, she says, will likely lead to industry-wide revolutions.
AI has the potential to make mental healthcare more accessible to the people who need it most, according to Dr. Navya Singh, founder and chief clinical and operations officer, wayForward.
Chatbots, too, are becoming a resource for patients with mental health concerns. Singh predicts that soon “more patients will [start] interacting with bots and receive care—including behavioral healthcare—as well as customized content and digital, self-paced learning tools from experts assisted by AI.” Ultimately, says Singh, AI has potential to make mental healthcare more accessible to the people who need it most.
Accessibility-centric, chatbot-fueled apps are already on the rise—Talkspace, for instance, attempts to disrupt the often cost-prohibitive nature of mental healthcare, providing underserved people with access to licensed therapists at affordable rates. It’s worth noting, however, that the jury is still out on how virtual treatment options compare to traditional therapy.
Meditation and VR
Meditation and mindfulness training is another sector of the WellTech space that’s experienced exponential growth in the past five years. Today, mobile apps and games are expanding beyond simple audio or visual guides, and incorporating technologies like virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) into the mix.
On the consumer level, there are already several VR meditation apps and games on the market, including VR games like Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams and FlowVR. These platforms aim to create immersive environments for users to experiment with meditation techniques.
StayWell, a health management and education company that equips enterprises with tools for comprehensive employee wellness programs, recently released a VR meditation app that’s proving popular among corporate clients. Mitch Collier, StayWell’s VP of Product Management, notes that he’s seen an uptick in VR “wellness rooms”—quiet, dedicated centers where employees are encouraged to utilize VR devices in the middle of the workday.
“We’re working on ways that we can help people take a break during the day to step away, center themselves, and help to reduce some of that stress and anxiety that can have serious health [repercussions],” says Collier.
The Human Element
StayWell’s VR app is just one of the company’s many digital offerings. Over the course of four decades, the company has emerged as a pioneer in the corporate and personal wellness space. It has conducted more than 100 peer-reviewed studies about effective well-being solutions, and in recent years has released a suite of digital and mobile tools to supplement its content and educational programming. A typical corporate wellness program—like this one deployed at Dominion—may include both on-site and online resources.
This theme—collaborative efforts between humans and machines, and a mix of traditional and emerging therapies—is evident across many branches of the WellTech tree. At Upgrade Labs, too, Tobias stresses the crucial role of human trainers. “In our facilities, our core product is our trainer,” he says. “That guide is supported by an AI engine, but there’s always a conversation and personal attention to the member to modify whatever the AI says to do.”
TelaDietitian also notably pairs human experts with behind-the-scenes technology. “TelaDietitian aims to not just be a telehealth solution that offers a HIPAA-compliant video box, but to offer so much more, utilizing digital tools to optimize the telehealth experience using curated content and algorithms,” says Elnahar.
On the technology side of the equation, she cites the platform’s ability to automatically generate custom recipes, food-drug interactions, and nutrition guides based on patients’ sign-up information. But humans are at the heart of TelaDietitian’s model; the company currently supports a network of more than 300 registered dietitians, and ultimately aims to bridge the gap between nutrition professionals, clients, and physicians.
“Our vision is to be part of a holistic healthcare team approach by providing feedback to physicians on a patient’s progress, as well as accessing electronic health records (EHRs) for the registered dietitians to learn about the patient’s medical record,” Elnahar explains.
StayWell also aims to make high-tech EHRs a key connector between physicians and well-being programming. The company was the first to release a patient education offering on the FHIR platform called Krames on FHIR, an innovative app launched in 2017 that allows physicians to easily prescribe health and wellness programs directly from the point of care.
The final goal is a scenario in which a visit to the doctor to discuss chronic headaches won’t involve a single, siloed health solution that ends with being handed a dense, impersonal pamphlet. Your physician may be able to assess your symptoms, peruse your wellness history and metrics, and enroll you directly in a stress-management course—all within a single, half-hour appointment.
“It’s possible today to know your biology state and to invest to improve it,” says Tobias. “That’s what we’re bringing into the world: An option for people [to get healthy] in a measurable way.”
Watch for Part 2 of this series coming in two weeks: From Mental Health to Medication, Emerging Tech is Fueling the Future of the Data-Driven Wellness Journey.