- Wearing Apple Watches and Fitbits for years has made me obsessed with achieving my training goals.
- But Amazon’s Halo felt like a gadget was rating me for the first time, rather than encouraging me.
- It challenged my health more than anything else I’ve tested, and made me feel hopeless too.
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As I stood in my bedroom in a sports bra and bikini bottoms, the voice of my smartphone told me to turn left and stop for a few moments.
Using my phone’s camera, Amazon’s Halo app took a scan to estimate my body fat percentage. All I could think of was how excited I was to delete the photos.
I felt the familiar faint pang of fear that came with stepping on the scales as I waited for the app to finish its calculations. I knew I wouldn’t love the number I was seeing, but neither did I expect the number to be as bad as I expected.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
According to Amazon’s calculations, my body fat percentage is well above what would be considered healthy for a woman my age and size – about 10 percentage points to be precise.
For some people, insight into their health and activity levels can be beneficial in encouraging exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But for me, wearable devices have also distorted my self-image and changed my definition of productivity. And nowhere was that more right than with the Halo.
Fitness tracking devices gave me another reason to fixate on my weight
Crystal Cox / Business Insider
I’ve been reviewing tech for about eight years and have focused more on fitness trackers and smartwatches since the Apple Watch was launched in 2015. That means I’ve been measuring metrics like my steps, calories burned, workouts, and general activity fairly on a regular basis for at least six years.
Gadgets like the Apple Watch, Fitbit’s smartwatches, and even the Amazon Halo were great motivational tools for regular exercise. During the pandemic, they helped me develop exercise routines to compensate for the challenge of staying in shape during the pandemic – a time when I was largely sedentary and called upon more frequently.
At the same time, fitness trackers have increased my fixation on my weight since I was a teenager. Even in high school when I was thinnest, I felt pressured to justify junk food with a workout. “It’s okay if we order pizza, I’ll just work it off when I get home,” was a constant refrain – my friends heard it so often that they started to piss me off.
Fifteen years later, my watch tells me exactly how much time I’ve spent exercising and how many calories I’ve burned. If I feel like I’ve had a “bad weekend” while eating, I turn to my Apple Watch to explain. Eating that extra slice of pizza tonight won’t be that bad if I close all my activity rings tomorrow, right?
However, today’s fitness trackers can do so much more than just record workouts and measure calories burned. Advances in sensors, artificial intelligence algorithms, and energy efficiency have made it possible to plug many health monitoring technologies into slim wristbands and our phones. That means there is much more detailed data on my body to fixate on.
Enter the Amazon Halo.
The Amazon halo made me confront my body in ways I wasn’t ready for
Amazon’s halo band
Lisa Eadicicco / Insider
What sets the Amazon Halo apart is its ability to use your phone’s camera along with machine learning and computer vision to calculate body fat percentage.
Devices like the Halo are not intended for medical diagnosis. But the feedback from Amazon Halos felt like a wearable was judging me for the first time, rather than encouraging me to develop healthier habits.
The whole process of a body scan feels a bit dystopian. First, you need to change into minimal clothing and set up your smartphone’s camera to capture your whole body.
Amazon asks you to rotate so the camera can see your body from different angles, and within seconds its algorithms create a 3D image. The system analyzes areas known as fat hot spots, such as the thighs and torso. Amazon says its technology is trained to understand the relationship between how a person looks in a picture and body composition, including the way muscle and fat are distributed.
According to Amazon’s algorithms, my body fat percentage is sky high. Below the results is a sliding scale that lets you see how your body changes as your fat percentage increases or decreases.
The sight of my body scan certainly motivated me to reach for a salad instead of a sandwich for lunch. But it also felt incredibly daunting. I’m not even anywhere near what is considered healthy area so I could only assume that eating a salad and running a lap wouldn’t make any difference.
Amazon says its technology is almost twice as accurate as leading smart scales, and the American Heart Association endorsed the halo in Amazon’s press release.
But calculating body fat percentage based on images alone is limited because fat cannot be measured in our organs, says Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the Medical Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Health. Also, a person’s appearance can fluctuate based on factors such as water intake, a recent meal, and menstrual cycles.
The New York Times also found that Amazon Halo’s results were often higher than body fat levels from other tools he used. A reporter shared his Halo data with Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, founder of the John Hopkins Weight Management Center, who said the results seemed high for a person his age with his body mass index.
Readings from devices like the Amazon Halo should be used to track personal progress, but not to make medical decisions, Lofton says.
“I would just be careful how you use the information if it affects your life or health,” she said.
My opinion on fitness trackers is starting to change as technology becomes more advanced
Crystal Cox / Business Insider
Fitness trackers have quantified my perception of eating as a reward and exercise as a necessity. Small accomplishments like closing my activity rings make me feel like I’m in control of my weight and appearance even when I don’t see the results. The Apple Watch says I had a great week of training so it has to be true.
But the Apple Watch can’t see what I look like. It doesn’t know that my favorite dress is slowly getting tight or that I can’t find a suitable swimsuit. This is what makes the halo so harrowing; It saw me in my underwear and just told me that I don’t look like I should. It feels more intimidating than motivating. (I was afraid to do another scan for the purposes of this story).
Amazon’s Halo symbolizes the next big step forward in health tracking in consumer tech devices. Smartwatches, fitness bands and other gadgets can do much more than just record activities and analyze trends in this data. Now they are making judgments about our general health and wellbeing.
If this is the future of health tracking, I might choose to stay back.