Kevin Benoit’s Apple Watch is at work monitoring his health and fitness. Submitted photo

Nik Barry has a complicated history, one riddled with addiction, arrests, shady characters and questionable behavior of all varieties. 

Who knew that a simple fitness watch could help repair all that? 

Kevin Benoit is legally blind, hearing impaired and prone to seizures. He wears his Apple Watch at all times. It keeps him fit but will also call for help if Benoit runs into trouble because of his health issues. 

Jeffrey Frankel? He’s got a Type II heart block that causes dangerous dips in his heartbeat. Frankel has a pacemaker and now he has an Apple Watch, as well, to help him stay in shape, but also to monitor his heart and keep tabs on his pacemaker. 

All those life-changing benefits in a simple watch-style gadget? 

You betcha. Wearable tech has taken off in recent years, to the point where surveys suggest that as many as one in five people now use them. It’s not surprising, really, when one considers the range of personalities the devices appeal to. 

The young and buff like the technology because it enhances their workouts. The elderly are becoming fans, too, because that little doohickey strapped to their wrists can monitor their health and send out cries for help in case of a sudden fall. 

And in between are those of all ages who use the technology to count calories,  monitor sleep or keep track of steps walked during the daily routine of busy lives. 

What can a fitness tracker do? It might be easier to ask what it CAN’T do. 

“It tracks my sleep, activity level, heart rate, encourages me to do deep breathing and prompts me through breathing exercises, alerts me to stand up at least once an hour, lets me know when someone is calling me — so I can dismiss the call on my watch — and allows me to volume on my earbuds, etc.,” says fitness coach Wendy Watkins. “I have an app that works with my Apple Watch that tracks my ‘readiness’ to work out each day, based on my sleep and heart rate variability. It’s pretty cool.” 

CLEAN UP YOUR ACT, BOOZY 

Nik Barry of Lewiston rocks his Fitbit and smartphone. He says the fitness tracker’s personal coach-like features helped him turn his life around. Submitted photo

Pretty cool, all right. But to Nik Barry, of Lewiston, wearable technology proved to be of even greater benefit. For Barry, a Fitbit watch he picked up on eBay managed to completely turn his life around. 

“I was on the wrong track. I did drugs. I was an alcoholic,” says Barry, a man so steeped in liquor that he’s still known as “Boozy” in some circles. “I knew that the substance abuse was not going to get me anywhere in life. I was crippled by anxiety and depression, on the verge of suicide. So much so that I went to St. Mary’s and got help. Been sober now since November 2011. After that, I floated aimlessly through life and consumed vast amounts of delicious sugary carbohydrates, as that was a wonderful replacement for the alcohol — until it wasn’t. It happens gradually you see; one day you just look in the mirror and realize you are humongous.” 

So, Barry was sober but now completely out of shape due to indulgences of a different kind.  

“I decided it was a problem that deserved immediate attention,” Barry says, “as I had chronic knee pain and also pre-diabetic. I knew I had to shed the lard I was lugging around. I had a friend who was a former bodybuilder and had a Fitbit. So I asked about his strange new technological gizmo — I am terrified of all these techno gizmos, but he showed me it doesn’t bite. I bought my own off eBay for a good price and then did some research.” 

As it turns out, the Fitbit did something grand for Barry right out of the box: it motivated him. It compelled him to come up with an exercise and nutrition program to whittle away at the fat. 

“It involves heavy weight training, cardio and intermittent fasting. It was hard work, but within a year I had gone from 255 pounds to 180,” Barry says. 

How does a glorified watch help with such a monumental achievement? 

It’s not complicated. The Fitbit, typically worn around the wrist, uses built-in sensors to track the distance of your hike, run or walk and measures the intensity of your workout. It monitors your heart rate and the number of calories being burned. Like a faithful exercise partner, the Fitbit will alert the user with pleasing vibrations when goals are met.  

It can play music, manage your messages and monitor your sleep. Basically, wearable technology of this variety becomes a kind of life coach. 

“I found that not only was it great for my physical health, but also did wonders for my mental health as well,” says Barry. “I struggled terribly with anxiety, depression, PTSD and ADD my entire life. This worked better than any pill they ever gave me. No doubt. I used my Fitbit through the entire process, cataloging calories and exercise to my personal program as well as tracking my sleep. I’m able to view my sleep and stages of sleep — light, deep, REM or restless/awake. It reminds me to get moving when I’m being lazy and even alerts me of my bedtime or if I’ve gone over my carb limits for the day.  

