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Can Technology Save Us From the Sedentary Lifestyle It Helped Create?

Silicon Valley wants to disrupt the monster it empowered

(Getty Images/Ringer GIF)

About six years ago, mommy blogs were aflutter over a strange and titillating new product: an undergarment called the iPant. The women’s lingerie company Wacoal America was selling a pair of shapewear shorts (priced between $60 and $72) that were infused with “novarel slim technology,” a nylon microfiber containing small capsules full of caffeine, retinol, vitamin E, and aloe vera. The company claimed that if you wore the iPant for eight hours a day for 28 days, it would work “with your body to visually reduce the appearance of cellulite from your waist, hips, and thighs as you move” and “mobilize fats.”

Though Wacoal’s sales pitch was dubious, it was enough to pique the hope of women who wanted results but had no time for the gym.

“I’ve had three kids in less than four years,” Holly Duce, a blogger who runs the website Mommies With Cents, wrote in a review. “What mom couldn’t use a little help in the slimming and toning department?”

Predictably, iPant’s promises unraveled. After a series of articles debunked Wacoal’s claims, lawsuits began rolling in, with one lawyer accusing the company of “preying on people’s insecurities with claims that may not be supportable by science.” By September 2014, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would require Wacoal America and Norm Thompson Outfitters (another shapewear company with a similar conceit) to pay more than $1.5 million in consumer refunds for making false claims about their products. As of November 2016, Wacoal America was still settling local lawsuits relating to the matter.

The iPant wasn’t the first prominent weight-loss product to glaze over facts in an attempt to awe consumers, but the fact that it was named after the iPhone planted it firmly in the sphere of cultish modern technology. The age-old American tradition of baiting consumers into trying products that promise magical health solutions has found unique footing in an era when technology has both pledged to transform our lives for the better and chained us to our desks. Iterations of the iPant — or rather, its promise to use modern technology to ameliorate the effects of humans’ increasingly sedentary existence — were on full display at 2017’s Consumer Electronics Show in the form of smart clothing, stationary exercise equipment, and corporate wellness companies. Though none made as grand a pitch, they all sought to answer what has now become the most pressing health issue of the average American’s lifestyle: How will the estimated 86 percent of workers who are required to sit motionless in front of a desk all day stay in shape?

As early as 2010 — just a year before the rise of the caffeine-infused underpant — researchers from the fields of biomechanics, physiology, epidemiology, and molecular biology were increasingly rallying against the tyranny of the deskbound job. “Short of sitting on a spike, you can’t do much worse than a standard office chair,” Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley, told Bloomberg at the time. James A. Levine, an obesity specialist at the Mayo Clinic who spearheaded much of the research around the negative effects of a chair-bound existence, coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” Later, in his 2014 book Get Up!: The Dire Health Consequences of Sitting and What We Can Do About It, he admitted his catchphrase was not entirely accurate: “I was wrong,” he wrote. “If you look at America as a whole, sitting is worse than smoking!”

Naturally, claims like Levine’s have triggered a lasting anxiety among deskbound Americans. And now, in true capitalist fashion, the very industry responsible for automating our communication and forcing us in front of laptops is now selling us solutions to the sedentary existence it helped create.

On my second day at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank invited Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps onstage. As House of Pain blared through the speakers of the massive Venetian presentation hall, he asked the gold medalist to jump, jump around.

The spectacle was part of the sportswear company’s deliberate foray into the world of fitness and technology. Plank had just introduced the third iteration of Under Armour’s “Gemini” footwear line — sneakers that recorded the time, date, and distance of runs. These shoes featured “athlete readiness” tracking — a process meant to measure muscular fatigue that was based on what Plank called “$15,000 to $100,000” systems of “lasers and lights” used by the best athletes. “What could we do to help leverage this for every person?” Plank asked the crowd before summoning the most decorated Olympian in history to demo the process.

(Under Armour/Ringer GIF)
(Under Armour/Ringer GIF)

Phelps, in a gray sweatshirt and dark jeans, dutifully jumped six times. A custom score generated on the massive screen behind him announced he was in excellent shape.

