Getting fit with tech

Anthony Caruana
15 October, 2014
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Fitness, tech, feature, macworld australiaThere was a time when getting fit meant grabbing a pair of old sneakers, a ragged t-shirt and some shorts. You’d either step out the front door and start jogging, head to the local gym or play a sport at a local club. Today, fitness has become high tech. We’ve moved on significantly from the time when a watch linked to a heart rate monitor was the height of technology for most exercisers. There are now hundreds of apps, services and devices that can support your quest to be fitter and stronger.

The challenge is finding a balance. You want the tech to support and motivate your exercise regime, but not get in the way of it. The last thing you want is to have to stop what you’re doing to press a button or tap an icon.

So, what’s out there? The range of products and services is almost limitless. Almost every activity that you can participate in for the sake of your health or fitness can be automatically tracked, recorded and shared – everything from your golf swing via your running speed to your velocity through water.

Fitness trackers and sports bands

There are literally dozens of different fitness tracking devices on the market now. The majority of these are wristbands that are paired with an app that runs on your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. In our experience, although it’s the hardware that garners the most attention, it’s the apps that can really make or break the fitness band experience. 

Jawbone UP ($149) and UP24 ($179)

Jawbone UP 24The Jawbone UP and its wireless sibling the UP24 were early entrants to the fitness band market. There’s no screen and the only indicators on the bracelet – which comes in three sizes and several colours – are a vibrating alert and a sun and moon to tell you whether the device is in sleep or active mode.

The UP and UP24 are easy to use. Once you’re wearing one, the accelerometer counts your steps. Pressing the button on the end of the bracelet once toggles you into sleep mode, so it can track the quality of your sleep based on your movement. While in active mode, pressing the button twice puts the device into sport mode, so it can track you during a run, walk or other exercise session.

The Jawbone app makes it easy to enter meals as well as connect with friends using their own UP or UP24. You can choose how much data to share and there are some options for tracking food intake and activity over long periods of time.

Fitbit Flex ($129.95)

Fitbit FlexThe Fitbit Flex combines a comfortable bracelet with a tracker. It can track activity and you can use the free app to enter meals, workouts and analyse your sleep.

The Flex bracelet has a set of small LEDs that indicate battery life or how far along your daily step target you are. Tapping the Flex in different ways shows different information and toggles the device between activity and sleep mode.

The wristband is soft, flexible and very light. It’s barely noticeable and there are no sharp sides or edges that can get caught on clothes.

As well as the Flex, Fitbit has a couple of other trackers and a set of scales called Aria. Its other trackers can be carried in your pocket or on a belt if you aren’t a fan of bracelets.

LG Lifeband Touch ($199)

LG Lifeband TouchThe sports band/smartwatch market is obviously where many electronics manufacturers believe their next revenue opportunities will come from. LG is seeking to enter this increasingly crowded market with the Lifeband Touch.

LG has followed the crowd from a design point of view. The bracelet houses an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) touch display that allows you to swipe to access various menu options for notifications from your iPhone (or Android phone if that’s your preference), the pedometer or media player controls. Connectivity to your smartphone is via Bluetooth.

There’s an LED that changes colour to indicate incoming messages, alerts and other information. Battery life is about two days – that’s lower than most similar devices.

Polar Loop ($139)

Heart rate chest strap sold separately ($99)

Polar LoopPolar has been one of the most popular sports accessories makers for a number of years. For many athletes, Polar is synonymous with performance monitoring for runners, cyclists and other sports people. The Loop is a sports band that integrates with one of the company’s eponymous chest strap heart rate monitors.

The Loop eschews the fancy OLED touch- sensitive display many other sports bands use for a text-based LED screen that shows the number of steps you’ve taken, heart rate and other measures. It’s waterproof, so you can wear it while swimming.

The bracelet comes in a single size that you can cut to fit you perfectly. There’s a template in the box and tool so you can adjust the stainless steel clasp and get it right without worrying about making it too small.

Garmin Vivofit ($159)

Heart rate chest strap sold separately ($99). Bundle ($199)

Garmin VivofitGarmin’s Vivofit integrates into its online platform so, if you already use a Garmin sports watch, its activity tracker will send its data to the same cloud service.

Where Garmin’s Vivofit truly separates itself from the competition is battery life. The Vivofit boasts a 12-month battery. Every year or so, simply swap the small button battery and you’re good to go. It’s also waterproof to 50 metres, so you never need to remove the Vivofit.

The Vivofit also communicates with your iPhone over Bluetooth and it supports Garmin’s heart rate chest straps, so you can wear it while exercising and track your performance. Unlike many other trackers, the display is always on, so you can see how you’re going without having to fiddle with buttons.

