Confession: I’m a low-tech guy. To my way of thinking, the gym is no place for labor-saving devices. Much of what passes for fitness technology — things like vibrating abdominal belts and body-fat-measuring scales — are cumbersome, unnecessary or out-and-out scams.
Other so-called advances, like the elaborate entertainment centers attached to certain newfangled treadmills, seem expressly designed to pull your focus away from your workout, significantly reducing its intensity and effectiveness.
But just because some technology threatens to derail your workout doesn’t mean that all things that light up and beep are incompatible with a great routine.
Today’s high-tech devices and services include some that rival the expertise and motivation of a highly knowledgeable training partner. They can tell you when to push yourself, when to back off and even when to modify your diet.
“The best fitness technology can provide hard numbers about exactly where you are and where you need to go in your fitness program,” says Adam Zucco, director of coaching for www.trainingbible.com and USA Triathlon’s 2009 developmental coach of the year.
Other cutting-edge technology can make formerly inaccessible services like personalized metabolic testing and blood screening far more affordable and convenient to the average gym-goer, supplying the kind of objective data that can help you set benchmarks, strategically tweak routines and inspire progress.
With so much information and insight now available through fitness technology, even us low-tech guys have to sit up and take notice. So here’s my roundup of the gadgets and services that deserve real attention now.
If you’re interested in improving your cardiovascular health, endurance or body composition, a heart-rate monitor should be your first fitness-tech purchase. “It’s like a personal trainer on your wrist,” says Alex Jordan, program manager of fitness technology for Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn. Even the most basic models give you instantaneous, continuous feedback about how your cardiovascular system is responding to your exercise session.
“One common mistake among people who coach themselves is that they don’t work at the proper intensities — and that’s the one thing you absolutely need to get right to make progress,” says Zucco. Beginners, in particular, he notes, tend to push too hard when they should be taking it easy. “They don’t really know how hard they’re working. If you’re supposed to go for a light recovery jog on a particular day, and you wind up going all-out instead, you didn’t accomplish your goal for that workout.”
This may sound like metabolic hairsplitting, but the line between working just hard enough and pushing yourself too hard can be a surprisingly fine one. If you’re working harder than you ought to on a regular basis, it’s easy to burn out. Plus, if you’re trying to ramp up your fat-burning capacity, “A two- or three-beat change in heart rate can lower the amount of fat you’re burning by 15 to 20 percent,” says Zucco. “A heart-rate monitor keeps you honest, and keeps you on track.” (For more specifics on heart-rate training, see “All Heart.”)
In the last few years, heart-rate monitors have jumped a few levels in sophistication. In addition to heart-rate tracking and caloric expenditure, some all-purpose sports watches now estimate your speed as well, using either a built-in GPS device or a “foot pod,” which tracks your pace, distance and more. Others measure cycling power output, pedaling cadence, altitude and even barometric pressure.
Many such devices can be synced easily with online workout-tracking sites (such as www.garminconnect.com, www.nikeplus.com and www.polarpersonaltrainer.com). Among other things, these sites can provide a map of the area covered during each running or cycling workout, display exactly how hard you were pushing yourself at each point in your workout, and how your efforts compare with the effort you made last week, last month or last year. They also let you track the precise details of each workout and help you design programs that will help you lose weight, complete your first 10K or break 2:20 in an Olympic-distance triathlon.
You can even go head-to-head against other people by pitting your uploaded timed-workout results against those of other users anywhere in the world. “These sites can provide the camaraderie of a running club or expertise of a coach,” says Jordan. “They give you broad, community-based support.”
Exercisers who prefer to do their running or cycling indoors may stand to benefit even more from the latest technology in multifunction heart-rate monitors. Many of the new watches are enabled with something called “ANT+” technology, which automatically syncs up with any similarly enabled treadmill or bike at the gym.
Start your heart-rate monitor stopwatch, do your workout, and your watch keeps track of your speed, incline, distance, calories and heart rate throughout the session. When you’re done, you can wirelessly upload the information right into your personalized file online on the gym’s computer, where you or your trainer can look over the results anytime. “It’s a terrific accountability tool,” says Jordan.
Until you have a current, accurate assessment of your individual cardiovascular capacity, trying to sort out your appropriate exercise zones is a guessing game. That’s why metabolic testing makes so much sense for so many.
“If you’re serious about your heart health and athletic performance — especially in endurance activities — the kind of empirical information you get from a metabolic test can be extremely useful,” says Jordan.
He notes that this testing can also be invaluable if you’re trying to trim down: “A metabolic test shows you in no uncertain terms how efficiently your body burns fat during sustained exercise.”
It used to be that metabolic testing was done almost exclusively in special sports clinics. Today, you can get high-quality testing done in many fitness centers. Accurately testing your metabolism does still require some effort on your part, however.
First, you must fast for eight to 10 hours before the test. At the testing site (find one at www.newleaffitness.com), you strap on a breathing mask and sit quietly for 15 or 20 minutes while a machine measures your Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER), or the difference between the volume of carbon dioxide you exhale and the oxygen you inhale. This ratio is then used to calculate the amount and type of fuel — fat or carbohydrate — you burn at rest (also known as your Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR).