“It sort of allows me to listen to my body and what it’s telling me,” he said. “That’s something, for all of us, that’s really cool.” A few minutes later, the company revealed a pair of Tom Brady–endorsed smart pajamas weaved with rar infrared material to help post-workout recovery.

It’s possible that, for professional athletes like Phelps or Brady, even the smallest improvements to warm-ups, exercise regimens, and recovery rituals could make a difference in their performance. Whether those products help the more than half of American adults who fail to get the minimum amount of suggested weekly aerobic activity is less certain, especially considering the smattering of studies that have shown that most wrist-worn gadgets are both inaccurate and don’t increase people’s activity enough to noticeably improve their health.

Fewer studies have been performed on the effectiveness of individual smart shoes or “recovery wear,” but for the average non-athlete who sits in front of a laptop for eight or nine hours a day and tries to fit in a few short gym sessions a week, the purpose of these gadgets may amount to no more than a motivational placebo. Considering the majority of their target market may not be highly athletic, companies like Under Armour, Koogeek, and Wearable Experiments are banking on the customer’s perception that every little bit helps — at least according to Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who studies the psychological effects of exercise.

“We need to believe in things that make us feel better,” Plante, who has witnessed the wearables boom firsthand as a Silicon Valley resident, told me. “All these wearables are trying to give messages that this could be good for you and this is going to make you lose weight or be more fit or healthy. In our technologically savvy world we want something new and different and exciting, so sometimes people might overdo it.”

Over the years, Plante has authored several studies that measure a person’s perception of fitness versus the cold, hard stats of their workouts, and has continually found that misleading people with encouraging information and improved environmental factors can be enough to make people believe they are fit even if they objectively aren’t.

“People are susceptible to information coming from external sources whether it’s a Fitbit or some technology or just a person,” he said. “Companies have a right to come up with products and services that make money, but I would hope that they can do it with honesty and integrity [so] people have full and informed consent about their limitations.”

The threat of inactivity helps lure people into the trap of superfluous exercise props. For the average office worker, staring at a laptop in a seated position has serious consequences that reach far beyond eating a sad desk salad every day. Sitting with a curved back and shoulders, as pretty much every person in a swivel chair does, puts uneven pressure on your spine, which can cause a stiff neck, sore shoulders, an inflexible spine, and eventually lead to disk damage in your lower back. Keeping your limbs bent for extended periods of time can overwork your ligaments and joints, reduce blood circulation to your legs, cause tight hips, and contribute to a flabby butt and stomach. Enzymes that are meant to break down fat in your blood temporarily deactivate, so you burn it less efficiently. Leaning over your laptop also shrinks the area of your chest cavity, so your lungs can’t fully expand, and less oxygen circulates into your blood and brain. This, in turn, can mess with your ability to concentrate — you know, the whole reason people tend to sit down in the first place.

Are you depressed yet? No? Then onward: The long-term effects of sitting are even more bleak. Prolonged periods of inactivity are linked with a greater risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and an overproductive pancreas. They can also contribute to diabetes, kidney, and liver problems. Researchers estimate that over 5 million people die every year because they don’t move around enough. And even if you are active outside of the office, you’re still vulnerable to these effects. “Going to the gym, even several times a week, does not reverse the harmful effects of prolonged sitting,” Levine wrote in Get Up!. “Even if you go to the gym, excessive sitting kills.”

Desk jobs existed even before Silicon Valley’s startup boom, but the area has become a harbinger for a new era of health-conscious workers. (Even Slack, the chatroom app that has transformed the modern office environment into a 24-hour laptop-centric conversation, includes a reminder to “get up and stretch” on its startup screen.) Thanks in part to their Californian sensibilities, tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook offer free on-campus gym access, cafeteria meals with organic ingredients, and access to standing desks. Employees are encouraged to join complimentary yoga classes, get acupuncture treatments for stiff shoulders, and indulge in company juice bars. On the surface, these are perks that help employers remain competitive, but they also double as a way to ensure their talent will not become inundated with serious health problems or, you know, die.