Sports watches and computers

Once you get past the initial stages of exercising and start to establish fitness as a part of your regular routine rather than a chore, it’s likely you’ll start looking for some accessories. Whether you like running, cycling, golf, sailing or any other activity, it’s a fair bet that someone has developed a watch with that activity specifically in mind. 

Shopping for a sports watch can be a very difficult and confusing activity. There are literally hundreds of models and dozens of brands to choose from. These come from traditional sports accessory companies, watchmakers and sports equipment makers. Each brings specific expertise to the table and uses that as a selling point.

It’s important to know what it is you want to measure. That may sound easy, but there is a huge amount of data you can potentially collect with a watch or, more accurately, a portable wrist computer.

As well as providing instantaneous feedback on your most recent activity, these devices can help look at long-term progress. This can be a great incentive when you feel like you’ve had a bad session. Looking back can highlight how much you’ve progressed. Once you’ve been exercising for a few weeks, it’s likely a bad day will be far better than a good day when you started out.

RUNNING WATCHES

If you’re looking for a running watch, there are a huge variety to choose from at almost every price point you can imagine. The most basic units will track the time you spend running and make it easy to record splits. The level up will probably include a GPS (global positioning system) receiver, so they can accurately track the distance you travel and then send that data to a smartphone. Some even include multiple accelerometers that measure your vertical movement while running – an indication of how smoothly you’re running.

Although some watches have their own integrated heart rate or pulse measurement device, we’ve found that a chest strap is more accurate.

Adidas, Nike, Garmin and Polar all make great running watches for every runner from recreational to elite. All of them also have online services, so you can connect the watch to your Mac or iOS device to sync your data. You can then compare yourself to other runners and track your long-term progress.

CYCLING COMPUTERS

Cycling computers come with a dazzling number of options. Again, the best place to start is with a list of what you need. If all you’re tracking is distance, speed and time, then an entry-level unit will probably do the job. However, we’d suggest going a little more upmarket and considering something more advanced that includes an odometer, a speedometer that records your average and maximum speeds as well as a lap timer.

At the high end, cycling computers include GPS receivers and can also record elevation and cadence, and integrate with heart rate monitors.

In some cases, a decent handlebar mount such as those made by Finn or Arkon will suffice when you use an app such as Strava on your iPhone. And, although MapMyRun sounds like purely a running app, it also supports cyclists.

In this category, Garmin and Polar both make popular devices that can securely sit on the handlebars of your bike. But also look out for Suunto and Bryton as they make devices that could also fit the bill.

The future

There was a time when if you drew a Venn diagram with one circle for exercise and another for technology that they would hardly intersect. But drawing that circle today has a pair of circles that overlap more and more every day.

We like to keep an eye on emerging trends by keeping an eye on what’s coming up on crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It was at Indiegogo that we discovered the LEO. Unlike many fitness devices, the LEO’s sensor is a band worn around the upper leg. According to manufacturers, the LEO will be able to identify different activities based on the way your muscles are working. It will know whether you are running, cycling, walking or jumping.

As well as measuring your pulse, like many other devices, the LEO will also measure your hydration level, lactic acid build-up in your muscles and other signs of fatigue. All the data will be sent directly to an iOS app – in real time if you carry your phone, so you can get instant feedback on whether you’re exceeding your physiological capacity.

The LEO is still at the funding stage at the time of writing, but the manufacturer exceeded its initial funding target quickly, so it looks like the anticipated delivery date of April 2015 is pretty safe.

Walking and standing desks

Varidesk Your office no longer needs to be a place where you spend the day with your bottom nestled in a comfortable chair all day. The World Health Organisation has identified physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet – ahead of obesity. Some health researchers are even declaring prolonged periods of sitting as being as damaging to your health as smoking. Fortunately, there are some options.

Standing desks are becoming increasingly popular. The concept is simple: once you’re standing you’re engaging more muscles. And it’s not just your legs. The core muscles in your abdomen are also working and your posture will improve, assuming your desk is at a height that prevents you from slouching.

If scrapping your desk and replacing it with a standing desk isn’t possible, then something like the Varidesk may work for you. This is a device that sits on your regular workspace. However, it can be adjusted so that you can shift between sitting and standing. There are several versions of varying sizes that can accommodate dual screens and include keyboard shelves and other extras.

If you’re prepared to take the plunge and replace your desk with a standing model, there are plenty to choose from. Or you could make your own by putting a smaller table on your existing desk. Ikea’s inexpensive Lack table is a great option for this.

