He Says Monitors Have as Many Bells and Whistles as You Need. And Maybe More.

Howard Schneider
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Electronics has figured into physical activity since at least the 1780s, when Luigi Galvani used static electricity to make a dead frog twitch.

This may seem like too much Frankenstein and not enough frankincense given the time of year. I'll de-myrrh on that point. But Galvani's breakthrough in biology leads to an important point. What happens inside your body when you exercise is governed by a set of measurable reactions, and one good way to help yourself get in shape is to keep track of what's going on: It will motivate you as the progress accumulates and keep you honest when it doesn't. (Was my last workout really three weeks ago?)

The technology to monitor and analyze workouts has become progressively more sophisticated, and priced across a broad range. For well under $100 you can get a brand-name heart rate monitor; an investment of $300 to $400 will buy a training watch with software that lets you analyze and customize workouts, set pace, distance, interval or calorie goals, and track your whereabouts with a GPS function.

With the gift-giving season underway, it seemed a good time to walk through some of the choices. Three of the main manufacturers, Polar, Garmin and Suunto, provided test units that included general fitness models and higher-end trainers. And that's just a taste of the range of products available, down to $10 pedometers.

That's the good news: Competition seems to be forcing all of these companies to innovate, pack more features into their equipment, improve the analytics included in accompanying software and offer products across a spectrum of prices. Even some of the more basic models have evolved into training devices that let you send data to your computer, plan workouts and track your progress.

Now, the not-so-good: There are almost too many choices. The same competition that has raised the bar is also prompting the companies to match one another relentlessly. Garmin's GPS-equipped models, for example, have led other companies to develop their own satellite units, even though they are cumbersome by comparison and do less; likewise, Garmin, rather than sticking with its expertise, offers a $99.99 sport watch (sans GPS) that tries to appeal to the general fitness market dominated so far by companies like Polar.

"GPS, speed and distance is their turf. Our turf is heart rate and intensity on the body," said Jeff Padovan, president of Polar, whose array of heart rate monitors, sport watches and accessories is diverse but a bit dizzying in its breadth.

Bottom line: Forethought and careful shopping are required to weed through the choices. All of the units offer many of the same basic functions: monitoring heart rate with the use of a chest strap, estimating calories used and allowing you to set goals to guide your workout. The decision of what to buy is going to be a matter mostly of how much more you want (or don't want). Check some of the companies' Web sites to learn what's available (stores typically won't carry all the models of any brand) and compare options.

Here are a few basic questions to ask -- about yourself or your intended gift recipient -- to clarify the process:

Are you all heart?

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