The Quantified Self

On any given day, I walk about 14,000 steps, or 7 miles, and burn 2,650 calories. I walk less when I work from home, by a factor of about 2x. I sleep 7 hours per night, take 14 minutes to fall asleep, and wake up an average of two times per night. I run more than my wife, but less than (many of) my friends.

All of this data comes from an experiment, running about three months now, with carrying a personal fitness tracker by Fitbit. The little device sits in my pocket and records how active I am throughout the day. With it, I know my general level of activity as well as the intensity of specific workouts, and all of this data uploads to an online profile to be shared with a circle of friends. And while the little gadget certainly hasn't revolutionized my life, the ability to be aware of and engaged with my own fitness is pretty appealing.

As it turns out, a lot of people are banking on exactly that idea. At the start of this year there were some 13,000 personal health and fitness applications available (up 35% from the year prior), and new tools seem to be rolling out on a daily basis. For runners there is Fitbit, Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up, Withings Pulse, and the Pebble smart watch. Swimmers have the Instabeat, and cyclists have a world of GPS-enabled cyclometers. On the software side, these trackers link up to social and instructional platforms like Runkeeper, MapMyFitness, Fitocracy, MyFitnessPal, Strava, and others. Users can get encouragement from friends, earn badges, track sleep patterns, compete for a spot on the leaderboards, and even receive personalized training advice. Oh, and you can also practice outrunning zombie hordes

It's a geeky, endorphin fueled world that's big and still growing fast. Conservative estimates put the market at $400M to $1.2B, and it's likely to continue to grow with the expansion of sensor-carrying wearable computers. From a public health perspective this is fantastic: large numbers of people investing time and money in their health - not to mention collecting and sharing data on their efforts. 

It's also pretty interesting from the strategic perspective. The opportunity for a startup like Fitbit or Runkeeper to hit it big is obvious. But the way to do it may not be.

For one, quantitative fitness displays all of the traits characteristic of any emerging high tech industry: a changing caste of players, unclear regulatory and institutional support, unclear product definitions, and unresolved consumer preferences. On top of that, building a product that consumers really value (and will be willing to pay for) involves bringing together a lot of moving parts: a digital pedometer isn't worth much without the software to easily log and analyze the data, and a list of personal goals and milestones is nothing without a community to share in the accomplishment (and keep us honest). At this point, none of the companies in the space have all of those pieces in hand, which means they've got to scramble to get there.

This can make scanning the news in this space a bit overwhelming: in the past year, Jawbone acquired mobile health startups Massive Health and BodyMedia. Fitbit and Withings have built an ecosystem of wirelessly connected pedometers, scales and air quality monitors. Jawbone, Fitbit, and Runkeeper and others have opened their API to allow 3rd parties to tap their data and develop apps on their platforms. Fitocracy has launched a fitness challenge starring Arnold Schwartzenegger. And everyone has added social features to their services in an effort to build user communities and become THE platform for the quantitative health movement. 

While some companies will undoubtedly succeed, the vast majority won't. What makes it particularly interesting is that it isn't really even clear who is likely to come out on top. Will pedometers become commoditized, or be subsumed by smartphones? Will standalone platforms prosper, or simply become apps on Facebook? Are we likely to see one service dominate the space, or are the various niches of the fitness world distinct enough to allow multiple competitors and communities to exist side-by-side? In a few years this space may have settled out, leaving us with a few dominant players and a well-defined notion of what quantitative health services "are supposed to look like," but maybe not: an observer asking the same questions about cell phones fifteen (or even five) years ago probably wouldn't have guessed where we'd be now. 

Until then, it's a fascinating industry, and a fascinating time to be watching it.