Health & Fitness

Fitting high tech to exercise

Technology companies try new ways to get in on fitness industry

July 09, 2006|By STACEY HIRSH | STACEY HIRSH,SUN REPORTER

This week, joggers across the country can begin tracking the pace and distance of their runs through a chip in their sneakers that talks to their iPods - the latest high-tech gizmo to help Americans get and stay in shape.

Glenn Baker is already a believer in melding fitness and technology. He used a diet and exercise program on his Treo smart phone to shed 13 pounds for his brother's wedding. And triathlete Phil Leigh follows a workout regime he receives daily from his coach via the Internet.

Thanks to a host of new products and services being rolled out by cell phone companies, Web sites and even sneaker giant Nike, the health conscious are being armed with an array of new technology that allows them to track jogs on their cell phones, download personal trainers on their iPods, even keep a virtual nutrition expert in their pocket. After workouts, they can plug their exercise data into Internet charts that map their progress and chat online with fellow athletes.

The new services - many sold at a monthly fee - seem a natural for a generation of consumers accustomed to being plugged in and on the go, with music, e-mail, instant messaging, even videocasts available anywhere, anytime.

"Where we're getting to now is this idea of converging all this stuff together," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's College of Business. "All of these things in and of themselves weren't necessarily killer applications, but this idea of having your device capture data that can then be incorporated into an online training log that can then be connected to a community-based Web site with your running club - I think it's got legs now."

And as technology companies develop these products and push into the diet and exercise arena, they are tapping into a growing market, said Leigh, who aside from being a triathlete is senior analyst for Inside Digital Media Inc., a technology research firm in Tampa, Fla.

Two-thirds of Americans play sports or take part in fitness and outdoor activities, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Washington. Nearly 38 million Americans went running or jogging last year, about 4 million more than in 2000, according to the association. Of the 2005 participants, more than 11 million run or jog more than 100 times a year.

Leigh, 58, trains with a coach over the Internet. He receives his daily workouts through a Web site, then fills out an Internet form after each workout, marking his heart rate, mileage and daily weight. Leigh's coach tracks his progress, then e-mails or calls him weekly to discuss it. The two meet in person about once a month, Leigh said.

"It's not just Nike and iPod and the phone companies; it seems to me a trend here toward more Internet-based coaching," Leigh said.

Several Web sites, for instance, sell workouts and tutorials with personal trainers that can be downloaded onto an iPod. Sprint launched a Bones in Motion program this year that allows cyclists, runners and walkers to track their workouts with a GPS-enabled Sprint or Nextel phone, then send the data from the phone to a Web site where they can view their progress over time and chat with other users.

Also, Apple and Nike plan to introduce this week the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, in which a chip in runners' Nike shoes "talks" to their iPod nano. The technology tracks time, distance, calories burned and pace, then displays the data on the iPod screen and tells runners how they're doing in real time over the headphones. Runners can upload and track their progress on a Web site, and Apple is adding a new Nike Sport Music section to its online iTunes store with the product launch Thursday.

Two types of Nike running shoes have been retrofitted to hold the chips, and the company said it plans to offer 11 different sets of compatible running shoes.

The chip in the Nike shoe is about the size of two watch batteries and can't be felt during a workout, said Warren Greene, an editor at Runner's World magazine, which has tested it.

Derek Friday of Roland Park, who runs about 40 miles a week, is planning on trading in his Filas for a pair of Nikes so he can use the Nike + iPod Sport Kit as soon as it's available. His wife bought him an iPod nano for his birthday a few weeks ago, anticipating the new product release.

"This is going to be able to give you so much more information," Friday said. "You'll know your pace, you'll know your average mile time. ... I think eventually every shoe company's going to follow suit."

The downside of some of these new gadgets is that the technologically averse might shy away from using a cell phone or a sneaker-chip to help them train. And regardless of who's using the tool, a trainer on your cell phone or iPod is not the same as having one by your side, said Jo Zimmerman, a doctoral candidate in the University of Maryland, College Park's kinesiology department and a longtime personal trainer.

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