The promise of technology that can get us in shape without having to break sweat isn't new. From pills and shakes to that Cristiano Ronaldo-endorsed Abs Pad, companies have long been trying to pitch us products to help us hit health and fitness goals with minimum effort.
While most of these innovations have focused on the body, one new UK-based company is shifting the focus to our brains. Part of an emerging new neurotech trend, Modius is a headset that aims to enhance your brain signals so you can shed body fat, just by sitting on the sofa.
Essential reading: Best wearables for taking in the gym
It sounds like the Holy Grail right? But does it actually work? Wareable strapped me into Modius for three months to find out.
How does Modius work?
Let's start with the complicated brain science bit. How does a headset you wear for an hour a day, while watching TV or even eating your dinner, actually burn body fat?
The short answer is neuroscience. We're seeing the rise of wearables that enhance your brain signals to helps us train harder, learn faster and even sleep better and Modius is one of these.
Read this: Trying a brain training wearable to unleash my inner athlete
Using pads attached to the bony bits behind your ears, the Modius headset sends small electrical pulses to stimulate your vestibular nerve, which then sends a signal into the area of the brain that controls metabolism, fat storage and appetite – the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is thought to have a 'set-point' that regulates body fat by managing appetite and metabolic rate. According to set-point theory, in order to maintain your body composition within set parameters, the body strenuously resists any move away from this set-point. This makes it hard to use diet and exercise to lose weight. It also hinders attempts to retain your new lean body in the long term because, in effect, the brain fights against the change you've sweated for.
Modius' signals override this, essentially tricking your brain into thinking your body is active, helping you shed body fat while sitting on the sofa.
There's research to back this up, too. A 2002 study found that vestibular stimulation significantly reduced body fat in animals. Meanwhile, an initial study looking at the effects of repeated Modius stimulation over 16 weeks observed significant reduction in body fat in nine out of 15 subjects.
What's using Modius like?
When you first open the Modius box to find the sci-fi looking headset, alcohol wipes and some gel electrode pads, the prospect of messing with your brain signals can be a bit daunting. The whole thing feels a bit like you're about to conduct your own medical experiment but thankfully, you're not about to embark on anything that hasn't been done before – this kind of brain stimulation has been common for decades. The smartphone app also provides brilliantly simple step-by-step guidance to get you through the set-up and ready for your first Modius session.
After the initial introduction, using the headset is very straightforward. Each time you use it you clip two new, clean electrode pads onto the headset's cables, wipe the bony bit behind your ear – the mastoid bone – with the alcohol wipe to ensure a good, clean connection for the pads, and you're away. While it's easy to do, going through this procedure on the sofa will get you strange looks from the people you live with, every time you do it.
It's partly because wearing any kind of tech on your head makes you look odd. We give you all of the VR headsets, Google Glass and Moov HR Sweat as evidence. But it's also because the Modius design definitely needs some work; the headset itself is light but it's also very plastic.
Unfortunately it doesn't sit very securely or entirely comfortably on your head. It's not uncomfortable but it's not a dream to wear either. Add to that the fact that it's not instantly obvious which way up you're supposed to put it on and there's definitely room for improvement.
Let's get started
Once you've got the headset in place, you use the app to control the session. This includes start, stop and pause and you can also set the level of intensity from 0-10; the higher up you go the stronger the pulsing sensation you feel. Each person will respond differently and Modius advises finding a level that feels comfortable to you.
Each session is limited to a maximum of one hour, and Modius recommends you use the device for an hour a day, every day until you reach your weight loss goal, after which you can drop the number of sessions to maintain your weight. There are enforced breaks between sessions to prevent over use. The app locks the controls and gives you an indication of the time remaining until you can do your next session. The headset can be paired with multiple apps so it can be used by more than one person, but this time lock puts some limitations on that.
On more than one occasion the headset failed to connect with the app and when it finally synced, the app claimed I'd already done my session – so there was at least a handful of days I just couldn't use it.
As with any fitness product, you have to make time to use Modius and while being able to wear it while you're on the sofa does sound convenient in theory, there were times when I either forgot, I just couldn't face putting it on or I wasn't actually at home. Though that arguably says more about me and my lifestyle than the product.
