About 15 years after the chisel-faced crime fighter began capturing criminals, Dick Tracy did something remarkable for the first time. In his namesake comic strip, the detective talked into the watch fastened on his left wrist for two-way communication with his co-workers. It was 1946, and catching bad people changed forever—at least for fictional law enforcement officers.
But like freeze-dried food, driverless cars and robotic surgery, the once-futuristic technology of a cartoon character is now a reality for myriad uses. Wrist-worn mobile devices track users’ vitals, provide internet access, notify emergency contacts and count our steps.
Carrying a laptop on a wrist isn’t convenient or prudent. Wearing a fitness watch simplifies wearers’ lifestyles. It’s an exercise partner, always loyal as long as it’s charged and on its owner’s wrist, hooked to attire or stored in a pocket.
Where it all started is debatable. Swiss horologist Abraham-Louis Perrelet, inventor of the automatic watch, may have created the first pedometer, a step counter, in 1777. Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third president, brought a crude pedometer back from a trip to France, in 1788. He made the contraption more viable and mechanical.
Additional studies cite French craftsman Jean Fernel as maybe having invented the first pedometer in 1525. Or maybe it was Robert Hooke, an English scientist and architect, in 1674. English watchmaker John Harwood was awarded the first pedometer patent in 1924.
Nearly 100 years later, the global wearables market is predicted to reach $118 billion a year by 2028, according to researchandmarkets.com. The global market research website reports: “The rapid increase in demand for multimedia devices and smartphones, coupled with the surge in the adoption of fitness trackers and health-based wearables, is anticipated to propel the market for wearable technology.”
Increased consumer awareness of the benefits of fitness activities makes monitoring progress and analyzing the physiological data gathered more popular. From about $100 to more than $500, a smartwatch can record and dissect nearly any physical activity as needed.
“It’s the responsiveness of how you are doing,” says Dante Johnson of Fleet Feet in Fort Myers, which offers Garmin products exclusively. “It’s how quickly it updates the pace you’re running, as well as the different modes like its flashlight, training programs—and you can even race yourself, lap to lap.”
Modern-day fitness trackers arrived in 1965 with Manpo-kei, which translates into “10,000 steps meter.” It was invented by Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, a professor at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, who was researching how to combat obesity. He believed 10,000 daily steps provided the proper balance of caloric intake and activity-based calorie expenditure to maintain a healthy body. While the concept has been questioned as not adequately beneficial, the “10,000-step” goal is still a benchmark in fitness trackers.
Much has happened since Hatano’s studies. Polar watches were introduced in 1982 to monitor heart rates. The idea was cultivated by the company five years earlier to record the heart rates of cross-country skiers in Finland. Later, mobile phones incorporated 3D accelerometers that measure movement and vibration in a three-dimensional space.
Garmin introduced its first smartwatches, the G101, 201 and 301 in 2003. Nokia’s 5500 Sports handset, which debuted in 2006, is credited as the first phone able to accurately track the user’s physical activity.
Fitness monitors in more recent years are categorized with the umbrella term “wearables.” Industry stalwarts include fitness trackers, smartwatches, fitness rings, cameras and virtual reality headsets. The Apple Watch phenomenon began in 2015 and has skyrocketed. Apple led the industry with a 36% market share in 2020, with buyers primarily interested in heart-tracking capabilities and older buyers seeking fall protection.
Apple Watches have limitations and are only compatible with iPhones; smartwatches made by Samsung, Garmin, Fitbit and others are also compatible with Android and iOS, but require installing an app.
The wearable industry also has critics. A report on Barclay’s Digital Wings, the international bank’s online platform, details potential security breaches, limited battery technology and expense as pitfalls in the wearables industry.
Further, it reported consumers can become obsessed with fitness data. Decreased work productivity and eating disorders can be perpetuated by obsessive wearable monitoring. Someone not used to always having a phone on them could require acclimation to a constant companion.
Researchers in the wearable industry at Duke University in North Carolina determined in 2015 that activity tracking can decrease enjoyment of whatever pastime someone is trying to quantify. Two years later, a study published in the journal Eating Behaviors also found associations between calorie-counting and/or fitness-tracking devices and eating disorder symptoms among college students. Some younger wearable users call their devices “the enemy.” It’s resulted in feelings of watch-wearing, fitness-related guilt.
“Don’t be obsessed with your times or so much worry about your pace,” says Johnson. “It’s better to realize the route you may be running on (or in other fitness activities) may require you to drop your pace at a certain point. On a treadmill, you may be able to consistently hold it.”