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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Future Focus

Goodbye gym guilt, hello exercise pills? The future of staying in shape

No more boring hours on the exercise bike? Eh, sign us up.

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: the gym.

IS THERE A more universally despised place than the gym? Endless numbers of us join on January 2nd only to quit by February, and for many who continue, it’s not the love of the cross trainer that keeps them there.

Pounding the treadmill to get those daily 30 minutes done is fairly dull, but if it’s an exciting workout you’re looking for, soon there won’t be any more excuses for avoiding leg day.

Combining features from gaming and the gym sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it could be the way to get the couch potatoes among us off the sofa. It’s likely that the future of exercise will be gamified, feeding into the same reward centres in the brain as something like Candy Crush, in order to encourage us to go.

As a result, virtual reality gym machines are already becoming actual reality across the US. Icaros launched an exercise machine last year which simulates flight, with the user feeling like they’re flying and dodging obstacles as they free fall from space – but all the while, they’re planking, and moving to target different groups of muscles.

Meanwhile, LifeFitness in the US partnered with VirZoom towards the end of 2017 to offer VR stationary bikes, which allow the user to race on horseback in the Wild West, blow up enemy tanks or fly through the air as Pegasus, all the while cycling at the gym.

Titan Top List / YouTube

Similarly, and available to buy for home, the Oculus Rift has games like BoxVR and Soundboxing which provide a full exercise experience. And it’s no Wii Sport (let’s face it, we all sat on the sofa moving our hand about three centimetres at a time pretending we were playing tennis) – it won’t let you get away with pretending to be taking part.

While we have yet to see any VR-enabled gyms here in Ireland, they could be on the way.
Thankfully the future of exercise might also include the ability to get better at it, a nice step forward for those of us who were last to be picked in PE.

Halo Sport, which was released last year, is said to be able to make you learn movements more quickly by sending electrical signals to your brain. You simply put on the headphones for twenty minutes a day and can listen to music as electrical charges are pushed through – some reviewers describe the sensation as taking some getting used to.

At the moment, the effects it has on performance seem to be minor, and while some users notice improvements, these could also be attributed to training more generally. However, Halo Sport may just be the beginning of wearable tech which actually improves your sporting and exercise capabilities, and over the coming years we may see greater advances in this.

Smart shoes

Speaking of wearables, as long as you’re not too worried about the concept of your clothes being tech-enabled, smart clothes will likely also form a part of the future exercise landscape. There are already plenty of companies working on garments that will tell you your heart rate, but there are other patents in place which may go even further. PureGym in the UK recently delved into new patents from well-known brands, and came up with some interesting results.

For instance, Adidas have patented self-charging smart shoes. These shoes are charged by the wearer’s steps and will give you a count of your steps and measurements of your biometrics when you’re finished, negating the need for additional tech such as your phone’s step counter altogether.

Meanwhile, Under Armour has patented clothes which not only measure your vitals, but which can release beneficial chemicals to be absorbed by the skin to optimise performance. Magnesium for example is believed to help to regulate heart rhythm, and could assist your workout. And Apple is believed to be imbuing its AirPods with fitness tracking capabilities, so that you can listen to music while you work out while its sensors monitor your vitals. As all of these patents have already been filed, we’re likely to see these or similar versions appearing on our shelves within the coming years.

Justyn Warner Justyn Warner

Though some future exercise solutions will be mass produced, there’s also a case being made for personalising your fitness journey. There are a considerable number of organisations and researchers looking at how to test your data – and more specifically, your DNA – to identify the best type of exercise for you, and how best for you to keep fit. Although these currently have mixed reviews and results, it’s likely that as we learn more about our cellular processes, testing may form a bigger part of the exercise and fitness equation.

But if all of this still sounds a bit too much like hard work, it’s also possible that one day we’ll have a pill that replicates the effects of exercise without you having to lift a finger. Dr Donal O’Gorman is Interim Director of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) at DCU, and his research involves looking at the effects that exercise has on the body.

“We’re not quite there at looking at drug development yet, but we’ve become much better at characterising the cellular effects that exercise has, not just that it improves the cardiovascular system or increases energy expenditure, but in terms of what are the genes that get up regulated, what happens to the mitochondria in the muscles as a result of exercise. And that ultimately is received into the procedure of developing drugs,” he says.

Currently, people aren’t exercising the way they should, and a pill could help to negate the effect that this has on our health, he says. “Concept-wise we might develop drugs that enhance or mimic the effect that exercise has. Or we could augment the effect that exercise has, if we could get people to exercise in the first place,” he says.

“We know with a good degree of certainty that the vast majority of people don’t exercise in the way that is necessary to offset disease or maintain health. If we want to get more people to exercise it’s a societal challenge. Telling people they should exercise and how much they should exercise doesn’t really work, and the percentage of people that meet those targets is really in the minority.”

However, it might take a while before it’s developed – so don’t hang up the smart Adidas runners just yet. “It’s probably unlikely that it’ll be within the next ten years, because by the time you identify a drug and it goes through clinical trials, it takes about that long,” he says.

However, we’ll be holding out hope for a future where our exercise is tailored to our DNA, we’re kept entertained throughout by VR, our performance is improved by our clothes and wearables, and the positive effects of the exertion are increased by a tablet to improve our all-round health going into the future.

More Future Focus: Snore-killing earbuds and cuddling robots: the future of getting a good night’s sleep>

Gráinne Loughran
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