Listen Live

What technology can do for our health, and what it can't

Jul 24, 2018


  The Roaring Fork Valley’s top athlete, fitness buffs, and weekend warriors are wired up in all sorts of ways.

Many use heart rate monitors gps and step counters as they exercise, and can create virtual simulations of their latest run, or trail ride. Last week, Aspen Public Radio’s Alycin Bektesh sat in with the leaders of the wired fitness world during the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference, held at the Aspen Institute. She found that, when it comes to health, data alone can’t compete with humans being human.

Olympic cyclist George Hincapie says if he had all the knowledge he has now back in his early training days, his routine would have looked quite different.

“When I was growing up in the sport, the training was just so old school,” Hincapie said. “You go out and ride four, five, six hours a day, you eat pasta, white pasta,  and you do it again the next day and you do it again until you crack. Now the science behind training has evolved so much arguably you are training less, but just more targeted training”


These days that targeted training is available to even the most casual hobbyist through motivational apps, gps, heart rate monitors, and calorie calculators all available on a smartphone. Using biological data, software tells recreationalists how far to run, when to rest, what to eat, and when to go to bed.

“There is so much of the discussion about human two-point-oh and figuring out how to make this machine better, the next level,” said Clifton Leaf, editor and chief of Fortune Magazine. The publication brings leaders in the world of tech to Aspen to talk about advances in every aspect of our lives, including improving life itself.

From software to activewear, technology  is allowing us to learn more about the human “machine” by turning our bodies into data sets as we go further, faster.

“We go find the person living inside the body,” saif Mark Verstegen, Founder of  EXOS.

The company consults with the National Football League, mapping out everything from players’ movements to their micronutrients. And even though technology has allowed us to turn athletes into data points, Vertegen said having information about the athletes doesn’t mean it will be used.

There are sensors in football helmets, giving us clear insights regarding the angles and force of tackles that lead to concussions. And yet, he explained, coaches aren’t using that information to protect players.

“Seventy percent of injuries that occur in an entire NFL season happen in the first two weeks of training camps, where the team controls 100 percent of the variables,” said Vertegen. “Looking at coaching and culture of sports, this ‘I can go further, harder, more miles,’ that’s a human element, but now we are getting our context around it from all the monitoring”

Siobhan McFeeney is an executive with the software platform Pivotal, but it’s through her long distance running and three summits of Mt. Everest that she has seen the intersection of technology and sport.

“I climbed my very first mountain many many years ago, we had leather boots, stuff that wasn’t ideal,” recounted McFeeney.  “When I climbed in 2015, it’s like space stuff, everything’s warmer, I mean everything's perfect.”

But, humans are fallible in their drive for success.  She’s seen people refuse to trust the technology that got them on top of a mountain in the first place.

“Human beings are human beings,” she said. “I’ve seen people at 27,000 feet with their O2 stat in the teens, and they are like “I think i can handle it” and I’m like ‘you have 15 minutes left to live.”

“People keep people active,” said James CEO of Strava an app that allows you to compare your workouts to others. From his perspective, the best use of fitness technology is to tap into the inherent social instincts humans have.

“Our product is a place that allows you to be competitive and motivated, and then put the damn phone down and go out and sweat together with someone. think thats the promise of all this,” he said.