If you want to try something more active, then perhaps a walking desk may suit. Walking desks combine a slow moving treadmill with a desk so that you are in constant, slow motion while you’re working.

With the walking desk, you’re not moving fast, just three kilometres per hour or so. But if you spend eight hours
at work at your desk you’ll cover 18 kilometres – that’s a good day’s exercise. Of course, you’ll want to ensure you dress appropriately and keep the deodorant close for the benefit of your colleagues.

Scales, blood pressure and other measurement tools

Withings Wireless Body Analyser and Digital Scale

Withings Wireless Body Analyser and Digital Scale

Monitoring your health and fitness isn’t just about tracking steps, distances, weight and food intake. There are so many more metrics you can easily measure and track.

For example, body composition – usually measured as a percentage of body fat within your body – is a valuable measure and arguably more important than weight.

It’s important to remember that there’s little reason to get too concerned about one measurement. For example, many people launch into exercise programs with a weight loss goal. However, if part of your exercise program involves lifting weights, then your body composition will change. You’ll likely lose some fat, as long as your diet is sound, but the amount of muscle you’re carrying will increase. As muscle is heavier than fat, it’s possible that your weight will stay the same or even increase.

It’s important to note that the devices we’ve looked at aren’t replacements for sound medical advice. They’re intended to support your health program.

The Withings Wireless Body Analyser and Digital Scale ($220 through the Apple Store) can measure your weight, heart rate and body composition. Once it collects the data, it can send it all to an app on your iOS device either by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, so you can see your current readings and track long-term trends.

Withings also makes the Pulse Heart Rate and Activity Tracker. Weighing just 8g, it’s designed to be worn on your belt. It can track your activity throughout the day and you can use it to check your heart rate. There’s a wristband, so you can wear it at night to track your sleeping patterns. All the data it collects can be synced to an iOS app and Withings integrates with over 100 partner apps, so you can also track food intake and other important data.

If you’re already using a Fitbit fitness band, you can accessorise with the Aria Scale ($170 from the Apple Store), which integrates with the Fitbit iOS app. The scale measures weight, body fat percentage and BMI, and sends the data to your iOS device via Wi-Fi.

Blood pressure measurement used to be too complex to measure, requiring a special cuff and a stethoscope. However, iHealth has developed the Wireless Blood Pressure Wrist Monitor ($80 from ihealthlabs.com). This cuff is worn around the wrist and controlled via an iOS app that guides you through the process. You can use the app to track long-term trends and share the information with your health professional.

Fitness gamification

One of the big trends in IT has been gamification. This is where the sorts of things game designers use, such as points for achieving certain outcomes, are applied in work-related activities.

Gamification can work really well as an incentive to motivate people to exercise more regularly.

A great example is the way gamification has been applied to running. One of the most popular programs for getting people running when they have had little incentive to do so is the popular Couch to 5k program, often called C25K. Although there are dozens of C25K apps in the App Store, they all work along the same principle.

FROM THE COUCH TO ZOMBIES

C25K starts by getting you to set aside 30 minutes. You then spend a short time jogging and alternating with short periods of walking. Over 30 sessions – three per week for 10 weeks – the amount of run time increases slowly and the walking decreases until you’re running for 30 minutes. The apps use music to keep you distracted during the run phases.

Zombie Run

And, if you’re a sceptic about C25K – we did it last year and it works.

However, there are a number of variations – our favourites are those that riff with the recent fascination some people have with zombies. Rather than running to music, the apps tell you that you’re being chased by zombies. When you hit the end of the run time, you’ll have outpaced the zombies by far enough to have earned your walk break.

JOIN THE FITOCRACY

Fitocracy combines elements of social networking and gamification to exercise. Fitocracy has an iOS app that can be used for interacting through a Facebook-like interface with other Fitocrats, or Fitos. But it also has an extensive exercise library, so you can enter your workouts.

The gamification angle comes in when you complete a workout. Fitocracy assigns points to your workout based on the intensity of your activity and the types of exercise you perform. As you accumulate points, you level up.

It’s worth noting that some exercises can earn more points than others, so you may be surprised or even disappointed after some workouts. For example, a really hard 10km run will generally earn fewer points than a medium intensity weights session. Free-weight movements such as squats and deadlifts will earn more points than machine-based exercises such as the leg press, even if you leg press more weight.

As well as working out solo, members who pay an annual subscription of US$40 to become Fitocracy Heroes can engage in quests and challenges where they compete either against a group or one-on-one with other members.

If you’re new to exercise, there’s no shortage of Fitos who will provide advice and encouragement. And for experienced exercisers, the levelling up can be a great incentive to work a little harder.

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