Fitness technology is advancing at a breakneck speed. A few years ago, you had to pay top dollar for a watch that can measure steps relatively accurately or shoes that are somewhat suitable for workouts. In 2022, you can wear an actual exoskeleton designed for workouts, a fact that still blows my mind, even after giving this tech a try.
When you first hear the word "exoskeleton", you might imagine something akin to Ripley's modified forklift truck (opens in new tab) that helped her defeat the main antagonist in Aliens. However, the reality is less sci-fi, probably for the best. The real-life exoskeleton I had the pleasure to test is made by a company called Enhanced Robotics, which was kind enough to send me an early prototype of the Sportsmate 5, the "world's first exoskeleton made for consumers".
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Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5: Pro-skeletal user experience
I want to emphasise the early prototype part in the previous sentence; the Sportsmate 5 I tried is said to be less comfortable and noisy than the final model that will go to production. That said, I didn't find Sportsmate 5 massively uncomfortable to wear, nor was it loud enough to bother me. To understand how it works, watch the video below:
Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5: Getting hands-on with the future
I must confess I struggled a bit with turning the exoskeleton on at first, but after watching the video above, all puzzle pieces fell into place. As you can see, the Sportsmate 5 consists of a belt (where to battery and motor is located) and two straps on the thighs, connected by two flexible arms.
The belt reminded me of Batman's Utility Belt, although sadly, you won't find any Batarangs or Shark Spray in hidden compartments of the Sportsmate 5. There are four buttons at the front: one I/O button, one to switch modes, an resistance rocker and a function activator.
The way to operate the Sportsmate vis easy: you turn it on by pressing the I/O button for three seconds (the LED lights come on), then select the desired more (outdoor or fitness), adjust the resistance/support level (1-4) and activate the function.
Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5: Walk like you never walked before
The Sportsmate 5 is said to help you walk and run in outdoor mode and provide extra resistance for workouts in fitness mode. Being the fitness buff I am, I was mainly interested in the latter but actually enjoyed the sensation of the former.
In outdoor mode, the Sportsmate 5 uses an algorithm that determines when you're lifting your leg and pulls it up for you. It feels like someone else is picking up your legs as you move; it's a funny sensation. The arms move the legs up instead of forward, if that makes sense, so it's also ideal for climbing stairs.
I found it less helpful in running as it's a fast movement, and the algorithm can't quite keep up with it. As well as that, the force Sportsmate 5 isn't powerful enough to pick your legs up forcefully enough to help you run. It provides an excellent assist for walking, though.
Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5: Squat-assist
As for fitness, it's a mixed bag. The resistance feels adequate enough to make you work harder but similarly to the outdoor mode, it can only be used for specific exercises, particularly squats.
Judging by the promotional images, you might think the Sportsmate 5 is suitable for exercises such as mountain climbers, but you run into the same issue as with running: the algorithm can't keep up with the pace.
Plus - and this is something that would be slight trouble in the long run - the more challenging the resistance setting, the more the belt digs into your hips. Considering that the force is expressed through the connector arms, the more they press against your thighs, the same amount of pressure is put on the belt itself.
In my experience, as long as the belt is high enough on the waist, this shouldn't be an issue. The arms are a fixed length, which means that some people might find them too short or long. For me (I'm 6"1), the Sportsmate 5 worked just fine, and it provided a slight resistance for squats, one of my favourite lower body workouts. Not enough to replace my barbells and weight plates, though.
Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5: Some refinenent required
Should you buy the Enhanced Robotics Sportsmate 5?
It's a fun device, albeit not an overly useful one. From a usability point of view, it operates well and can help you move more easily in outdoor mode while providing some resistance in fitness mode.
On the other hand, I'm unsure how many people will don the Sportsmate 5 for their daily walks. It's not an eyesore, but having such a device wrapped around your torso will surely attract some attention on the streets.
The Sportsmate 5 is more of an aid for the elderly than a full-blown fitness exoskeleton in its current state.
If you're looking for something a bit more hardcore, traditional home weights are still the way to go. However, wearing the Sportsmate 5 will make you more interesting among your friends.
For more information on the Sportsmate 5, visit Enhanced Robotics (opens in new tab) .
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