The fitness tech startups solving the UK’s obesity crisis

With Britain on the fast track to becoming Europe’s fattest nation, can fitness tech startups help whip the nation back into shape?

The fitness tech startups solving the UK's obesity crisis

From T-shirts monitoring how hard you push yourself to apps that supply you with seemingly endless streams of workouts, it certainly is an exciting time for anyone with twin passions for fitness and tech. “Just in the past year, scores of technological innovations have been introduced that wouldn’t even have been thought of a decade ago,” says Richard Cooper, head of digital at AXA PPP Healthcare, the health insurance company.

Indeed, while Leonardo Da Vinci may have first envisioned step counters as something that could be used by the military in the 15th century, today millions of people use fitness tech on a daily basis. “We have tech merging with health, sport and lifestyle products,” says Steve Ward, executive director at ukactive, the non-profit organisation devoted to promoting active lifestyles. “It’s a really interesting space to be in.” And interest in these gizmos and gadgets only seems to be growing. The wearable-tech market alone is expected to be worth $12.4bn by 2022, according to MarketsandMarkets, the research company.

Given the rise of this new tech and Team GB’s accomplishments during the Olympics, it seems almost paradoxical that the UK is fast becoming the fat man of Europe. Researchers from Imperial College London expect that 38% of Brits will be obese by 2025 and those love handles don’t come cheap. In fact, the NHS has to splash out £5.1bn each year to treat obesity-related health condition like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular conditions. “They’re bankrupting the NHS and making healthcare unaffordable,” says Ward.

And the culprit behind the increasing number of muffin tops on the UK’s streets isn’t hard to find: people aren’t as physically active as they used to be. “Up until the middle of the 20th century, poor people were essentially paid to do fitness because of their manual jobs,” says Carol Propper, professor of economics at Imperial College Business School and professor of economics of public policy at Bristol University. The automation of industries and the digitalisation of business have both contributed to creating a situation where fewer people need to exert themselves physically to get their paycheques. This may mean a better working environment but the side-effect has been that more people are living sedentary lifestyles. According to ukactive, 12.8 million UK residents do less than 30 minutes of exercise each week. “It’s become easier and easier to design exercise out of our lives,” says Ward. “So people do very little.”

Even though the fast pace of the technological evolution may have contributed to the impending  obesity crises, he’s adamant that tech can also be part of the cure. That’s why ukactive teamed up with AXA PPP Healthcare and Tech City UK, the government-backed organisation supporting tech startups, in October to launch ActiveLab, the UK’s first accelerator dedicated to finding and supporting Britain’s future fitness unicorns. “We aim to be the global launch pad of businesses encouraging physical activities,” says Ward.

Already, ukactive works with over 4,000 partner organisations, many of which are health and fitness companies. “And we’re really excited about the chance to merge the history and success of the industry with innovators who can take full advantage of the exciting environment we’re working in.”

The accelerator announced its first batch of 12 hopeful health and fitness disruptors in November. Ranging from a startup describing itself as the “Fitbit for strength training” to a platform that will help employers gamify their offices to make their employees more active, ActiveLab’s first class is poised to transform the future of fitness tech.

However, they’d be well advised to target fitness aficionados with relatively deep pockets as fat-blasting products and services don’t come cheap. While a gym membership can cost about £30 per month, fitness tech can make an even greater dent in your budget. A Fitbit can cost about £100, a MyZone heart-monitor belt costs £129.99 and Athos’ smart running leggings cost £279. “If you’re only paid £10 an hour then you won’t have any money to spend on these devices,” says Propper.

This may also help explain why the early adopters of fitness tech are part of a group referred to as fitsters. As the name suggests, this is a sub-branch of the hipster culture, meaning young affluent people who are on top of the latest trends and totally in tune with Apple’s product catalogue. The only difference is that fitsters take their health extremely seriously, which is why they are also the people who first jumped on the fitness tech bandwagon.

But not everyone fits into this demographic: startups in this sector aren’t reaching the more sedentary layers of the British population partly because these groups often don’t have resources to spare on fitness. “The cost of fitness is not just that it may be expensive but it’s also about the cost of the time you’re forgoing as well,” Propper says. “Going home, changing into your running gear and then going for a run is much more difficult for people who shuffle between low-paying jobs and picking up their children from school. You can carve out extra money but not extra time.”

