The digital road to fitness

Technology: Devices such as heart-rate monitors and pedometers allow people to work out on their own terms and serve as their own coaches.

September 23, 2004|By April Lynch | April Lynch,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Flying down the road, cyclist and triathlon coach Eric Bean leans over his bike frame. He glances at his left wrist, gauging how hard he should pedal and how long he can last.

Other athletes, breathing and sweating hard, might listen to their pounding pulses and screaming muscles instead. Bean relies on a portable heart rate monitor, trusting the two-piece digital system to keep him rolling strongly and safely.

The watchlike display on his wrist tells him how fast his heart is beating, picking up a radio signal coming from a sensor on his chest. Bean checks once. A couple of minutes later, he looks again.

By keeping his heart rate at a certain level, Bean says, he can achieve the athlete's training dream of exerting the right amount of effort to improve performance without overdoing it.

In relying on heart-rate monitors, Bean takes advantage of a technological wave reshaping athletics and physical fitness. Personal fitness devices are letting people serve as their own coaches and work out on their own terms.

"It's a much more fun way to train," said Bean, 28, who coaches Stanford University's triathlon team and runs an athletic training company. "It's more motivating. It's as if before you were blind, and then you can see."

Heart sensors and step gauges keep professional athletes to reformed couch potatoes on track. Motion-sensing video games get kids on their feet. Bathroom scales that measure weight and body composition show how much body fat you carry.

"Making active play more popular is a very positive thing," said Dr. Tom Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. "It's important that these industries realize they can be profitable being part of the solution, not just part of the problem."

Americans' expanding waistlines make it plain that many people ignore the devices. Some users have dumped them.

The success of fitness technologies lies largely in their ability to motivate someone to exercise often and well, fitness experts say.

Heart-rate monitors, which cost about $50 to $350, have been widely adopted by endurance athletes because they deliver a precision workout. Athletes such as Bean combine the monitors with measurements of lactate, an exercise by-product found in the blood, to determine optimal heart rates and workout levels.

Whether such benefits help most people, many health experts say, depends on whether exercise technologies are tied to everyday life.

Pedometers, which gauge how many steps a person takes, are one such measure of routine activity. The devices have been widely promoted to get Americans moving, even if that movement is just lots of walking. Often worn at the waist, the simplest pedometers measure steps and distance, recording steps by sensing body motion. Such streamlined versions cost as little as $10. More elaborate models, which can sell for as much as $40, include calorie-consumption estimators, clocks and pulse-rate readers.

U.S. health authorities recommend adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times a week, and they say walking is an easy way to reach that goal. Many walking programs set step goals, such as 10,000 steps a day, that are most easily counted with a pedometer.

"A pedometer really does serve as a powerful motivator to get people to take more steps," said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "You don't have to do the tracking, but you can check and get a good sense of how you are doing."

Some users find the small devices susceptible to breaking and easy to lose.

Tricia Loog, who tried using one in her fitness efforts, gave up after three or four pedometers slipped off repeatedly. She still walks and goes to the gym regularly, but she has ditched the step counter.

"It would fall off and break. I find them now when I go to the dressing room in the department store. Other people are losing them all over the place," said Loog, who works for the city of San Jose and says she is past age 55. "It might work for some people, but it didn't work for me."

Some technology makers are cutting back on the pieces users must move or touch.

The EyeToy, a relatively new type of video game developed by Sony, gets rid of most button-pushing. Instead, players control the game by moving their bodies.

The technology relies on a small camera attached to Sony's PlayStation console. The camera recognizes body motion and feeds it back into the game. The player waves his hands, kicks his feet or moves to "push" buttons on the screen or interact with the game.

The EyeToy's second game, EyeToy: Groove, gets players dancing, building on a trend started in arcades by games such as Konami's Dance Dance Revolution. EyeToy: Groove, produced by Sony Computer Entertainment America, includes a calorie-consumption estimator. "One of the reasons for developing this is to help get kids off the couch and promote a more active lifestyle," said Sony spokesman Tim Cummins.

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