Activity Trackers for Wheelchair Users

Woman in a Wheelchair Playing Basketball

Fitness trackers have enjoyed a boom in popularity in the previous decade. 25 million of the devices were sold in 2015, but until 2016 there was no dedicated software targeted at wheelchair users. The industry is slowly turning its attention towards wheelchair athletes that would benefit from this kind of inclusivity, and some independent developers are looking to solve the problem by getting a dedicated product to market. From big tech companies right down to grassroots developers, here are the best activity trackers for wheelchair users and the innovations that might be just around the corner.

Apple Watch for Wheelchair Fitness

You have to commend Apple for their efforts to customise the Apple Watch to measure wheelchair fitness activity. A year after releasing the device, it was clear that Apple had missed out a large portion of their customers the first time around, and did everything they could to fix the problem. After 3,000 hours of research, 300 wheelchair-using participants, and consultations with two US disability foundations, Apple released the Watch OS3 operating system with a focus on its wheelchair fitness tracker.

New hardware is not required and the activity app with wheelchair fitness is a free update. A user can input different seat heights and wheel sizes to dial-in the data they receive from the app. It measures calories burned according to terrain, so you get a different reading if you are on asphalt or running track, compared to a velodrome or basketball court. The inbuilt gyroscope measures uphill and downhill efforts and the GPS function can map the route. If you have a Series 1 watch you will need to bring your iPhone along to receive a GPS signal, Series 2 watches have a built in GPS tracker.

The Apple Watch app has some other nice touches. Instead of alerting the wearer with a ‘Time to stand!’ notification, the app for wheelchair fitness notifies the user with a more sensible ‘Time to roll!’ message. The problem is, with such a high price tag, many people will not be able to invest in an Apple Watch just for its wheelchair fitness app.

Fitbit Flex

The Fitbit Flex has been considered a viable alternative wheelchair fitness tracker. It counts any movement as ‘steps’, including the arm movements required to propel a wheelchair forward. It tracks distance, calories burned, active minutes and sleep patterns, and all can be monitored via the Fitbit app.

Vector fitness app and tracker

 

The issue remains, however, that no fix has been made to make the software tailored to wheelchair fitness. Wheelchair users using the Fitbit Flex have reported they are happy with its performance in tracking their activity, but it wouldn’t hurt to provide options where the little details are concerned. For example, measuring the basic daily activity in ‘steps’ could easily be offered with a more appropriate option for wheelchair users. As yet, this software update has yet to surface. If you can happily work with the limitations of the Fitbit Flex, it is a quality mid-range product that is effective and affordable.

Freewheel

Freewheel is a bespoke app and hardware design for wheelchair users. Chaotic Moon Studios decided to go ahead with prototypes when the problem was highlighted by their content strategist, Tyler Hively, a wheelchair user himself. Hively has spearheaded the project since and has taken it to be developed further by award-winning tech company Accenture.

The Freewheel hardware takes advantage of the space onboard a wheelchair and has an accelerometer, barometer, and gyroscopic sensors to detect acceleration, distance, incline and decline, and speed. It is not ‘wearable’ but instead retrofits to the wheelchair and is approximately the size of a tablet device. The data gathered can be sent to the user’s phone or smartwatch via Bluetooth.

The future is looking bright for wheelchair fitness trackers, as tech companies do an about turn and realise that wheelchair sports are gaining in popularity every year. The good news gets even better when listening to the developers at Accenture, who say they will set a precedent by making their product affordable. And when there is a dedicated ‘wearable’ technology for wheelchair users that anyone can buy, other manufacturers of wheelchair fitness trackers will have to competitively price their own products.

 


 

Ideas in Action are a family-run company that supply a range of powered wheelchairs, mobility scooters, stairlifts and more to customers in Birmingham and the surrounding West Midlands areas. We’re passionate about helping the more vulnerable members of our community. We always provide friendly customer support and advice, plus warranty and insurance on all our products.

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