About a decade ago, I had a heart rate monitor -- a Polaris. But the chest belt was uncomfortable and it didn't always transmit to the watch the way it was supposed to. And then there was the little detail of having to turn on the calorie counter to get any kind of reading. It wasn't the type of device you wear all day, every day. And to get any sense of how I was doing over time, the watch's memory had to be downloaded to a computer at the health club.
Recently, I tried the Core model of the LifeTrak activity monitor, a watch-like device that can measure daily activity by the hour virtually untouched by human hands once it is set up. To measure the calorie burn rate during a workout, there's a subroutine that can be turned on. And the device stores the info for days.
I wore it for a month straight and found I burn 1,450 to 2,250 calories a day (50 an hour while I'm sleeping!), 16 calories a minute doing Zumba, 10 a minute walking and four a minute doing Yoga and most of my other exercise DVDs (the kettlebell workout had a higher burn rate).
"Yoga is a weird one," said Dion Hild, vice president of business development for Salutron/Smart Health. "The heart rate is elevated but you're not moving a lot," making it more difficult for the monitor to track.
There essentially are two types of monitoring devices: pedometers and heart rate monitors. The LifeTrak device combines both.
Like most activity monitors, it is set up to measure movement. To get credit for elevated heart rate during yoga sessions, the little gray button at the bottom of the monitor needs to be pressed every 10 minutes or so to activate the heart rate monitor. The same is true if the wearer uses an elliptical walker, treadmill or exercise bike instead of walking or running. Unlike other monitors, the LifeTrak can be used in water to 90 feet so swimmers, too, can track calorie burn.
"I gave one to my dad. He emailed me to complain that though the treadmill said he had gone two miles, the watch said 1/4 mile. Holding onto the handle bars prevents the device from noticing foot stride. It's not a walking motion. It's pseudo-motion," Hild said.
"All devices have challenges. Anything that's slow motion, awkward motion or is non-repetitive will be a challenge."
Hild said the next generation of LifeTrak, the Move, due out in June, will be able to interact with two Azumio smartphone applications to track fitness, providing motivation for weight loss. Hild said by early July, more applications will be available.
Hild said the monitor differs from competitors because heart rate and calorie calculation are integrated, it never has to be removed for showers or most other water-related activities, it requires no charging since it runs on a standard battery, it provides graphic displays right on the device, and the bands come in various colors and are replaceable.
"It's more user-friendly," he said.
Down the road, he said, the device also likely will measure blood pressure and other bodily functions, possibly making it useful for medical monitoring.
"We're moving from sporting goods to more wearable technology. ... Let's say you had a cardiac issue and went into the hospital. Right now they're implanting devices. How much nicer would it be to say here's a watch?" Hild said, adding government approvals would be needed before the device could be used that way.
"When I wake up and my heart rate is elevated, I know I'm getting sick. I can tell something is awry. It's a really good indicator of what is going on with overall health."
The Core currently sells for $59.99 but will be reduced $10 once the Move, also to be priced at $59.99, comes out. Comparable devices to the current version sell for as much as $79.99 while the more elaborate devices can run $249. The next generation Fit, due out at the end of September, will incorporate automated sleep recognition and measure sleep quality patterns. It also will have a classier negative LCD screen. The most advanced model, the Pace, due out for the Christmas shopping season, will use GPS in conjunction with an app like mapmyfitness to calibrate stride length during a run.