From Mental Health to Meditation, Emerging Tech Is Fueling the Future of the Data-Driven Wellness Journey

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Fitness—and more generally “wellness”—is an industry of intriguing and oscillating trends. From water aerobics to spiffy spinning studios to goat yoga, it seems there’s a program for just about any lifestyle, niche, and objective.

But the bulk of the fitness industry, says Martin Tobias, CEO of Upgrade Labs, a Los Angeles-based biohacking and recovery clinic, relies upon a fundamentally low-tech approach to working out.

“The health and fitness arena hasn’t really seen the benefits of [artificial intelligence and emerging technologies] at scale yet,” he says. “You go to most gyms, and the standard workout is the same as cavemen were doing: They’re basically having you picking up rocks and running.”

The issue with this traditional approach, Tobias suggests, is that these types of workouts lack quantifiable data points beyond the basics like weight or body mass index (BMI). To guide people along an informed, personalized wellness journey, it’s necessary to capture more intricate metrics.

Which is why it’s exciting that today, data-laden platforms fueled by artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and mixed reality experiences are finding a place in the gym—as well as in people’s holistic wellness routines.

Mental Health, Emerging Tech, and Accessibility

Similarly to the physical fitness industry, the mental health sphere has long been stunted by a lack of large-scale, quantifiable data.

“Mental health is often considered an invisible illness,” says Connie Di Gennaro, the COO of BioBeats, a company that creates digital products for data-driven insights about mental well-being. “But the truth is that it’s not at all—there are multiple measurements that can be taken. … But without [the right] information, naturally there’s a gap in understanding.”

BioBeats’ core product is an app—BioBase—that complements a wearable device called BioBeam, which collects passive data like sleep quality, daily activity, and heart rate variability. Paired with exercises like mood journaling and tests for basic cognitive function, the platform helps users recognize patterns, glean insights related to interoception (the science behind the mind-body connection), and adhere to personalized solutions such as deep breathing exercises.

“This collection of data allows you over time to understand not only how you feel and what the majority of your feelings are—for example, if you’re generally quite happy or generally quite anxious—but you’re also able to see that breakdown of different feelings,” explains Di Gennaro. “On top of that, you’re able to know where and when and with whom those feelings [occur].”

Tobias agrees that discerning the core cause of ailments is a key part of creating a viable recovery path. “A lot of people are frustrated in their health and fitness goals. They’re popping around from one diet to another or being given medicines or surgery without being given the root cause,” he says. AI-infused wellness, however, allows people to be “proactive, not reactive to health scenarios, in a quantifiable way,” he notes.

Dr. Navya Singh, founder and chief clinical and operations officer of wayForward, a digital mental health and wellness platform based on cognitive behavioral therapy, reiterates Di Gennaro’s and Tobias’ assertion that emerging tech like AI will pave the way for more holistic health solutions.

“We are already using AI as part of our intake, as well as in mental health screening and diagnostic processes,” she says, predicting that technologies like natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) will become integral elements of patients’ and mental health professionals’ decision-making in the next several years. Using AI to precisely calibrate treatment plans and allocate appropriate expertise and resources, she says, will likely lead to industry-wide revolutions.

Chatbots, too, are becoming a resource for patients with mental health concerns. Singh predicts that soon “more patients will [start] interacting with bots and receive care—including behavioral healthcare—as well as customized content and digital, self-paced learning tools from experts assisted by AI.” Ultimately, says Singh, this use case for AI has potential to make mental health services more accessible to the people who need it most.

Meditation and VR

Meditation and mindfulness training is another sector of the WellTech space that’s experienced exponential growth in the past five years. Today, mobile apps and games are expanding beyond simple audio or visual guides, and incorporating technologies like virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR).

On the consumer level, there are already several VR meditation apps and games on the market, including VR games like Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams and FlowVR. These platforms aim to create immersive environments for users to experiment with meditation techniques.

StayWell, a health management and education company that equips enterprises with tools for comprehensive employee wellness programs, recently released a VR meditation app that’s proving popular among corporate clients. Mitch Collier, StayWell’s VP of Product Management, notes that he’s seen an uptick in VR “wellness rooms”—quiet, dedicated centers where employees are encouraged to utilize VR devices in the middle of the workday.

“We’re working on ways that we can help people take a break during the day to step away, center themselves, and help to reduce some of that stress and anxiety that can have serious health [repercussions],” says Collier.

The Human Element

StayWell’s VR app is just one of the company’s many digital offerings. Over the course of four decades, the company has emerged as a pioneer in the corporate and personal wellness space. It has conducted more than 100 peer-reviewed studies about effective well-being solutions, and in recent years has released a suite of digital and mobile tools to supplement its content and educational programming. A typical corporate wellness program—like this one deployed at Dominion—may include both on-site and online resources.

“…there’s always a conversation and personal attention to the member to modify whatever the AI says to do.”

—Martin Tobias, CEO, Upgrade Labs

This theme—collaborative efforts between humans and machines, and a mix of traditional and emerging therapies—is evident across many branches of the WellTech tree. At Upgrade Labs, too, Tobias stresses the crucial role of human trainers. “In our facilities, our core product is our trainer,” he says. “That guide is supported by an AI engine, but there’s always a conversation and personal attention to the member to modify whatever the AI says to do.”

TelaDietitian, a platform that connects registered dietitians with clients seeking customized nutrition plans, also notably pairs human experts with behind-the-scenes technology. “TelaDietitian aims to not just be a telehealth solution that offers a HIPAA-compliant video box, but to offer so much more, utilizing digital tools to optimize the telehealth experience using curated content and algorithms,” says Jackie Elnahar, the company’s CEO.

On the technology side of the equation, she cites the platform’s ability to automatically generate custom recipes, food-drug interactions, and nutrition guides based on patients’ sign-up information. But humans are at the heart of TelaDietitian’s model; the company currently supports a network of more than 300 registered dietitians, and ultimately aims to bridge the gap between nutrition professionals, clients, and physicians.

“Our vision is to be part of a holistic healthcare team approach by providing feedback to physicians on a patient’s progress, as well as accessing electronic health records (EHRs) for the registered dietitians to learn about the patient’s medical record,” Elnahar explains.

StayWell also aims to make high-tech EHRs a key connector between physicians and well-being programming. The company was the first to release a patient education offering on the FHIR platform called Krames on FHIR, an innovative app launched in 2017 that allows physicians to easily prescribe health and wellness programs directly from the point of care.

“It’s possible today to know your biology state and to invest to improve it,” says Tobias. “That’s what we’re bringing into the world: An option for people [to get healthy] in a measurable way.”

Part 2 of 2 in a series. Read Part 1.