Vestibular stimulation can cause a gentle, rocking sensation that's a bit like light dizziness and so you're not advised to use Modius while moving around, driving, operating heavy machinery and other things where being a little off balance might be dangerous. I felt this sensation sometimes, particularly if I put the device on maximum, to the point where I'd avoid getting up to go to the toilet unless I'd paused the session. But this does limit the times when you can use Modius. And if I'm honest I couldn't get used to the idea of doing it in bed before going to sleep, so the sofa was basically the main option.
The app is pretty basic and is prone to the odd glitch. It crashed on us a few times and the device syncing sometimes failed. The home screen shows you how many sessions you've done this week, how long your most recent Modius streak for consecutive sessions is, how many minutes you've clocked this week and your current weight progress.
Weight logging is done manually, something that would be vastly improved if Modius spoke to other third-party smart scales. Incidentally if you accidentally put the wrong weight in there's no edit function in the app, so you're stuck with that in the records.
There's a calendar view that shows your sessions in a given month too and each session has a limited breakdown that shows what power setting you had Modius on during your session.
A full charge for the Modius takes around four hours and I found I'd get four or five sessions off a single charge. There's a battery indicator in the app that tells you how much juice you've got left. It'd be great if the app could also remind you to charge if you're low.
Did Modius work?
For this test, I used Modius for a period of three months and it's important to note that I approached as though I were any other normal human being, rather than someone conducting a test for a product review. That means there were times when I forgot to use Modius or it wasn't convenient, for example evenings where I was out, just as I expect other users might. I didn't force myself to use it daily and wear it no matter what just for this test. I wanted to see how it would fit into a normal daily life with all its quirks, commitments and time constraints.
In the three months from November to January, I managed 35 sessions, with 17 in the first month (10 days in the first 2 weeks), 10 in the second and 8 in the third month. I used a set of Nokia Health Smart Scales to take my weight and body fat percentage before, during and after.
According to Modius you'd expect to see change happening during this time. "From analysing our current customer base the majority of people should start to notice a reduction in appetite and carb cravings from as early as week one. On average our customers have reported starting to notice reductions in body fat and weight loss between weeks 6–12 while regularly using the headset."
At the start I weighed 82.8kg and had 12.9% body fat. When I finished my test I was 79.1kg with a body fat percentage at 11.8%. That's 3.7kg and 1.1% body fat drop, or an 4.5% drop in weight and an 8.5% drop in body fat. That's at the lower end of the range that Modius' four-month clinical study found, where participants demonstrated an average fat reduction of 8% with the highest being 16%.
These stats don't tell the whole story though. By the end of the first month, I'd dropped to 81.0kg and 11.7% body fat but I was still roughly the same come the end of December. In January, where my Modius usage dropped off a bit, my marathon training, complete with a new diet, kicked in, and that's when I saw the biggest change in weight and body composition.
I don't think I can attribute all of my body fat loss to Modius, I'd cut out alcohol in January for a start, switched to a much healthier diet and had upped my training. But with all of these other changes I'd also hoped to see a bigger impact. However, there is a plausible neuroscience explanation for why I might not have seen a more dramatic shift in weight and body fat which Jason Moore, co-founder of Modius, explains.
"Everyone is different but we tend to see those with more starting bodyweight usually lose more, though we have seen results across the board." he explains. "The way the neuroscience behind it would work is that the hypothalamus will have a set amount of body fat that it likes you to store. We call it homeostasis – a kind of balance within the body – and when you're in that state your hypothalamus is quite comfortable keeping you there.
"If you're above that level, that seems to be where we see better results and I'd expect to see a diminished result as you start to go down the body fat scale to the leaner end. Eventually you'll get to a place where you plateau and any changes after that wouldn't be Modius making the difference."
If you're already quite lean, then, Modius might not be your best weapon for shedding those final percentage points of body fat.
Modius: The verdict
The design needs work and the app has room to improve in areas like stability and third-party hook ups, but we're still in the very early days of neurotech products such as this being commercially available and, from that perspective, it's not a bad start.
More importantly, my weight and my body fat went down while I was using Modius. That's a fact. Whether it was Modius alone that made the difference is hard to say, but I don't think that's entirely the point. Health isn't just about weight loss and I don't believe Modius presents itself as a magic quick-fix device, rather as a tool that can help physiologically but also inspire its users to adopt a healthier approach to life in general.
If you read the website FAQs, there's a pleasing honesty and a solid scientific realism that underpins this product. All of which looks promising and I, for one, am excited to see where this product goes next.
How we test