That being said, Andy Bowness, founder and CEO of Bodireel, the personal-trainer app, still believes fitness tech can help people who are less well-off than fitsters become healthy without it costing an arm and a leg. “Tech can be used to get high-quality information to the end user very cheaply,” says Bowness. “Instead of paying £50 for an hour with a healthcare professional, you can get quality help much cheaper through your smartphone.” Given that 12.8 million Brits don’t exercise, it’s safe to say that startups stand to gain a lot by converting even a small proportion of that group into costumers. “If you can win over people who wouldn’t ordinarily use the product then that would obviously increase your revenue,” says Bowness.

And once startups have gotten fitness tech into the hands of consumers, there are several ways in which it could help whip Britain back into shape. Firstly, it could educate people to make better choices. “It’s clear from the health literature that less-educated people have less of the knowledge and the skills they need to make good long-term decisions,” says Propper. Apps and devices that help people make better dietary choices and demonstrate how to exercise properly could therefore alleviate the strain obesity places on the NHS.

Secondly, fitness tech could motivate people to do some type of physical activity in whatever time they manage to carve out for themselves. And every little helps. “The biggest gains in health can be found in activating someone who does absolutely nothing,” says Ward. “If you can find ways through coaching, support, gamification or gentle nudges that makes people more physically active, that would be a significant win.” For instance, last summer saw about 65 million people hitting the streets in order to catch Pikachus and Bulbasaurs thanks to Pokémon Go. “This augmented reality app is probably the biggest success of activating people in recent years,” says Ward. And it did so without the aspiring trainers of digital Japanese monsters having to invest in expensive gym memberships or wearable tech.

In fact, chances are that new enterprises actually have better chances of enthralling this group than corporate giants do. “Startups have a unique flexibility that larger companies don’t have, allowing them to respond faster and meet user needs more completely,” says Melinda Nicci, founder and CEO of Baby2Body, the health app for pregnant and postnatal women. “For example, startups can create cost-effective fitness resources and leverage meaningful incentives for exercise, which is the perfect combination when enouraging non-active and less affluent populations to get into fitness.”

For instance, startups have plenty of opportunities to slim down the British population whilst bulking up their wallets by piggybacking on the efforts of big business. With more corporate institutions launching wellness schemes to protect their employees’ health and productivity, new businesses can offer their services to help the more notorious couch potatoes up from the sofa and onto the treadmill. “This can be a great monetisation stream for startups in this space,” says Nicci.

As an example, Bodireel has teamed up with brands that sell companies health insurance. “We reach out to the businesses that have used that insurance and offer to do a health check for each employee,” says Bowness. This allows the startup to connect with people who wouldn’t otherwise have heard about the app or be inclined to exercise.

And this is not the only reason founders of fitness-tech startups have reason to be optimistic about the future growth of their business. In 2015, three million activity trackers were sold in the UK alone, according to Mintel, the retail-analysis company. With one in seven Brits owning a fitness tracker – not to mention other pieces of fitness tech – you have to ask if the fitsters’ enthusiasm for these products won’t start permeating through to other demographics who otherwise wouldn’t purchase these new innovations. “These sales cannot stand for that audience alone,” says Cooper. “As technology becomes more integrated into everyday lifestyles, it’s inevitable that more people will begin to take notice.”

Despite the scale of the market and the sales of wearables, fitness-tech startups certainly have their jobs cut out for them when it comes to solving Britain’s obesity crisis. “Whilst fitness technologies may not be the sole answer to encouraging people to do more exercise, they can help boost interest in those thinking about a healthier lifestyle,” concludes Cooper. Fitness tech clearly isn’t the silver bullet to help solve the problem of Britain’s expanding waistlines but it can certainly act as a starting pistol.

Mums on the move


Melinda Nicci first had the idea for Baby2Body, the fitness app, when she was pregnant with her first child. Having always been a bit of fitness nut, it was only natural for her to pursue ways to stay healthy throughout her pregnancy. However, she was shocked by the mixed and inconsistent answers she got. “Some people even told me to avoid exercise altogether,” she says. When looking into the matter Nicci realised that there was a huge gap in the market for pregnant women and new mothers who wanted to stay fit. Not one to miss out on an opportunity, she quickly set up her first business to help these female fitness fans.

After finishing a master’s degree in sport psychology and doing a quick stint at Philips focusing on consumer healthcare and wearable technology, she decided to take Baby2Body into the digital age and launched the business as an app in the beginning of 2015. “Now, Baby2Body is a woman’s complete daily guide to a healthy pregnancy and a happy motherhood – addressing her wellbeing, fitness, nutrition and beauty needs,” says Nicci.

After joining Velocity Health, the UK’s first preventative healthcare accelerator programme, last year, the startup has raised $850,000 in an early-stage round and is now reaching over half a million women around the world.

With this support, Baby2Body is primed to help new mothers feel comfortable in their skin.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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