Wandering around the CES show floor, I’ve seen dozens of scientifically dubious gadgets eager to tell me what’s wrong with my body. Outright, the gadgets are all aimed at "self-improvement." The companies making these devices claim they’re for making our workouts and diets more efficient. But the underlying message remains: your body could be better.
These gadgets promise to tell you highly specific health details about yourself — such as your muscle quality or fat-burning potential — so you can better achieve the ideal physique. But few are clear about what you’re supposed to do with that information, nor is it clear how it relates to whatever goal you’re trying to achieve — and what is the goal? To be skinnier? To have more muscle? All that’s clear is that these devices are basically body-shaming us into buying them. They’re the technological analog of fad diet books; they promise a solution to your body woes, but once you’ve purchased them, they offer little benefit.
Scientifically dubious gadgets eager to tell me what’s wrong with my body
Some people do derive benefits from their fitness trackers and quantifying their health. But there’s a dark side to this fad too. Some doctors fear that technologies that make it easier to track all our steps and log our calorie consumption fuel dangerous eating disorders. They make it much easier to obsess over every minute detail about a person’s body and fitness routines. This year’s gadgets promise to extend people’s neuroses by quantifying all manner of other bodily aspects: posture, muscle strength, metabolism, and more.
Many of these devices are based on sketchy research at best. But even if these gadgets were shown to work correctly, it takes more than quantified health statistics to get people to truly change unhealthy habits. Knowing the quality of your muscle tissue or the number of calories you consume doesn’t necessarily translate into eating less or working out more. "The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial ... and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging that gap," Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a study published in JAMA.
Take Chisel, manufactured by Skulpt. The device is a small, white rectangular box with electrodes embedded in one side. Those electrodes use a technique known as Electrical Impedance Myography (EIM). It's a way to learn details about the body's tissues by measuring current as it passes through your fat and muscle. You're supposed to place the Chisel on your triceps, abs, and quads, and it will tell you how much body fat you have, along with the quality of your muscles in those areas. That way you can alter your workouts to ensure you achieve the best muscle quality and fat burn.
Skulpt claims that EIM has been researched for over a decade and is backed by dozens of clinical trials. That's actually true. EIM is a proven method for measuring muscle deterioration in debilitating conditions like ALS. But that's just it — it's a technique meant to tell doctors if a patient's deteriorating muscle health is reflective of a serious issue. It's not supposed to help avid gym goers get even better at working out. Plus, the science behind commercial, handheld EIM tools is dicey. The electrodes need to be delicately placed on the muscle in order to get accurate readings. And EIM may be a heavily researched topic, but the Skulpt Chisel doesn't seem to have any peer-reviewed research backing up what it claims to do.
Even if it does work, what are you supposed to do with that information?
Even if it does work, what are you supposed to do with that information? The entire thesis of Skulpt is that muscle building alone isn't enough. You need to be completely aware of your muscle quality and body fat, so you can "optimize your training for faster results." But with so many variables at play, it’s hard to imagine muscle data being good for much aside from giving us something new to worry about.
On the food end of the "get fit" spectrum is Healbe's GoBe wristband calorie tracker, which we demoed last year. Healbe says its wrist devices work by measuring the amount of glucose a person consumes, miraculously without taking a sample of blood. When we intake food, glucose enters our cells, displacing water. That water displacement gives off an electrical charge that the Healbe can supposedly measure using electrodes. Then an algorithm translates that glucose displacement into the amount of calories consumed.
This would be incredible, but the Healbe doesn't have any peer-reviewed research backing it up. And the technologies that can actually measure glucose without a blood sample are way too young to be included in any type of commercial product. But let's assume that the Healbe does what it says. Counting calories is a terrible metric for those looking to lose weight or be healthy. And the same message surfaces: you could be better at eating less calories.
It’s the same for nearly every other health device showcased at CES. The Levl breathalyzer says it can tell you how much fat you’re burning by measuring a chemical signature in your breath. It’s based on science that’s shown to work, but the actual science validating the product isn’t there. The Slendertone ab belt says it can help you tone your stomach with Electrical Muscle Stimulation, an actual method used for rehabilitating muscles in the clinic. But the only peer-reviewed study backing it up is a 41-person study that showed the belt doesn’t actually reduce girth; it just temporarily pulled in the abdomen like a girdle or training belt would.
It’s ironic that CES coincides with the start of the New Year — the same time of year when many of us have vowed to do a complete overhaul of our bodies. The health gadgets at the show are certainly capitalizing on people’s desires to look better than they do now. But if their promises aren’t based on science, they’re mostly offering you new ways to feel bad.