But in modern corporate culture’s quest to coddle its workers, it has also created the incentive to work even longer hours. Health initiatives, when paired with other benefits like complimentary laundry service, snack rooms, and nap pods, are also strategic ways to keep people coming in early, staying late, and checking their email after hours. And in some unfortunate cases, lower-skilled workers at these companies are expected to keep up with the same grueling schedule, for less pay and limited access to these benefits. This structure can deliver lopsided results when it comes to the health of tech employees: The pressure to meet deadlines and stay competitive is exceedingly higher than the need to take care of yourself. “There’s zero evidence to show that corporate wellness programs do anything for health at all,” Dr. Jordan Shlain, who is based in Silicon Valley, told Fortune in 2015.

At least when it comes to identifying workers’ deteriorating health, a 20-year-old biotech firm that sells and rents out high-end body composition analyzers has found a growing market. InBody’s devices have traditionally been used by medical-grade research and fitness specialists, but the Korean company’s gadgets are now frequently used to evaluate the muscle and fat composition of major companies’ office workers, including those of Facebook, Apple, and Google. Unlike other body composition measurement systems, InBody is able to separately analyze a person’s limbs and torso — something that has become increasingly helpful in identifying problem areas for deskbound workers.

(Alyssa Bereznak)
(Alyssa Bereznak)

“We are positioning ourselves now as a real, useful tool for corporate wellness initiatives because we acknowledge that obesity is a huge global health problem and sedentary lifestyles are a huge component of that,” Ryan Walters, a senior digital marketing specialist at InBody, told me. “Sedentary workers lose muscle tremendously, particularly in their lower legs because they sit at their desks all day. By using our devices, health care practitioners at these corporate wellness initiatives can say, ‘Hey, over the past year or so, I’ve been tracking your body composition, you’ve been steadily declining [in] lean mass in your legs.’”

Often, when a person’s body begins losing muscle mass, his or her metabolism slows, and he or she begins to develop fat around their body as well as their organs. The latter is called visceral fat, and InBody specializes in identifying it — the kind of fat that hugs the liver, pancreas, and intestines and can cause serious health problems. According to Walters, it’s something that is particularly common among the employees they evaluate.

“We just spoke to someone at a major Fortune 500 who has our product, and visceral fat was one of the things they talked about the most,” he said. “The lightbulb turns on when they show their employees their visceral fat levels. These people go, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea (a) this existed and (b) this existed in me, and (c) I can detect and do something about this.’”

Undergoing an InBody analysis takes about five minutes and is vaguely clinical. The device resembles a traditional scale in shape, but comes with a large screen and two metal arms, and is generally a lot shinier. “We are the Ferrari of these devices,” Walters told me when I met him on the CES showroom floor.

As people shuffled by in the convention hall, I was instructed by a woman in a red polo shirt to remove my shoes. She handed me an InBody-branded antibacterial tissue and instructed me to wipe my feet and hands to “enhance electrical conductivity.” She then guided my bare feet onto two metal platforms, which she called “foot electrodes.” At that point, my weight populated on the digital screen in front of me. I was prompted to enter my age, height, and gender, then grab the contraption’s handles, which resembled the skinny arms that come out of R2-D2’s robot body when he needs to grab things. Once I settled my thumbs into two electrode grooves, an electrical current ran through my body. As I stood there, the machine measured the delay of the currents in each of my individual limbs and torso. Depending on the speed of the current, it was able to discern between my body fat, muscle mass, and skeletal mass. A minute later, it spit out a single piece of paper that compared my stats to the normal averages of someone of my age, height, and gender.

After my evaluation, I sat down with Walters to go through my results. One by one, we ran through my scores in muscle, fat, body water, and skeletal muscle mass. My body fat percentage barely made the cut of what’s considered normal, especially in my torso, but thankfully my visceral fat was below average. As someone who runs and lifts weights, walks frequently, and eats a salad every day for lunch, I was a bit shaken. So many of the markings on the page suggested that I was on the verge of an unhealthy existence because of the sheer inactive nature of my laptop-centric profession.

Realistically, the only way to address the sedentary sessions that humans have become accustomed to is to forcibly insert exercise equipment in our homes and offices. The stationary bike company Peloton has built its entire company around that theory. Much like workout video subscription service Daily Burn (founded in 2007), Peloton was founded in 2012 with the purpose of bringing boutique fitness classes — which many people find more motivating — into the home. The $2,000 bike is built with a small TV that livestreams instructor-led classes from around the country, for a subscription fee of $39 a month. At CES, the company premiered its latest iteration of the bike, a more portable piece of equipment that can be placed in hotel or company gyms, for anyone to use. To cofounder John Foley, that immediate access to motivating, high-quality fitness routines is much more transformational than the slow burn of, say, a treadmill desk.

