Is biohacking the new way forward in fitness?

Posted by for Strength

The fitness industry has come a long way from taking weight as the main measurement of good health – now all about blood work and sleep trackers to assess how fit we really are

The fitness industry is pushing us to biohack our way to a better body. We’re getting more technical – using gadgets to measure our sleep quality, stress levels and gut health. Armed with an arsenal of readings, we’re then able to work efficiently towards our goals. 

“Biohacking” is the idea of being able to tamper with our DNA. Recently, fitness and wellness aficionados have adopted the term to describe the practice of collecting data about our bodies to change the way they look and feel. We already know that weight and ‘having visible abs’ aren’t a good indication of fitness or health and biohacking takes that idea further; it’s about moving away from arbitrary measurements of health towards a focus on how well the body functions.

Fitness tracker
Fitness tracker: One writer stopped using her GPS while running

Take Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, for example. As a self-confessed “biohacking” fan, his practice largely focuses on tracking his sleep and only eats one meal a day. The founder of Bulletproof Coffee, Dave Asprey, has said that he wants to biohack his way to his 180th birthday by using data science to become “superhuman”. His daily routine involves keeping tech on airplane mode until mid-morning, having bulletproof coffee for breakfast (that’s coffee with butter or coconut oil in it…which supposedly keeps you full while encouraging the body to burn its own fat), lying under ultraviolet light for 10 minutes, standing in a cryotherapy chamber for two minutes and not eating snacks.

For the most part, this kind of biohacking is essentially ‘do it yourself biology’ – using tech to help you make the most informed choices possible about your health, fitness and nutrition.

Sarah Lindsay is a 10-time British speed skating champion, three-time Olympian and founder of Roar Fitness who is all about learning as much as possible about what’s going on inside to help us perform. 

“I use an apple watch with a heart rate monitor to make sure I am training in the correct heart rate zone for my goals and also to help track expended calories so that I can match food consumption,’ she tells Stylist.

“This can also be done on most smartphones if you don’t have a watch. I’m lucky that as an athlete I spent a lot of years being measured and monitored by a full-time sports science team at the British Olympic Association, so that has definitely given me some solid practical experience and a greater depth of understanding of what my body is capable of.

Since retiring Sarah has spent time with endocrinologists trying to keep track of what is happening with her hormones and gut health which has a very strong link to brain function.

Some body transformation gyms even get you to take daily blood sugar and pressure readings to add an extra layer of data on top of fat readings and weightlifting progress.

Laurence Fountain is a PT and founder of Salus London  – a gym that focuses on changing body composition by improving gut health, sleep and mood. He and his trainers use HRV (heart rate variability) and fasted blood glucose readings to “see the current state of stress on the body”.

Heart rate variability is the variation in time intervals between heartbeats. A healthy heart doesn’t tick evenly like a metronome but has constant variation. The more stressed you are, however, the more evenly your heart will beat – as a way of trying to calm the system down. By taking your daily HRV, the idea is to find out how capable your body is of being stressed by exercise. Apps like HRV for Training take a reading through your fingertip to advise you on whether you should go flat out in the gym or whether you need to take a rest day.

Laurence says that this data answers important questions like: “Is it time to push your limits and work hard, or is your body telling you to slow down today?”

“Ignoring this feedback not only results in a decreased return of investment for all your hard work but also poor recovery and the breakdown of key biological mechanisms such as digestion and neurological balance, resulting in anxiety and depression as well as failing to see progress.”

Black and white vintage woman sleeping
That many Zs? A girl can dream.

Like most things in life, timing is key

“Continuously driving at full-speed always ends in disaster, but never knowing how hard you could push yourself with real direction results in disappointment,” says Laurence.

He likens the relationship between biohacking and old school means of tracking (like scales) to using a GPS over an old map that a guy once recorded on ever-changing terrain. We know that weight can’t tell us anything about fitness levels…but heart rate recovery can.

For most of us, biohacking is going to involve very basic tech – like Fitbits and smart scales. Increasing numbers of gyms, however, are stocking body scanners that churn out data that you’d expect a qualified, experienced professional to go through with you to help you use the information practically. It’s all very well freaking yourself out by doing a scan and finding out that you’ve got the metabolic age of a pensioner, but what do you do with that information afterward? 

A woman practicing mindfulness
Confidence at work: Denise often tells her clients to “take a big step back”.

