Big Data

Pairing Cognitive Technologies with Sensors for Better Fitness and Health

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How do we replace bad habits with good ones? In my view, it doesn’t help much for family members or physicians or politicians to try to bully or shame or regulate us into eating better or exercising more. As a doctor, I believe most people respond best to a smart, timely, and personalized “nudge” in the right direction.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a guardian angel sitting on our shoulder to give us that nudge whenever we face choices like, “Should I have another slice of pizza?” or “Should I binge-watch Season 5 of Game of Thrones?”

Of course, we can’t—but, thanks to proliferation of mobile smartphones and advances in wearable computing and cognitive technologies, we can come close.

A wave of cognitive apps and services is coming that aims to help improve our fitness and health. These wellness and fitness advisers could gather a wide variety of data from sensors attached to our bodies and analyze it using cognitive technologies to remind us what it takes to live healthier lives.

Today, IBM announced a strategic partnership with Under Armour, the athletic clothing company, which we believe will advance the state of the art. We intend to create a cognitive coaching system powered by our Watson technology that will provide personalized health and fitness recommendations based on sensor data, other personal information, and external data sources, which will be delivered on smartphones and other portable devices.

Some of these insights will initially be available within the new UA Record experience, which is designed to help amateur and professional athletes alike exercise smarter, feel better and get healthier. The UA Record app is available now on the App Store.

The relationship with Under Armour is just one of several similar partnerships we have forged with other companies. We teamed with Apple to create a health and wellness engagement program for IBM employees using the Apple Watch. We’re working with Nutrino to create a healthy eating app for pregnant women. Triax, which provides a sensor-based monitoring system aimed at avoiding traumatic brain injuries, is also part of the Watson ecosystem

To me, the essential value of all of these systems is the ability to provide people with timely, actionable insights—and nudge them to do the right thing for their overall health and wellness.

At IBM, we’re concerned about the overall health of our employees and their family members, not just their healthcare benefits. That’s why we have long been a pioneer in trying out new employee health and wellness programs. The latest: a system for helping employees take charge of their health, nutrition and fitness called CaféWell Concierge, which is provided by Welltok and powered by Watson technology. We provide employees with Fitbits and Apple Watches so they can easily gather important health and fitness data to feed into CaféWell Concierge. If they choose, they can participate in social contests and win prizes based on their health and fitness activities and achievements.

It’s estimated that people make hundreds of decisions per day that affect their health. That covers everything from when you go to bed, whether you brush and floss, what you eat for meals and snacks to where you park the car, how often you exercise, whether you stand when working, and whether to take the escalator or stairs. Most of us don’t want to have a “nanny” badgering us, but, with the new generation of health and fitness coaches, we’ll get customized reminders and timely bits of information that help us make better decisions throughout the day.

I envision that your cognitive fitness app will plan ideal workouts based on your schedule, health constraints, body type, fitness goals, and favorite exercises. When you win a race or achieve your best time for the 10K, the system will automatically share the news with friends on social networks. If you spend too much time on the couch, the system nudges you into action.

Since it’s important to control weight by reducing your caloric intake and being active, the next-generation systems may complement your activity levels by designing a personalized diet that meets your preferences—which will help you adhere to it. The app could suggest meals and recipes that meld what you like with your weight- loss and fitness goals. When you take photos of your meals, it could count calories for you. It might also adjust your workouts based on your calorie intake.

If you’re a smoker and you want to quit, your advisor could use sensor data to detect when you’re lighting a cigarette or taking a puff—and issue a gentle reminder that works for you. “Remember the grand-kids,” or, “Each pack costs you $8—enough to buy lunch,” or, “There’s a park nearby. Why not take a walk instead?”

Over the past 20 years, I’ve taken a fascinating journey through the health care universe. I started off as a primary care physician; then served as the Chief Medical Officer for the Baltimore Medical System; then held leadership positions at the US Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health, where I worked to address gaps in medical access.

I believe that cognitive technologies offer a great potential for improving health outcomes and for making healthcare more affordable and accessible. And I believe that if we are able to provide people with personalized cognitive advisors (aka “care angels”) that help them live better and healthier, it will produce tremendous gains for individuals and society alike.

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