Moving in the Gap
A position piece on the modern challenges facing physical health, and how technology must evolve to meet them.
10 minute read
We are experiencing a movement health crisis.
In the past few years, thanks in part to the COVID pandemic, investments, acquisitions, growth and engagement in digital exercise have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. New exercise platforms pop up every day, pedaling content, workouts and engagement tactics in a battle for their piece of the at-home-workout market share.
So where’s the crisis?
While there seem to be personal exercise options everywhere, adults are more out of shape – and in more physical discomfort – than ever before. 1 in 2 American adults report experiencing musculoskeletal pain. On an annual basis, 1 trillion dollars are allocated to missed work time and health spend based on physical health ailments.
Technology is moving fast, creating interesting opportunities to change the digital health landscape in ways we couldn’t previously have imagined. But while the market opportunity is evident, it’s less clear what impact – if any – all the recent innovation is having on the physical health of end consumers.
Meanwhile, the concept of “movement health” is just starting to go mainstream as a viable solution to physical health problems. As musculoskeletal issues continue to worsen around the world and investments in digital fitness climb, could a smarter approach to movement health bridge the gap?
What would that even look like?
A closer look at movement health.
First, let’s get clear on what we mean by “movement health“.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 150 physical ailments, classified as musculoskeletal conditions, that can affect the locomotor system (how your body moves). These can range from short-lived issues, like general aches and sprains, to life-long conditions that impact or disable overall movement function.
Most of us have experienced – or know people who have – musculoskeletal (MSK) issues of some kind. But it might still come as a surprise to learn that the WHO reports that MSK conditions are actively experienced by 1.71 billion people worldwide. They are the highest global contributor to missing work days, medical spend and rehabilitation. In short, musculoskeletal issues are nothing short of a global epidemic.
Think of all the ailments that limit your ability to move: back pain, neck discomfort, muscle aches, joint stiffness, gout, arthritis, spine issues, or more severe disease such as osteoporosis. They all fall under the same umbrella, and most of them are trending up as our modern lifestyle becomes increasingly sedentary.
Our friends over at Fitt Insider had this to say about MSK conditions:
“MSK issues often result from overuse or repetitive strain. Sedentary behavior, like prolonged sitting and low physical activity, can worsen MSK conditions. And treatments range from massage and physical therapy to medication and surgery. While physical therapy has proven effective at providing relief, a lack of adherence on the patient’s part can hinder outcomes.“
Getting people to seek out professional help when they experience musculoskeletal issues is an age-old challenge. And, as Fitt Insider alludes to, when people do, helping them stick with their program can be another mountain to climb.
Despite all the advances in digital health technology, we have yet to see a solution that effectively bridges this gap. The ideal candidate must adapt to individual needs, offer real solutions to underlying issues, and consistently improve how people actually move and feel. At the same time, it’s got to harness the benefits of modern technology to improve accessibility, adoption and engagement.
The solution is anything but simple, but taking an approach grounded in movement health may be the first step. Still a relatively new term, movement health ties together different principles to promote a healthy balance of strength, mobility, and loading of the body. If the prevailing fitness theme of the day often feels like “move more”, a movement health mindset adds an important layer – move more intelligently.
How one achieves that optimal balance of strength, mobility and stability will look a little different for everyone. You see, we’re all different. That much is obvious. You can see it plainly when you look around you. We all have different movement profiles based on our gender, our age, how we spend each day, and any number of other variables.
These differences aren’t static. They’re in a constant state of flow, depending on factors as small as how active you’ve been in the past few days, or how you slept last night.
And this is where the traditional “do more” approach to physical health falls apart. What is “more”? Moving more might help someone who hasn’t left the couch much this month, but it certainly isn’t the right solution for someone with chronic neck tension. It also falls short of being helpful for anyone trying to make a connection between physical health and their real, day-to-day lifestyle.
At best, the “do more” approach promotes dissatisfaction and eventual drop-off, when doing more stops feeling feasible or sustainable. At its worst, doing more can actually cause more physical harm than good, when “more” is recommended on top of existing movement dysfunction.
The key to helping people move intelligently – to measurably improving their physical health in a way that aligns with their real-world priorities and challenges – lies in understanding that movement health solutions are unique to every individual.
We’ll talk about that more in a moment. But first, let’s take a look at what’s going on with fitness technology today:
The current fitness technology landscape.
Image by Karolina Grabowska
In recent years, fitness technology has made incredible headway in movement tracking and catering exercise content based on consumer preference. Where it continues to fall short, though, is finding a way to connect the effectiveness of prescriptive physical therapy with the conveniences of modern technology.
But if contemporary fit tech still struggles to move the needle of the MSK epidemic, it’s not for lack of trying. Companies large and small are working to figure out how wearable movement technology can make a positive impact by tracking and (thus personalizing) movement. Wearable technology is increasingly attempting to fill the space traditionally dominated by in-person physical and physiotherapy.
At the same time, companies specifically focused on improving MSK Health – such as Kaia, Hinge and Sword Health – collectively raised over a billion dollars in 2021 alone. These investments are supporting advancements in motion tracking software, primarily to serve employers who spend 100 billion dollars on MSK issues every year.
