Bathroom Scales: There's An App For That

As fitness goes high-tech, even your bathroom scale is going digital. One company went from making old-fashioned spring-loaded scales to scales that aren't just digital but use all sorts of high-tech applications to talk directly to your wireless device.

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A new generation of bathroom scales has more in common with your smartphone than with their spring-loaded forebears.

From Chicago Public Radio, Gabriel Spitzer reports on scales that measure far more than weight and can even update your Twitter feed.

GABRIEL SPITZER: Tanita Corporation began in 1946 making old-fashioned bathroom scales. By the '70s, they started making digital scales. Sales manager Keith Erickson says it took some getting used to.

Mr. KEITH ERICKSON (Sales Manager, Tanita Corporation): Well, I think there was a lot of resistance. Even today, people think of what a scale should be - and that is a dial, you know, your weight is measured using a dial.

SPITZER: Now, Erickson says they don't even call them scales. Instead they're health monitoring devices. They can measure your weight, but also your fat content, bone mass, water weight, even how much fat is under your skin versus around your organs.

Mr. ERICKSON: Some of our machines, in fact, do 19 different measurements. We've got one that can look at each arm and leg and your trunk separately.

SPITZER: This, of course, raises the question of why on earth you'd want to know all of that. Research says body fat can be a more reliable health indicator than weight, if you're a fitness nut. Or on the other side, if you're worried about diabetes or heart failure, you might want to track all the fine grain stuff.

Bathroom scales are a $2 billion industry, according to global industry analysts, with most of the growth coming from these fancy new models.

Mr. ERICKSON: All right. So, the scale is going to prompt us through the questions that it needs answered. First one is age.

SPITZER: Erickson is demonstrating the BC558. He stands barefoot on the scale's metal contacts. It sends a tiny electrical current up one leg and down the other and through two handgrips wired to the scale.

Mr. ERICKSON: It's calculating. And we're done.

SPITZER: By measuring the electrical resistance, this $350 machine can figure out your body fat and even where it is.

Mr. ERICKSON: And here I have the body fat of my left arm, which is 16.1 percent. And my right arm is 17.1.

SPITZER: So then the question is how to keep track of all the data. That's where the latest Tanita scale comes in.

Mr. ERICKSON: This is called a BC1000.

SPITZER: Sounds like something out of "Robocop," just a little bit.

Mr. ERICKSON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ERICKSON: It even looks that way, doesn't it? Because you look at it, and you say, well, it's a scale, I guess, but there's no display. We've provided the ability now for the scale to communicate wirelessly to some other device that's going to display your data.

SPITZER: That device could be a PC or a smartphone.

Another scale, by competitor Withings, can automatically upload your daily weigh-ins to Twitter. Yikes. The companies pitch these devices as ways to take charge of your health. Many are based on models designed for the doctor's office. So, what do health professionals think?

Ms. JENNIFER VENTRELLE (Dietitian, Rush University Medical Center): Am I going to tell you to get a professional-grade clinical scale that, you know, we have sitting in here in our office and that's what you need in your bathroom? Absolutely not.

SPITZER: Jennifer Ventrelle is a dietician in preventive medicine at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. She says the extra info can't hurt, but for her patients who are trying to stave off chronic disease, some lower tech solutions would do just fine.

Ms. VENTRELLE: I would rather patients keep it simple. I would be more interested that they are self-monitoring what they're eating.

SPITZER: Even if the cutting-edge scales seem like a little much, consider another change in scale technology. Keith Erickson says about a decade ago, Tanita scales went up to 300 pounds.

Mr. ERICKSON: We've found over the years we've needed to continue to increase the capacity. Now, we don't introduce a new product unless it's got at least 440.

SPITZER: The culprit, of course, is rising obesity.

For NPR News, I'm Gabriel Spitzer.

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