IS THERE WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY IN THE YOUNG ATHLETE’S FUTURE?

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • Wearable technology is very popular for monitoring steps, energy expenditure, and movement patterns.
  • The devices can generally be divided into step counters, accelerometers, GPS based devices, and physiologic measurement devices. Many systems combine several elements
  • The accelerometer and GPS based systems are likely to be useful for the young endurance sport athlete wishing to aim for peak performance
  • If you are using one of these devices for training it’s important to work with a coach experienced in interpreting the data for you

Wearable technology for adults is very popular, ranging from monitors like the FitBit, wearable technologyApple Watch, heart rate monitors, etc. In general I think there’s value for adults who are really interested in objective data to help them drive their fitness objectives and stay on track. But what about at the youth sports level? Are there technologies that could be useful to the young athlete?

This recently published article provides a nice overview of the available technologies when viewed from the sports medicine clinician’s perspective. I’ll review the categories of devices and provide some commentary on usefulness for the young athlete.

Step Counters

These devices are properly called “pedometers” and measure the number of steps taken by the individual. For adults the commonly used number is “10,000 steps a day for fitness”. There is some published evidence that pedometers help youngsters achieve a baseline level of fitness but we have no evidence that it will be of use to the young athlete. My conclusion for the young athlete: very limited value in using a step counter.

Accelerometers/Gyroscopes

These days many people carry around in their pockets a device that has some accelerometer functions: it’s called your smartphone. Beyond that, fitness specific accelerometers are widely available. This is where devices such as the FitBit, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone UP, and others would reside. Accelerometers provide data that includes step counts but also much more such as heart rate, calorie usage, and sleep tracking. I’ve also seen several startup companies with wearable accelerometers that can track in real time and on the field movement patterns of the legs and arms. My conclusion for the young athlete: possibly useful for the elite athlete. When movement tracking of body parts becomes available I think this will have broader usage, such as looking at arm position in pitchers or knee mechanics with jumping.

GPS devices

Global positioning satellites are used with your smartphones to provide data to apps that give directions, like Google Maps. GPS wearable devices are also increasingly popular with sports applications, especially for endurance sport athletes and monitoring of entire teams. Wearable GPS monitoring is becoming the norm for adult elite collegiate and professional teams, and I’m seeing it more and more at the high school level too. Conclusion: useful for the young endurance athlete, likely to filter into youth team sports too.

Physiologic Sensors

These devices track body physiology measurements such as heart rate, body temperature, and respiration. Professional teams are using these devices frequently, and individual endurance sport athletes use these as well. These measurements are useful and likely helpful for the athlete looking to peak performance but one caution is that you need to have some knowledge in how to interpret the data. For professionals, this is the job of their training staff. For the young athlete particularly in endurance sports such as triathlon, cycling, or distance running the information could be very useful but it would be important to work with an experienced coach to help you interpret the data. My conclusion for the young athlete: possibly useful in limited circumstances.

Overall these devices have the potential to be incredibly helpful for the elite level young athlete, and could have benefits for the recreational athlete too. Many of them have a very strong “coolness” factor. We need more data in establishing baseline levels for the young athlete and for sure you should work with someone skilled in interpreting the data you receive. But they are here to stay and will likely undergo further refinements over the coming months.