Gadgets to Get You Going
Exercise devices can help you improve your fitness
At its simplest, exercise requires nothing more than a pair of sneakers. Everything else—gym memberships, exercise equipment, an open road—is optional. But certain devices can help you get more out of your activities, track your fitness level, and find motivation.
|This device takes heart rate and other data into account to give you real-time coaching based on a customized training plan. Pear Square One, $249.99, pearsports.com|
|A basic heart rate monitor. Timex Ironman Road Trainer heart rate monitor, $65, walmart.com|
Exercise by Heart
If you invest in only one exercise gadget, make it a heart rate monitor. It's what experts use to gauge exertion in pro athletes and participants in exercise studies. Most monitors consist of a band that straps around the body with a sensor pressed against the chest (a pulse monitor worn at the wrist is less accurate) and a watch that reports the data. The most basic monitor will alert you to your heart rate, allowing you to make adjustments in your speed or intensity as needed. But most add another layer to training.
"I like the ones that have an upper and lower limit," says John Porcari, PhD, RCEP, FAACVPR, FACSM, executive director of the La Crosse Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. "If someone knows they want to be training within a certain heart rate range, [the monitor has] a beeper that comes on if [they] are going too slow or too fast." Many of today's models also track speed, distance, and calories burned, among other data, which you can later access by computer. That means less time manually updating your stats and easy-to-print reports you can share with your provider.
All that information can help you train better, but knowing how to use the device is key. It's not as simple as finding your target heart rate on the chart that comes with your monitor, says Iñigo San Millán, PhD, director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Colorado Hospital. Typical heart rate charts list the ideal number of beats per minute based on a person's age, but San Millán says too often people of the same age have very different heart rate targets. "[A heart rate of] 135 beats per minute, for you, could be a very easy exercise, where you're not getting the stimulation," he says. "But that could be very difficult to me."
A better bet? Trust what your body's feeling. With a doctor's OK first, work out hard enough that you can't speak at a normal conversational pace and volume and do it until you're unable to exercise any longer, then check your monitor. The number you see is your maximum heart rate, says San Millán.
Knowing your maximum heart rate can help you train smarter, too. Ideally, athletes will train at between 70 and 80 percent of their maximum heart rate. Push yourself past your max and you'll quickly tire. Go easier on yourself (say, 60 percent of your max rate) and you can exercise for longer, which makes that a great rate for endurance sports. "It's almost like having someone there with you," says Joanne Rinker, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, coordinator for the North Carolina Diabetes Educator Recognition Program and coach with Fit4D.com. "It's something that's going to tell you, 'You're getting to your target—let's push you a little harder or let's back down.' "
|This tracker notes acceleration, speed, distance, and pace. Data wirelessly syncs to an iPhone, iPod Touch, or computer. Adidas miCoach Speed Cell, $69.95, store.apple.com|
|A tracker for steps, distance, stairs, calories burned, and length and quality of sleep; downloads wirelessly to your Mac or PC. Fitbit Ultra, $99.95, fitbit.com|
|This pedometer lets users challenge friends to a real-time race based on steps, play walking-powered games, and set personal goals. Striiv Smart Pedometer, $99.95, amazon.com|
Every Step Counts
Physical activity isn't all marathons and bike races. Every little step makes a difference, which is why pedometers are such invaluable tools. The little gadgets attach to the hip and count steps by perceiving movement. (For greatest accuracy, pick a pedometer that uses an accelerometer. While pedometers measure up-and-down movement, accelerometers measure motion in 3-D.) Plenty of models also track distance, calories burned, sleep, and stairs climbed, and may be combined with a heart rate monitor.
A pedometer is also a great motivational tool. "It's amazing, when you put [a pedometer on them] and once you give them a goal, how much more active [people] become," says Porcari. It acts as a constant reminder that every step counts (literally) and in doing so drives people to walk more.
Pedometers are also useful for goal-setting. If you take 1,000 steps per day, up that to 1,500 steps daily for one week, then build each week until you hit the recommended 10,000 steps per day. If you can't increase your steps that quickly, start small. "Set a goal to always do more steps than the day before," Rinker says.
All in One
As technology has progressed, fitness gadgets have stopped being stand-alone training solutions and have morphed into multifunctional tools. Heart rate monitors and pedometers often also calculate calories burned (though San Millán says that number often isn't accurate), track your distance and speed, map your course via GPS, monitor your sleep, and all but make you breakfast in the morning.
Collecting data on so many aspects of a person's life is the wave of the future, says San Millán. "All this technology has the potential to be included in the medical records of a patient," he says. In the same way doctors measure cholesterol and blood pressure, they'd use these gadgets to keep track of a person's heart rate, sleep patterns, and other information useful for designing a custom treatment plan.
If all of that sounds too futuristic for you, rest assured that none of it is necessary to meet physical activity recommendations of 30 minutes daily. To do that, grab a pair of shoes that fit, a source of glucose if you use insulin or medication that can cause lows, and then get moving.
Safety Note: Check with your health care provider before making big changes in your exercise plan, which could require changes in your meds or eating plan.