“I think a treadmill at work is weird,” he told me, as we stood next to the commercial-grade bike he premiered earlier that week. “Your mind and body are disjointed. I’m sure you can burn some calories, but it’s more efficient to get your workout in in the morning and then work while you’re working. With Peloton, your mind and your body are in the same place for that intense half-hour workout once a day.”

(Peloton/Ringer GIF)
(Peloton/Ringer GIF)

Peloton’s model could very well be a helpful workout solution to the increasing number of telecommuters in America’s workforce, but it still won’t reverse the negative effects of a day in a chair. For that, there’s LifeSpan, a sports equipment company that began making treadmill desks in 2011. Back then, the company’s treadmill desks were seen as a futuristic anomaly, a selfie stick–esque contraption that was technically helpful, but too visually ridiculous for people to take seriously. But for LifeSpan president Peter Schenk, a former employee at IBM who focused on automation, they were a solution to a problem the industry hadn’t seen coming.

“When I was with IBM in the ’90s, limiting the need to move appeared to be the path to elite productivity,” he told me via email. “Unfortunately, that philosophy didn’t give much credit to how creative and productive we are when we’re physically engaged with our work. But while technology might have played a role in some of our current health predicaments, it will certainly be instrumental in helping us reverse the damage.”

Even so, LifeSpan’s early adopters were fitness junkies, power users who thrived off of physical activity. Eventually, the company began seeing study results that showed its products not only improved people’s health, but increased their task completion and memory. Now it has focused on finding a way to normalize its treadmill and bike desks for all office workers — not just people with an affinity for exercise. The company’s latest releases are meant to more seamlessly fit into an office environment, meaning they don’t all need an electrical outlet to run, and are designed with the same warm wood grains, grays and cherry-wood finishes that you might see in a law firm’s office. With that shift, LifeSpan has seen more of its units placed in prominent office locations, rather than off in a corner to gather dust.

“It was like ‘Oh, check that box, we got a treadmill desk’ and it wouldn’t get used,” James Lowe, a marketing communications manager I met at LifeSpan’s booth at CES, said of companies that were unsure of how to integrate the equipment into a corporate work environment. “But now, at Google Seattle, in their common area there are multiple units looking at a beautiful bay window. At Evernote, there’s a huge glass area that they exist in. There’s tone about them that integrates into the existing culture of the space.” (Even IBM has installed several LifeSpan treadmill desks across its campuses.)

Admittedly, I was having a hard time listening to Lowe when he told me this. Not because it was loud or Lowe was mumbling, but because we were sitting at one of LifeSpan’s latest products, the Duo. The one-on-one meeting table resembled most nondescript office furniture I’d encountered in my professional life, aside from one thing: Beneath each of our seats was a set of pedals. As Lowe and I discussed his company, we both biked in place.

(Alyssa Bereznak)
(Alyssa Bereznak)

“My brain is weirdly trying to marry the fact that I’m, like, cycling and also having a meeting,” I said.

“It’s actually pretty frequently like that,” he replied as our legs still circled, explaining that everyone from the accountants to sales staff to graphic designers at LifeSpan’s office has a different approach to multitasking their activity and their work. “If you’re having a hard time bridging the gap, maybe you should just try to bridge it in a way that works for you rather than what you expect us to want. If you sit down and it makes more sense to pedal while listening, or pedal while speaking, or even just sit, it’s perfectly fine. It’s almost like a fidget tool.”

I was vaguely aware of the stares from passersby that were directed at Lowe and I, but I didn’t really care. I had flown across the country to the largest annual tech conference in the world in search of a grand solution to my largely motionless existence. If that meant cycling on an analog bike desk made by the very industry that had doomed me in the first place, I was going to do it. Still, the session was only a temporary antidote to my desperation. I knew in a few hours I would be sitting motionless in my hotel room, staring at my laptop, back on the slow, unwavering death march of our modern economy.