La Jolla fitness startup booms after Apple stocks its device in stores

Activbody, which makes the smart fitness device Activ5, is now stocked in most Apple stores throughout North America.


A La Jolla fitness company is watching its revenue spike after tech giant Apple decided to stock its device in nearly every retail store in the U.S. and Canada.

The company, called Activbody, makes a small handheld fitness device called the Activ5, which pairs with a smartphone app to help users do workouts anywhere. The device can measure a person’s current strength, which allows it to walk anyone — fitness pro or workout novice — through exercises that challenge them. And the workouts are only 5 minutes long (partly because they’re so physically taxing).

Although the company was formed in 2011, the sales of Activ5 are just now spiking. The startup’s formative years were devoted to research and development, with years spent tweaking the device until it was ready for retail shelves. But now the product has found its way into 300 Apple stores in North America, and the growth has been quick.

In 2018, Activbody brought in $500,000 in revenue. In 2019, they’re tracking about $4 million.

Activbody is selling the device to a wide range of customers, from fitness newbies and physical therapists to professional athletes. The strength and conditioning team for the Pittsburgh Steelers contacted Activbody to test out the device on their athletes. Now, Activbody is working closely with the team to collect data on how professionals use the device, with plans down the road for an athlete-focused suite of programs (and maybe even new tools and equipment).

Activbody CEO Dan Stevenson said being in Apple’s retail stores allows people to see the device in person, which has been helpful in boosting sales.

“Our product is one of those things you have to try to believe,” Stevenson said.

Barely bigger than a deck of cards, the Activ5 is lightweight and feels natural and smooth to the touch. At its rudimentary core, the Activ5 is a miniature weight scale — it has three small sensors inside that can measure how much force is exerted onto the device. On the user’s first time using the Activ5, these sensors measure the person’s maximum strength. That upper limit is automatically plugged into the Activ5 app and used to tailor the user’s workouts. Knowing an individual’s limits allows the exercises to be hard, but not so hard they result in injury.

Activbody focuses on a kind of exercise called isometric movements, better known to athletes and physical therapists than the typical gym junkie. In an isometric exercise, the muscle holds steady tension without moving. A well-known example of this is the plank exercise or sitting against a wall. The muscle is not shortening and lengthening (as it would in a bicep curl, for example), it’s just holding tension.

Using the Activ5, a user can do more than 100 seated or standing isometric workouts.

Fabio Comana, an exercise physiology lecturer at San Diego State University, said isometric exercises have been used by physical therapists for decades. The moves are sometimes used by patients to safely correct certain weaknesses in the body.

“Isometric training is not new by any means,” Comana said.” But (Activbody is) probably the first to embrace the technology, incorporating technology to give people training programs and feedback.”

Like so many fitness devices these days, the Activ5 itself is rather low-tech. The real magic is in the software that pairs with it. The company developed an app loaded with easy-to-follow workouts and interactive games to keep workouts stimulating.

But can a 5-minute daily workout replace your gym routine? Both Comana and Stevenson said no, probably not.

“As long as I’m making the muscle work harder than it’s used to, it will get stronger,” Comana said. “But here’s the catch: where did the muscle get stronger?”

If a person is only doing isometric exercises, they’re not strengthening the muscles throughout a full range of motion.

“If you’re lowering a dumbbell in a bicep curl exercise, for example, you might be weak at the bottom,” Comana said.

Still, Comana said the Activ5 would be a good supplemental device, especially for reawakening those muscles that get weak from sitting all day at the office.

“People become victims of a very sedentary lifestyle,” Comana said. “Some muscles become short and tight; some become weak. Then you head to the gym, and you have muscles that are out of balance.”

Isometric moves can be used to restore alignment in the body, reactivating neural pathways that inform the body how it should move.

The device retails for $140 and comes with a mobile phone stand and towel. The app loaded with workouts is free to customers.

Activbody sold 5,000 devices in 2018 and expects to sell 40,000 in 2019 by year’s end. The company employs 12 people in La Jolla.