The world of technology, sport and science ever increases our understanding and desire to harmonize the bio with the mechanical.
The 2010’s were a big decade for implementing biomechanical technology to increase human performance. It is now impossible to be considered an elite athlete without help from technology. But it is not just the “elites” that were using data to gain personal bests. Like all things technology, once it passes its beta (tech-talk for trial) period with professional athletes, the general public gained access to these resources. Biometrics (the technical term for body measurements and calculations) became readily available and are now abundant in our modern existence—and these tools are only going to become more indispensable.
For physical therapists, biomechanics is—and always will be—an integral part of the profession. The word has two roots—bio meaning life, living organisms, and mechanics, the physical science that deals with the state of rest or motion of bodies under the action of force. What are physical therapists if not at minimum doctors and experts of motion and movement? So we in the PT world use our skills and tools to critically analyze motion and movement to help minimize the risk of injuries and improve performance in sport as well as daily function.
Let’s dive into the details.
It’s All about the Wearables
Wearable devices are here in all shapes, forms and sizes, and new ones are continuously popping up on the horizon. Since we’re fans of the body, let’s break these down from head to toe.
Eye wear first leaped into our existence between 1268 -1300 with the first pair of prescription glasses. But skip hundreds of years later, toss in robotics, batteries and Bluetooth and viola—we come to the age of virtual reality (VR). Most people think of virtual reality in terms of video games, but the applications for this technology are running deep within sports and, more importantly, clinical care.
The advancement of VR is becoming so real the brain doesn’t recognize the difference and allows for a full immersion experience. Coaches from all sports are able to train both young and veteran athletes with VR to prepare their minds for challenging situations, ideally prevent injuries.
But nowhere are the benefits of VR greater than in healthcare.
- Surgeons are able to plan complicated operations in a virtual environment with the confidence that, at worst, allows them to fail forward. Instead of “rinse and repeat,” it is “reset and repeat.”
- Psychologists are able to help patients with post-traumatic stress disorders with peaceful environments and gradually increasing clinical interventions.
- Rehab applications are vast. Studies are showing that VR in pain management and balance and fall scenarios may improve overall range of motion.
Now none of these applications is considered a replacement to what we know now. There’s a long way to go in conducting the research to validate these results to make this routine practice. Like all things, there are promises and precautions; therefore, this article serves as a general acknowledgement of advancements in the medical industry. Although these examples are intriguing, medical advice should only and always be given by a licensed professional.
Activity Trackers (aka Fitness Trackers)
Activity trackers measure biometrics like calorie count, distances walked, swum, biked or run, sleep activity, heart rate (HR) and even heart variability rate (HVR). A series of sensors and accelerometers allow as much accuracy as possible to record what was previously done with pedometers and spreadsheets. Although there are variability’s that may render accuracy inconsistent, the user experience is a leap in the right direction.
Early and often within the decade, wristbands, watches, rings and clip-ons broke through the early-adopters scene and became mainstream, thanks to the retail and fashion industry. Companies like Fitbit®, Apple® and Nike+®, Under Armour®, Garmin®, and Oura Ring® are continuing to make biometric devices not only cutting-edge, but accessible and fashionable.
However, there is continuous debate about whether or not your activity tracker is a medical device. Certain studies have suggested that activity trackers decrease positive outcome with fitness goals after 18 months. So like all devices, activity trackers should be considered a tool, and the adage that “a tool is only as good as the hand that wields it” is a very relevant one here.
But the silver-lining is that people are learning more about their bodies than ever before. We are firm believers that knowledge is power, and the hope is that data tracking will empower patients to use that data to reach their desired goals.
Another technological advancement is our ability to dramatically, but gently and precisely, reduce a person’s body weight in order for them to move with little to no pain or damage to joints. This concept is very similar to aquatic therapy, where buoyancy allows patients to achieve more movement in a lower weight-bearing environment.
An example of this technology is our largest wearable—the AlterG® Treadmill that uses patented Differential Air Pressure (DAP) technology to reduce gravitational forces and allows patients to move without interference to natural gait mechanics. The technology was originally developed by NASA engineer Dr. Robert Whalen, and used by astronauts to speed recovery.
At CORA, we’ve invested in the AlterG to provide better outcomes to our patients. At select clinics, we’re able to speed the recovery process by helping patients gain the biomechanics and confidence to improve their gait patterns.
To learn more, visit our AlterG page.
Human achievement reached a new standard in the running world at the very end of this decade. If you follow sports, you may have heard of Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two marathon. If you didn’t and aren’t sure what sub-two marathon means, then simply stated: a human-being ran a marathon in under two hours, an achievement not physically possible until this breakthrough.
There is plenty of controversy about how the feat was achieved, and technically it is not considered an official marathon time since it was just Eliud pacing teammates, and even a well-equipped pacing car. However, the common agreement is that this event was a testing ground to see if sub-two was even possible. His time—1:59:40.
At the midst of this controversy was Eliud’s running shoes, an unreleased-to-the-public (beta!) shoe called the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% that is promoted to increase running efficiency by 4%. In the marathon world, that means a lot. A time of three and a half hours with a 4% efficiency increase would cut off nine minutes just from wearing the shoes!
So the shoe itself became controversial because it begs the question: “Is this technology giving an unfair advantage?” But isn’t that always going to be the case when striving to increase human performance? To push the limits you are living in the margins, on the edge, and as a competitor you’re always looking for the advantage.
What’s indisputable is that footwear technology will continue to increase like any other wearable.
The Best Biomechanical Machine
Wearable technology is here to stay and will help us thrive. Controversial or not, these are tools that allow us to better understand our body and compete at a higher level than ever before. Whether you know it or not, you are also a competitor. At a minimum, you are competing with yourself and hopefully becoming better than you were yesterday. There is no exclusion to that—age, sex, gender or ethnicity don’t keep you from the ambition to perform better than your previous self.
As physical therapists we know that the best biomechanical machine is your body. For the most part, we educate our patients that your own body is powerful enough to heal and improve itself. Yes, there are external tools out there, and yes, we use them to our clinical advantage, but any person wanting to improve his or her quality of life or improve performance should start with the health of his or her body. Like we said before, a tool is only as good as the hand that wields it, and the body is only as good as the activities that move it.
With this notion of the bio (life) mechanics (motion), it is up to you to decide how you will move with your life. It is a choice made every day, and you don’t even have to make the right choice every day as long as you make it most days. There is no better time than now with all the tools available to give you support. And, of course, physical therapists are here to support you too!
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King
Think of your body as the best biomechanical machine there is and decide how you will utilize it to live your best life. The 2020’s are here, and the future is rising to the challenge of human expectation. And we’ll be there every crawl, walk, run and flight along the way. See you there!