Companies like Whoop, Halo Band (by Amazon), the Oura Ring and Apple watch offer real-time insights on your body. They all track movement to some extent, and are actively innovating on how to make better recommendations for how you move and recover.
Money continues to pour into the space with investments and acquisitions in movement tracking happening at a previously unseen scale.
So what’s the end goal?
While the surge in capital for exercise technology continues, there is a race to create the most comprehensive ‘health platform’ in the digital fitness space. Companies are investing time and resources to improve user engagement by providing more content options – meditation meets HIIT classes on most platforms, along with recommendations for sleep, stretching and stress reduction.
The focus on wellness is a good thing for end consumers, but the mode of delivery can still be problematic. As platforms add more and more content, end users are usually left to self-select solutions to address specific needs, and with limited results.
Fitness providers often conflate having more options with having better options, focusing too much on what consumers (think they) want, when we should be helping them determine what they need. Regardless of the evolution of content aggregation, if recommendations aren’t specific to individual needs, the same outcomes contributing to declining MSK function will continue to dominate human health.
Progressive fitness companies are starting to realize this. Nautilus’ acquisition of Vay (computer vision), MIRROR’s Universal Health Score, and Peloton’s acquisition of Atlas Wearables demonstrate the evolving desire to deliver individually tailored exercise content, with the goal of collecting movement data to create better recommendations on how you engage with their technology.
Making sense of it all.
So we know there’s a global physical health crisis, in the form of worsening musculoskeletal issues. We understand a little about how fitness companies are evolving to try and meet consumer demand, and where they fall on the spectrum of digital health offerings.
On one side, you have wearables and motion tracking technology. These are fantastic tools, but limited in their ability to impact overall movement quality or health if not connected to intelligent movement prescription.
On the other side, you have exercise platforms that continue to create volume-based (work harder, not smarter) content that consumers self-select, often with little connection to their actual physical needs.
This leaves a massive gap in the middle, which brings us back to where we left off talking about movement health.
“The key to helping people move intelligently – to measurably improving their physical health in a way that aligns with their real-world priorities and challenges – lies in understanding that movement health solutions are unique to every individual.“
There’s a growing need for digital solutions that are truly optimized for every individual. This need can’t be met by tracking technology or exercise content alone. And while bridging that gap requires an innovative approach that doesn’t yet fully exist in the space, the solution is actually quite simple. And it’s not exactly new, either.
A digital solution based on real-world success.
Years ago, I started my own personal training studio aimed at offering specific and intelligent training systems for everyday athletes. The system that evolved was simple, but incredibly effective – assess, prescribe, move and improve.
We’d follow this system with every client. Assess early and often to discover baseline movement function, prescribe a small set of exercises to improve limitations, and ensure all loaded activities (using weights) are doable for the individual. The result was a continual cycle of improvement for every client.
This approach isn’t new – it’s how professional athletes train all the time. But putting it into practice in the studio opened a lot of eyes – it gave normal people from all walks of life the power to change how they felt in their body, whether they were nursing old aches and pains, totally new to exercise, or experienced gym-goers.
Clients were always surprised by their own ability to improve, and business took off accordingly. It wasn’t long before I met my friend and client Tom Waller, former Chief Science Officer at lululemon (now with Adidas).
I’d do basic assessments with Tom to understand his ankle, hip and t-spine mobility. I used different assessments to determine his mobility, stability and strength in different ranges of motion and identify movement patterns that resulted in pain, limiting his daily function and athletic performance. Tom couldn’t believe how effective the cycle was, and our sessions in the studio became the starting place for a lot of great conversations about how we could scale our method in the digital space.
At the time, the Nike Training App was the only digital application in the market that was really making headlines. Inspired by my conversations with Tom and hungry to reach a bigger audience, my partner Brendan Eamer (now our CTO) and I started a new project. We wanted to build a digital system that could use assessment information to intelligently level exercise and generate workouts personalized for every individual, just like we did in the studio. And… we did it. We’re still doing it. We called it movr.
At the time, we couldn’t have imagined that movr would grow into what it is today, and we didn’t know that our unique stance might fill a gap left in the market by other technology. We’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible partners and have our app validated by scientific research as we continue to learn and grow. The road ahead is long, but I wholeheartedly believe that we can help change the future of physical health along the way.
While the digital fitness landscape has grown a lot since movr’s conception, the same problems exist today. People are still experiencing musculoskeletal issues at a higher rate than ever, and it’s still hard to help them make lasting improvement. And while consumers today have access to more exercise content than at any time in our history, we know that the only way to bridge the gap is to help people access the right exercises, not just more of them.
The health need is there. The market is ripe. We have the tools to affect real change (we’ve been using them successfully in person for years). We just have to figure out how to use those same tools in a simple, engaging digital application. And we think movr is a great place to start.
Aaron de Jong & Oben Hart
movr is an assessment-based movement health technology company. Our goal is to help measurably improve musculoskeletal health with innovative technology solutions within an ever-changing health space.
Interested in learning more? Reach out here.