Wearable technology: eat and play for a longer life
Scientists predict that humans can live up to 150 years without significant medical intervention. The key to achieving that long life isn’t a well-kept secret: Eat better and exercise more. But that’s easier said than done.
Dietary recommendations always seem to change and exercise becomes more difficult as we get older. Wearable technology, however, is changing what we know about our dietary needs while creating new opportunities for physical activity. In other words, our sophisticated gadgets help us eat and play for a longer life.
Throw away food journals and calorie trackers
In 2022, a group of Norwegian scientists studied the effect of certain foods on life expectancy. Some of the results were as expected: Eating more legumes could add one to four years. Other results were a little more confusing: Eating more vegetables could lead to either a loss Where one year gain. Eating vegetables is generally healthy, so why was it sometimes associated with a shorter lifespan? Besides, why do some pulse eaters only get one extra year, while others get four? Not all vegetables or legumes are created equal. Mung beans contain more iron than peanuts; kale contains more vitamin C than asparagus. To understand what we need to eat to live a long and healthy life, we need a reliable way to measure the nutritional content of the foods we eat.
In 2018, researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering designed a wearable device that can detect specific molecules, such as glucose and salt, in food as it is consumed. The 2mm x 2mm sensor attaches directly to a tooth and transmits radio frequency waves based on the nutritional molecules it detects. This technology can provide insight into exactly what nutrients our body absorbs.
“In theory, we can modify the biosensitive layer of these sensors to target other chemicals – we’re really only limited by our creativity,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto, Ph.D., one of the engineers who designed the sensor. C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts.
This information, however, is only useful if we know How? ‘Or’ What these specific nutrient levels influence health. What we eat affects us all differently. Two people can have the same meal, but their body’s responses can vary wildly. This has led health technology researchers to develop wearable technologies to assess the effects of diet more accurately. In 2020, Melbourne-based startup Nutronimcs announced that it was teaming up with engineers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) to develop the world’s first personalized nutritional monitoring patch. The fingerprint-sized smart patch painlessly measures key food biomarkers and sends the information to an app, allowing users to precisely track how their body reacts to different foods.
“This smart patch is a significant evolution in wearable health monitoring technology,” said Sharath Sriram, co-director of RMIT’s Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group. “Current wearable technologies can track your heart rate and steps, but they cannot monitor your health at the molecular level. This new technology goes further, targeting the specific biomarkers that lead to lifestyle-related diseases like type 2 diabetes.”
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It’s unlikely you’ll be wearing a tooth-mounted sensor or nutritional monitoring patch in the next couple of years, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from these wearable technologies in the immediate future. For the first time, scientists can monitor nutritional intake and body effects in real time. These wearable sensors have the potential to move us away from general dietary recommendations and understand each individual’s unique needs for a long life.
Wearable technology turns physical activity into play
For millennia, researchers have known that physical activity is important for good health. Hippocrates and Galen indicated that lack of physical exercise was detrimental to health. Unfortunately, these ancient sages also claimed that overwork was also unwise, and many Western cultures took this to heart. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that scientists began to go back 2,000 years and suggest that, perhaps, vigorous physical activity can improve life expectancy.
In the mid-1900s, researchers became interested in using steps per day to quantify physical activity. For about 50 years, step-trackers were mainly used in research. In the 1990s, however, the waist-mounted activity tracker escaped the lab and began to become popular with fitness enthusiasts. Two decades later, the step-tracker market has finally taken off, thanks in large part to FitBit.
FitBit has done something remarkable. In addition to automatically recording daily steps, the device has introduced goals and achievements. Walking with a FitBit wasn’t just physical activity, it was play. Many wearable activity trackers soon followed suit. In 2022, researchers in Denmark reviewed more than 120 studies on smart step trackers and concluded that wearing the devices resulted in around 1,200 extra steps per day.
It turns out that people are more likely to engage in physical activity if they feel like playing. Despite 50 years of study, it was unclear whether a few extra steps could increase a person’s lifespan. Danish researchers have finally clarified the issue. For those who are already relatively active, an additional 1,000 steps per day reduces mortality by 6%. For those who lead more sedentary lives, 1,000 extra steps can reduce mortality by 36%.
But not everyone has the luxury of walking every day. For the elderly or disabled, physical activity is often practiced in a rehabilitation center and in isolation. As a result, these groups (of which we are or will all be members) exercise less and do not receive the same level of cognitive and emotional benefits as playful physical activity.
Over the past decade, researchers have discovered that virtual reality (VR)-based exergames have the potential to be an accessible way for everyone to engage in physical activity, regardless of age or his abilities. VREs are dual-tasking, meaning they stimulate the brain to generate cognitive and motor responses simultaneously. With advances in new games, especially interactive games, it is possible to improve an individual’s physical and cognitive health better than traditional exercise, while playing with others. For example, according to two randomized controlled trials, a single session of Nintendo Wii-Workouts improved semantic memory and executive function in older adults, and 12–16 sessions increased short-term memory and mobility in the same group.