“I’m the type of guy that really needs to be held accountable,” he says, “or I tend to go off the rails a bit. Wish I would have learned that in my youth. However, that accountability is another reason I love the Fitbit. Logging some McDonald’s French fries in the app and then seeing two miles of dedicated treadmill work go out the window tends to hold me accountable.” 

A LITTLE HELP OVER HERE

Kevin Benoit, legally blind and hearing impaired, also likes his Apple Watch because it will alert his contacts automatically if he falls down. Submitted photo

Kevin Benoit of Bridgton uses the Apple Watch, which links to his iPad, iMac and iPhone. He purchased the cellular version (as opposed to wifi only) so that he’s connected to the internet no matter where he goes. 

Benoit has plenty of reasons for wanting to stay connected. Though legally blind and hearing impaired, since he got a divorce, he doesn’t have someone around all the time to help him out. 

“So living on my own is scary,” he says. “I also walk everywhere since I cannot drive.” 

Benoit’s Apple Watch is set up to dial 911 if it detects a hard fall. It will also share his location and send text messages to those people Benoit placed on his emergency contact list. These are all things that the Fitbit, at the time of this writing, does not do, much to the chagrin of the many users who have requested that function. 

But wait, there’s more! 

The Apple Watch also monitors Benoit’s pulse, so if something is not right with his heart, it will alert him. 

“These are major safety factors for me,” Benoit says. “It can be used as a phone, text, all notifications from app can be on it, too. It can vibrate and/or ring. The vibrating part is huge for me (because I) cannot always hear it. Also an alarm clock when I travel with vibration mode.” 

He also uses it to track the number of steps he walks, the calories he burns, the stairs he climbs and so on. 

CLOSE YOUR RINGS, MAGGOTS!

Jeffrey Frankel has a similar story. In January, he was diagnosed with a Type II heart block, a condition in which some electrical signals do not reach the ventricles, causing a slower heartbeat.  

Following that diagnosis, Frankel got two items that proved to powerfully impact his life and the quality of it. One was a pacemaker. The other, an Apple Watch 5, which Frankel’s family presented to him as a gift. 

“The pacemaker gave me my life back,” Frankel says. “The primary reason I wanted the watch was to monitor my heart rate while exercising. The watch not only does that, but also keeps tabs on my pacemaker in general. I can see how hard it and I are working under load, and get confirmation that it is keeping my heart rate at its set minimum at rest.” 

The Apple Watch, available only to those who use Apple devices, is a versatile little gadget. It does all the things that most trackers do, keeping track of calories and steps and heart rate. 

But the Apple does things that most users might not even know they need. It logs menstrual cycles, alerts you when your music is too loud, motivates you to work harder so you can “close your rings,” a concept with which every Apple Watch user is vividly aware. 

To close ones rings, one must meet a variety of goals set by the user with recommendations from the watch itself. There are goals for cardio exercise, for getting up instead of sitting around, for moving. 

In that way, the Apple Watch is somewhat like a drill instructor, pushing you to do better even when you feel like you’re doing your best already. 

“What really surprised me,” says Frankel, “is how addicted I’ve become to closing my rings. I’ve steadily raised the calorie goal for my ‘move ring,’ and pretty much know how active I need to be in order to close it each day — well, most days. And I’m sure I’m far from the only Apple Watch wearer who literally runs around the house some evenings in order to close the 30-minute ‘exercise ring.’ But the biggest surprise as been the motivation of the ‘stand ring’ to simply get myself off my butt at least once each hour. In fact, it’s that time right now.” 

Some demands of those rings can be customized. Some cannot. 

“The Apple Watch software lets the user designate one’s own daily calorie goal,” Frankel says. “Apple has come in for a lot of well-founded criticism for not allowing users to change the 30-minute exercise goal and 12-hour stand goal; those values are fixed.” 

‘I QUICKLY BECAME OBSESSED’

The Apple Watch uses its relationship with the user’s tablet, phone or computer to keep track of every component of an exercise and fitness regiment.  