Next, you hop on a treadmill (or exercise bike) for about 10 minutes, running or pedaling with gradually increasing effort, until you reach and pass your anaerobic threshold, or AT (the effort level at which the body starts to burn much more sugar [or carbs] than fat).
The ability to burn fat — rather than sugar — at a high level of effort is the mark of a well-trained athlete. Even very lean people have plenty of body fat, whereas sugar (in the form of a muscle fuel called glycogen) is relatively scarce. Less conditioned people tend to burn a lot of glycogen during aerobic exercise, whereas more fit individuals burn mostly fat until they are closer to a maximal effort. It is this ability to burn fat, even during vigorous exertion, that allows the experienced athlete to run, cycle or swim for an extended period of time.
The anaerobic threshold, then, provides a pretty clear benchmark of cardiovascular fitness, and an effective endurance program raises it, training the exerciser to burn fat even as her heart rate climbs.
“There are two ways to raise your anaerobic threshold,” says Jordan. “You can ‘push’ it up by performing lots of longer steady-state, lower-intensity workouts below that threshold, or you can ‘pull’ it up by working out at or above the AT with interval training.” Both ways work, and most endurance athletes strike a balance in their programs between safe steady-state workouts and efficient but more intensive speed-and-power sessions.
But you need accurate numbers — not age-related formulas — to design the most effective workouts, says ultramarathoner Adam W. Chase, coauthor of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running (Globe Pequot Press, 2010). “A person can have a medium-level resting heart rate, a high anaerobic threshold, and a low maximum heart rate. It’s not always consistent.” A metabolic test gives you personalized numbers, allowing you to work in precise effort “zones” based on your true AT, so you make faster progress.
Those seeking the best hard data about their abilities may also want to find out their VO2 max: the maximum volume of oxygen they are capable of processing. Calculating your VO2 max requires you to approach exhaustion, going harder and harder until your cardiovascular system can’t keep up with you.
Knowing your metabolic numbers makes the information you feed into your heart-rate monitor all the more accurate, which means you’ll get a better read on how many calories you’re burning and an even better picture of the improvements in your cardiovascular system over time.
“Every few months I send my clients a report with all their data, including the results of their latest metabolic test,” says Zucco. These reports offer something above and beyond the improved performance, greater energy and compliments from friends that typically come along with a new exercise program: “They can see where they were, where they are now and get a sense of where they might go in the future. And that’s hugely motivational.”
Perhaps the most innovative recent advance in health-and-fitness technology is the availability of health risk assessments and screenings through a straight-to-consumer service, without the direct involvement of a physician or hospital. Among other things, a basic blood-test screening can offer detailed information about your diet, your hormonal profile, the state of your metabolism and the degree of inflammation in your system, as well as any possible early signs of heart disease or cancer.
Values measured include levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol, BUN/creatinine, phosphorus, calcium and iron; white and red blood cell count, hemoglobin, hemotocrit, and platelets in the blood; plus inflammation markers, such as Chem-26 and CRP.
One such program, conducted through Health-CheckUSA (www.healthcheckusa.com), offers more than 10,000 locations in the United States where you can get your blood drawn. “You get your results from a fully accredited Medical Reference Laboratory at a huge savings — sometimes a third of the cost of what you’d pay through a hospital,” says Jordan. “Plus, you can access your confidential results online within about a week of your blood being drawn.”
Accompanying the numerical results of your blood screening is a detailed report explaining what each number means, and why and how each affects your health. “Once you get your report,” says Jordan, “you then have the option of sharing your results with a nutritionist or other fitness professional who can give you suggestions about how to optimize your health based on your results.” That might involve something as simple as taking a multivitamin or supplement, spending a little more time in the sun, or something as fundamental as changing the way you eat and sleep.
You can have a board-certified physician interpret the results through HealthCheckUSA, but you should see your own doctor if the report identifies any serious conditions.“I try to get my patients to think about their health more broadly. Not just, ‘Am I sick?’ but ‘How can I optimize my health?’” says San Diego physician Mark Schwartz, MD. These widely available blood screenings are “a great way to fill the gap between the health club and the hospital.”
These tests aren’t just for people who suspect serious health issues. Indeed, they’re a terrific source of insight and motivation for people looking to lose weight, upgrade their fitness or just get healthier than they already are.
“With even a basic test, which costs about a hundred dollars, we can see vitamin deficiencies, thyroid function, or evidence that you may be overtraining or have food allergies, any of which may affect your ability to lose weight and get fit,” says Jordan. “One woman who was having trouble losing weight went in to be screened. The test showed her hemoglobin was low.” A few weeks — and lots of spinach and kale later — her VO2 max shot up and she lost 8 pounds.
“Maybe this service will help get doctors and trainers on the same page,” says Schwartz. “I hope we see more things like it.”
Not Just for Gearheads
You may think that cutting-edge tech is better left to 100-mile-a-week runners and people who live on their bikes, but the latest advances may benefit casual athletes even more than the long-distance guys.
“I don’t need a lot of outside motivation to go out and run 15 or 20 miles,” admits Chase. “But most people aren’t like that.” The little push you get from these devices can help structure your workouts, guide your progress and provide you with ongoing motivation, he notes. And that’s the kind of gee-whiz science even a low-tech guy like me can get behind.
Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.
Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.