The newly refurbished playground at the end of my street in west-end Toronto opened a few weeks ago. In addition to the usual swings and slides, it has an "adult" exercise section featuring pull-up bars, steps of varying heights, and other simple outdoor workout equipment – an addition perfectly in keeping with last year's prediction by the American College of Sports Medicine that "body-weight training" would be one of the top trends of 2016.
In fact, body-weight training remains the ACSM's No. 2 prediction for next year, behind only wearable technology – a seemingly odd pairing that reflects our conflicting urges to simplify and complicate. (Not that there's anything wrong with that: I've been at the playground a few times a week since it opened, hoisting my body weight while experimenting with a newly borrowed GPS watch and heart-rate monitor.)
Of course, the distinction between trends and fads is slippery, and fitness research is notoriously prone to the latter. But body-weight training and wearable tech both seem like more than passing fancies. In that spirit, here are some thoughts on other ideas and trends that we'll be debating in 2017.
New supplement breakthrough
Finally, a way of boosting endurance, melting off unwanted fat, prolonging life and eliminating unwanted ear hair – and all with no effort, thanks to this all-natural supplement that combines traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science. The details of 2017's hottest supplement remain murky, but there will certainly be one – just like last year, the year before and so on.
An analysis of supplement usage since 2000, published earlier this year, showed how supplement fads come and go. The striking pattern: Even after supplements such as Ginkgo biloba and multivitamins are repeatedly shown to be ineffective in large trials, they don't disappear. Once they acquire a following, they linger zombie-like on pharmacy and health-food store shelves.
The sensible resolution? Sit out this year's supplement-hype cycle.
Reality check for old breakthroughs
The past year has seen several highly anticipated product debuts. Flex Pharma introduced a new remedy for muscle cramps, HotShots, which promises to attack the underlying neuromuscular disruption that hobbles many athletes during long endurance races. Halo Neuroscience's modified headphones claim to enhance athletic performance through "transcranial direct-current stimulation," which involves running a weak electric current through your brain before a workout. Both products garnered plenty of attention (including in this column); both are backed by enough science that their claims are at least plausible. But the chasm between what looks promising in the lab and what actually works in the real world sometimes proves to be unbridgeable. As a larger number of users experiment with these products in 2017, we'll find out if they're ready to go mainstream.
High-fat boost in a bottle?
The pros and cons of high-fat diets have been exhaustively debated over the past decade, including claims that they help endurance athletes go farther and faster. One idea is that "ketones," a form of emergency fuel produced in your liver when you stick to an ultra high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, may provide superior long-lasting fuel for your muscles.
But what if you could get the magic of ketones without having to subsist on coconut oil? The idea has been simmering for several years, and researchers from Oxford University published some promising data in the journal Cell Metabolism in August showing enhanced endurance after drinking "ketone bodies."
Interestingly, the topic has remained mostly under the radar so far. Perhaps that's because low-fat advocates tend to be skeptical of the magic attributed to ketones, while high-fat advocates feel that the greatest benefits come from fully embracing the diet. Either way, the debate should heat up as further research is published.
The rise of periodization
Top athletes don't train the same way every day, or every week or even every month. Instead, they "periodize" their training to focus on different goals at different times. A marathoner, for example, might spend a month building endurance with long runs, a month focusing on race-pace speed workouts, and then several weeks doing lighter training to rest up before a big race.
That concept is now spreading to other areas. Some sports scientists now suggest periodizing the use of recovery aids such as ice baths and compression garments, minimizing their use during training and ramping up their use before and after competitions. And nutrition, too, can be periodized, since the body's need for carbohydrates, protein and overall calories depends on the type of training you're doing that day or week.
Some of this, of course, already happens naturally. But expect to hear more about the benefits of periodizing other training and lifestyle variables. It's no longer just how you train or what you eat – it's when and why.
The way of the future, every fitness pundit will tell you, is individualized fitness guidance. There's no universal "best" workout, but there is a best workout (and a best diet and a best cut of yoga pants) for you.
Where the pundits disagree is on the path to personalization. One major trend is the use of genetic data; tests are already available that promise to tell you whether you'll benefit most from strength or endurance workouts, and how your body responds to salt, caffeine and other dietary variables. The other major trend, as noted by the ACSM, is the use of wearable technology to collect massive amounts of data, tracking how your heart rate, mood, sleep and weight respond to different kinds of workouts and stresses. The patterns in your own data, combined with data drawn from the lived experience of millions of others, will – in theory – tell you exactly what to do next.
Whether either or both of these approaches will live up to their promise remains to be seen. What's certain is that, as we learn more and more about our inner workings, the essence of the resulting advice will remain unchanged: find an activity that you enjoy, that gets your heart racing, that gets you away from your desk or off the couch and do it most days.