Health Science and Technology: Transforming How We Keep Fit

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FITNESS GIZMOS, ranging from smartphone applications (apps) to trackers, are a marvellous invention. For sedentary devotees, these inspire a much-needed behavourial change, and a chance to level up workout routines for the sports enthusiasts.

For example, exercise apps like the Nike Training Club and Fitbit can be downloaded from the Google Play and Apple App stores. These provide generic training; for example, on how to get a six pack in five months. Other apps request individuals to key in data, e.g. the distance and pace of a run, for a 12-week personalised exercise plan to be created.

The interior of i-Sports Physiotherapy & Rehabilitation Centre. Photo: Daryl Cheah.

“It’s a great motivator for those wanting to engage in regular exercise,” says Daryl Cheah, a sports therapist at the i-Sports Physiotherapy & Rehabilitation Centre at Island Hospital.

Wanting to be fit may be the end-goal, but this process also entails consideration of a number of factors. For one, what if the person is riddled with underlying health conditions? “In such situations, the apps are still able to serve as a base or guideline. But I’d suggest you seek your doctor’s counsel first. They would be in a better position to give you an answer,” he says.

Physiotherapist Neo Jia Xin adds, “It usually depends on the severity of the case. A colleague of mine has Type 1 diabetes, but he knows that when he pushes the limits in exercising, he’ll stop to take a breather. This group of people are able to self-manage because they are self-aware. But there’s also another group that does the exact opposite. For them, at the initial stage, they’d come to i-Sports to exercise under the guidance of both the physio- and sports therapists. We will teach them how to differentiate a normal muscle sore from a ligament or tissue tear; but of course, we don’t encourage them to come to us on a long-term basis. What we do is we teach them how to self-manage better.”

Becoming an Exercise Junkie

Physiotherapist Neo Jia Xin.

There are two types of exercise junkies, observes Cheah. “On the one hand, we have those who are all about appearance and performance. They want to look good, but are not necessarily motivated by the numbers. What they focus on more is if they are running faster today? Are they doing better than a week ago? On the other hand, you have those like me,” he laughs. “We’re quite exact; we have to run a certain distance and at a specific time and speed. This obsession comes from a personal desire that sustains our drive – that’s how the great athletes do it. But then again, if this obsession becomes an over-obsession, it can be quite detrimental to your physical, mental and emotional health.

“The clients who come to i-Sports, I notice, are obsessed with how much they weigh. They’ll tell me, ‘I’ve been training with you for a few months now, but my weight has not gone down.’ But if they are to stand on a specific scale, one that is able to identify how much fat has been burned and the amount of muscles gained, I’m positive this would reverse the fixation with the weighing scale. My goal is to get them healthy; and I dare say some have been successfully ‘converted’,” says Cheah, adding that he does not believe the obsession will disappear, rather it changes form, from a data-driven mindset to a performance-centred psyche.

But there is a danger in that as well, cautions Neo. Individuals with performan-cecentred psyches are geared towards sports like hiking or participating in marathons. Fuelled largely by Penangites’ zeal, the island plays host to a sizeable number of marathons all year round. “And just as frequently, injuries are sustained and made worse because of them. Despite being advised to rest for the injuries to heal, many would still insist on attending these races because if they don’t, they fear muscle loss, deconditioning and growing weaker.”

In the Name of Trend

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Warrior coaches with backgrounds in the military, athletics and team sports are recruited by founder Conor McManus. Photo: Roger Choo.

Most people are able to do without fitness apps and trackers; indeed, the older generation still set out for their daily walk with only a watch in hand. “But youths today hunger for information, because they get pulled into the brand’s commercial advertising. What they don’t know is that some trackers produce inaccurate data; these can either under- or over-predict your fitness levels. It’s not the same as when you go for clinical testing, where they hook you up to machines.”

To assess their reliability, Cheah provides an example: “I personally use three apps: the Nike, Strava and Mi Fit apps. These are able to track exercises involving the use of GPS, but rarely do they give accurate information. I did a 5km run last week, and those three apps reported a distance of 5km, 4.5km and 4.15km respectively. That’s a very big difference! To be more precise, I consulted Google Maps and discovered that I had actually run a 4.8-4.9km distance. Both the Nike and Strava apps showed similar results because their GPS is connected through my phone; so if the phone’s GPS says it's 5km, all apps using the navigation system will also reflect the same distance.”

On the topic of data breach, Cheah admits “there’s always the fear of your personal information leaking. Some apps require that you sign up through Facebook or Google, but I take steps to protect my privacy. The only thing I worry about is being tracked. The Garmin app is excellent for when you get into an accident or are lost; it sends SOS messages to the person you set up to be your emergency contact. But if you turn off your GPS when you’re not using it, then you should be fine.”

For more detailed information, for example, in measuring lung capacity and VO2 max, apps that are partnered with fitness trackers like Garmin and Suunto are better preferred, he adds.

Fitness Clothing

“The clients who come to i-Sports, I notice, are obsessed with how much they weigh."