“People should understand that much technology is created by engineers, who then approach sports scientists with a view to seeking ways to apply the technology for financial profit and to improve people’s health and fitness,” Dr Charlie Simpson, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science from Oxford Brookes University, tells Stylist.

“Some technology may be very good at doing what it claims to do, e.g. measure step count and hours of sleep, but then the real problems begin when people (usually non-scientists) make bold claims about the link between changing behaviours (activity or sleep) and health outcomes.

‘The technology that provides us with the ability to measure health and fitness behaviours is clearly very useful for the purpose of describing a person’s daily activity, but simply knowing this information is not enough to be truly useful. People need to know what to do with this information.”

Ste McGrath, Director of Get Results Training, agrees.

“On a whole, devices that you see in the gym that track “metabolic age” are largely untested by independent research and therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt. They can be useful to take note of improvements from one reading to the next and show good accuracy but are rarely of little value in getting a precise reading.”

And the same is true of a lot of wearable tech.

“While wearables still provide a lot of data and awareness, they give little by way of personalisation and actionable steps,” explains Lee Chambers, founder and functional coach at Essentialise Functional Life Coaching.

‘There has been an increase in high tech fitness centres worldwide in the past few years, and they certainly offer a higher level of personalisation based on the data they provide. But currently, they are largely inaccessible to the average person and are being used to incrementally increase the performance of those for whom marginal gains mean the difference between gold or nothing.”

woman fitness exercise workout stretching earphones

It’s obvious that the more information you have and become familiar with, the more you can use it to your advantage. Sarah recommends tracking your stats consistently and being aware of your patterns and progress in order to learn how to use the information you’re gathering effectively. If you don’t understand them initially, it might be worth going to a gym like Salus or Roar to learn more before you go solo.

And if you don’t want to go down the ultra-techy, ultra-expensive rabbit hole, there are plenty of ways to keep tabs on progress yourself.

“The easiest and in my opinion the most effective form of biohacking is focusing on improving sleep,” Ste says.

“Improving sleep quality has a host of benefits including better cognition, physical performance and lowered hunger cravings.”

So, time to get your sleep hygiene in order before you start worrying about how many kilograms you’re smashing in the weights room.

Dr Simpson says simple tech like heart rate monitors are cheap and accurate and when used correctly, can be useful… “but other tech is considerably less useful and in some circumstances, can be harmful or cause unnecessary worry.”

Under what circumstances does technology actually help?

“You have to ask whether the technology is being used as intended,” he says.

He compares our use of fitness tech to the recent government initiative to get more of us to use smart metres in our home to reduce domestic energy consumption.

“After much expense, there has been limited success in such trials to reduce energy consumption – most likely because even when we have good ways to measure and monitor our behaviour (such as home energy use), people either don’t use or care about the numbers to make any sort of adjustment.

“Behaviours are hard to change!”

In other words, it takes more than wearing a fancy watch to change the way you live – which ultimately is the deciding factor in improving fitness levels.

And that ties into the most important thing with any health and fitness journey: how you feel.

Improvements in physical and mental health and fitness levels are usually obvious

  • Are you lifting more weight?
  • Are you more alert?
  • How are your energy levels?
  • Is your sleep improving?
  • Do you recover better?
  • Can you run further/faster?
  • Are you calmer, less stressed, more able to deal with change?
  • Are you happier?
  • Do you feel good?

Unlike the damaging fitness standards of the past which have solely concentrated on how lean or built someone is, biohacking really does seem like it’s a holistic approach to health. If your body fat percentage is low but you’re not sleeping well and your mood is all over the place, biohacking will probably reveal that you’re not as healthy as previous beauty standards have maintained.

We’re obsessed with looking at things in isolation. We hear people talking about working for stronger arms, bigger glutes, faster PBs, heavier one rep maxes – but it’s all part of the same machine.

As Lee tells us, “We can’t obtain optimal fitness if we don’t incrementally improve other areas of our body and mind”.

“By optimising our sleep, we get the exact amount of recovery and time to rebuild that we need, leading to better performance, faster recovery and optimal hormone levels. To gain the maximal benefit from our fitness training, we have to ensure our cortisol is balanced at a level where it is not detrimental to our exercise and recovery, as exercise is a stressor.”

If you suffer from poor gut health, for example, you may not be absorbing your nutrients properly. That then leads to poor recovery which adds stress on the body or can result in being deficient in certain essential minerals and increased inflammation.

Aside from the decreased quality of life, all of these points also stop you from achieving your goals. 

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(Images: Getty; Instagram)

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.