Jeffrey Frankel admits to becoming “addicted” to closing the rings on his Apple Watch 5. But its ability to monitor his heart condition and his pacemaker is why he initially bought the watch. Submitted photo

“You can designate workout types and the watch will record data such as distance, speed, heart rate and all kinds of metrics that are specific to that activity,” Frankel says. “The watch sends a lot of detailed information to the iPhone it’s paired with. The iPhone stores the data and allows you to monitor exercise volume and intensity if you choose to do so. One feature I especially like is heart recovery rate, which tells you by how much your heart beat declines over one-minute and two-minute intervals immediately following the end of a workout. This is supposedly one indicator of cardiac fitness.” 

To illustrate the function of the rings, Frankel sent along an image of his progress in closing them for that particular day. 

“The outermost red ring shows that I have lapped my calorie goal of 480 calories, having expended 696 so for today,” he explains. “It will likely hit between 800 and 900 by day’s end. The green middle ring shows that I have exercised for 62 minutes, easily besting the fixed 30-minute goal. The innermost blue ring shows that I am well on my way toward reaching the 12-hour stand goal (i.e., at least one consecutive minute per each clock hour in a 24-hour day.) What did I do to reach the first two milestones? A 37-minute treadmill run followed by a weight training session, plus normal walking around.” 

Crystal Duguay, of Rumford, has likewise found herself gritting her teeth and doing whatever it takes to get her rings closed. This from a woman who didn’t even know she needed this kind of gizmo to motivate her.

“I got my Apple Watch in February,” she says, “and literally only intended to use it to see incoming text, phone calls and emails without having to carry my phone around. I noticed it was starting to give me messages about my daily activity and I quickly became obsessed with hitting the goals it set and increasing them, too.”

The ability of these gizmos to monitor health and send out alerts in case of hard falls make them good choices for elderly folks, particularly those who are on their own. 

The people who run area elderly housing facilities are at least aware of the technology, even if they haven’t yet brought it into the daily management of their residents. 

“While my team has discussed some of this technology and potential utilization in the past,” says John Rice, director of operations as Schooner Estates in Auburn. “It is not something that has caught on here at Schooner yet. The current trend is tenants getting tablets and smartphones and I am unaware of anyone utilizing a health app.” 

At St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Executive Director of Philanthropy Stephen M. Costello says they too are looking into the possibility of incorporating wearable tech into the lives of patients who might benefit. They’re already using virtual reality at their Infusion Center, offering it as an aid for those patients who have to be seated for up to eight hours for life-saving treatment in an intravenous care chair. 

IS THAT YOU, SARAH CONNOR?

The Apple Watch and Fitbit are far and away the most popular devices in the wearable technology category among our readers. But they are not the only gadgets out there. As the tech becomes more ubiquitous, more companies are getting into the business. And some of the items gaining in popularity are pretty funky. 

Nik Barry was badly out of shape before he got himself a Fitbit and started working out. Submitted photo

Take the Muse, described as a brain-sensing headband. This is a device that scans your brain during activities like meditation, using neurofeedback to let the user know when he or she has achieved a calm mind. 

There’s the Echo Loop, which aims to make the technology even more miniature by taking the functions of a smartwatch and putting them in a ring. 

All the market watchers say that smart clothing is on its way, not to mention implantable or ingestible technology, which will offer the same technology but from within the body rather than without. The company Proteus, for example produces sensor-containing pills that monitor blood pressure and other health metrics after the patient swallows a pill. 

As far as we know, our readers haven’t experimented just yet with that kind of advanced tech. But they ARE trying a variety of gadgets that fit the definition of wearable technology. 

“Samsung Galaxy watch,” says David Marquis, of Lewiston, “tracks my steps, sleep, heart. My sleep patterns are the envy of all insomniacs.” 

Others settle for phone apps that can perform many of the same functions. It’s not quite wearable, but one could argue that people are so attached to the smartphones these days, it pretty much amounts to the same thing. 

Is it all just a passing fad? Not likely. According to the online trend-tracking group Statista, “the wearable market is promising, as the number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to grow to over 1.1 billion in 2022, while the telecom technology changes from 4G to 5G.” 

With even more advanced stuff, like the ingestible technology that really isn’t far off, some folks wonder if we’re becoming too dependent on these types of gadgets; if the line between humanity and the world of machines is becoming blurred.

If so, our readers don’t seem overly concerned about it. 

“Some may see it as slowly turning into an android,” says Steve Darling, of Leeds, who uses a Fitbit exclusively to track his sleep habits, “but the technology is too great to ignore.”


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