Back to the future? Algorithms and equipment vs. simplicity and common sense

Rowe, David (2011) Back to the future? Algorithms and equipment vs. simplicity and common sense. International Journal of Human Movement Science, 5 (2).

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This opinion paper establishes the importance of measuring physical activity in kinesiology and public health research, and describes recent developments leading to more technologically advanced instruments yielding more complex types of physical activity data. While this may seem desirable, because physical activity is a complex construct, the purpose of this paper is to warn against pursuing a “Holy Grail” of complexity in measurement tools and data arrays. Excessive complexity carries several disadvantages, which are described in the paper. Perhaps the best approach is that used by Marty McFly, the main character in the Hollywood blockbuster Back to the Future. In the movie, a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned methods allows Marty to travel through time to return to the future. Using this analogy, a case is made for deciding which method or combination of methods is needed for a given research purpose, and for recognising that sometimes, simpler is better “Don't worry. As long as you hit that wire with the connecting hook at precisely 88 miles per hour the instant the lightning strikes the tower... everything will be fine” - Doc to Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future This paper, written in tandem with a presentation to the 23rd International Sport Science Congress (Rowe, 2011), comments on the current state of physical activity measurement, its recent direction and offers a perhaps unorthodox suggestion for its future direction. In looking ahead to the future, I will incorporate a look back at the past, hence the title of the paper. For movie fans, the title (and the beginning quote) will be familiar but an explanation of the seemingly contradictory title, and its connection to the movie, will become clear later in the paper.