Could a Bot Coach You to a New PR?

Christina Bonnington

When Grayce Langheine came across an ad on Facebook for the app Noom, she was intrigued. The 34-year-old amateur runner was looking to get healthier and run a faster marathon, but she wasn’t interested in an expensive coach and didn’t trust the short-term weight-loss claims of other fitness apps. Noom offered a solution: personalized training with the help of artificial intelligence.

Developed by health care startup WorkSmart Labs and launched in 2011, Noom works like most fitness apps, recording diet, weight, and exercise. But it also utilizes AI algorithms—self-learning programs—to make personalized recommendations of articles, recipes, and quizzes to keep users motivated. Noom showed Langheine how things like her macronutrient intake and energy level influence performance and recovery. “Now I can begin to see how each item affects me,” she says. This gives her a broader view of what’s most effective for her training. She’s found it particularly helpful for assessing her recovery after tough workouts. The app also offers paid coaching sessions, pairing users with a human to develop techniques for achieving their goals or correcting bad habits.

In the past few years, apps touting AI features have proliferated. Companies use the term artificial intelligence liberally to describe almost any interactive technology, says Shiwali Mohan, an AI researcher at PARC, Xerox’s Silicon Valley R&D firm, yet the products rarely deliver. In April, however, Noom became the first online platform to be fully recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an effective program for reducing the risk of diabetes—a turning point for AI in the health and fitness sphere. The CDC’s decision does more than legitimize automated health care for consumers. Starting next year, it may allow patients to be reimbursed by Medicare, which could encourage doctors to recommend it and developers to create more AI solutions. Entrepreneurs are already taking the cue: there are currently 55 online programs with pending CDC approval to treat prediabetes. As for Noom, the seal of approval will help the company expand globally and raise financing.

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