Sports compression wear is widely accepted in the sports community, and is designed to provide external compression to the body, often increasing in pressure towards the extreme end of the limbs – this is also known as graduated compression.1 “It’s one way to prevent muscle cramps. What compression clothing does is to help improve blood flow to the muscles. It also ensures fluidity in movement; for example, the leg has both fat and muscle, the fat causes inertia which slows down big movements. Compressing it allows for better movement,” explains Cheah.

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Sports therapist Daryl Cheah.

But more than clothing, choosing the right kind of shoes could also prevent sport injuries from occurring. “Let’s say you’re in the gym doing squats and jumps, you’d want shoes that have a very solid base, one that is not too cushioned so that when you work out, you can feel the floor and absorb the energy,” he says. “To compare, the reason why running shoes have so much cushioning is because when you run, you’re impacting the floor; and you want that cushion to absorb the impact to avoid hurting your knees.”

Neo, however, has her reservations: “Yes, the research conducted may have proven their effectiveness, but if we are to factor in geography and lifestyle, we Asians grow up walking barefoot at home unlike the Westerners. It’s important that the background of these sample groups is evaluated when reading the published reports. I know the term ‘scientifically proven’ reassures people, but it is equally vital to be aware that they can be used as gimmicks for companies to increase their sales as well.”

Warrior Fitness

Founded in 2011, the boot camp Warrior Fitness is a fun, friendly and inclusive training environment that provides scientifically proven health and fitness programmes for beginners, athletes and teams. Warrior coaches with backgrounds in the military, athletics and team sports are recruited by founder Conor McManus to guide participants, or “Warriors” in developing athletic performance, functional fitness, team skills, mental toughness, and of course, to lose weight.

"We guide our Warriors to develop mental resilience, which is just as important as building physical strength; this tests your endurance to train in all kinds of weather."

“We coaches are professionally certified by the American Council on Exercise and the National Academy of Sports Medicine,” says Coach Roger Choo, whose training focuses on different types of running, body weight exercises and strength training programmes, with big emphasis on mental resilience and teamwork.

“Training is done outdoors and at different locations, like the Botanic Gardens, Youth Park and Lembah Permai, and our centre is based in Tanjung Bungah. The Warrior culture helps our Warriors find their passion, not just in running and physical exercises; but also for sports like football, hockey, cycling and boxing. Our mission is to get people fitter faster, stronger and tougher, and not for cosmetic reasons. We guide our Warriors to develop mental resilience, which is just as important as building physical strength; this tests your endurance to train in all kinds of weather.

“Some people are of the opinion that training in the rain is dangerous, or that you will fall ill. But it’s a matter of perception. Despite the rain, people in the UK still go out for a jog, but we Asians think this creates unnecessary hassle and unwanted mess coming back home dripping wet, and trailing water puddles behind us. The Warrior ethos works in getting you off the couch, that’s the first step. But are you ready to go out to train when it rains, when you’re challenged both physically and mentally? Are you prepared to finish the job? I know of Warriors, who at 5am, would drive all the way from the mainland to train with us.”

Choo and his Warriors. Photo: Roger Choo.

In 2018 the app WarriorMY was introduced with the dual function of helping coaches track their Warriors’ progress, and as a payment gateway. “Only coaches are able to see the Warriors’ personal information and fitness levels, as well as the number of tokens they have left to sign up for classes – these tokens expire when the Warriors’ subscriptions end. The app is also built to avoid favouritism. Only coaches are able to see which classes the Warriors have registered for, but they won’t know who will be leading them until just before the scheduled sessions.

“Through the app, the location, time, number of participants, rate of perceived exertion (intensity level), agility and strength are shown. The coaches and Warriors plan for the workout, and the tokens will only be deducted if the Warrior shows up for the class.” Depending on the type of classes, the programmes combine military physical training with modern sports conditioning in different ways. “The red classes for example put emphasis on fitness, e.g. running, a bit of push-up and weightlifting. It’s about functional training. Like the military, we train our Warriors to be fit for life, not to look good. You can have a six pack, but that doesn’t mean you can run because certain muscles are non-functional.”

Besides WarriorMY, Warriors also equip themselves with fitness apps and trackers. The coaches will teach them how to use and calibrate their watches depending on the field they specialise in or want to venture into. When asked about instances of data unpredictability, Choo says, “If a brand has invested millions of dollars into designing and building the fitness tracker, I should think the data would be 90-95% accurate. Brands like Suunto and Garmin were field-tested by professionals’ numerous times before they were marketed to the public.

“But if we’re to compare with a cheaper alternative, then of course the differences will be huge, not just about data accuracy, but the limitations in functionality too. Apps like Strava and Nike Run Club reward users with virtual medals. This encourages users to push their fitness limits and to compete to stay on the leaderboards. It is good that their competitive nature gets fired up, but as their coach I am here to make them aware of their progress, and to ensure that they don’t harm themselves in the process.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.
Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.



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