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Mobile Fitness Devices Hit Their Stride

As the technology moves beyond GPS tracking, the latest gadgets offer lower prices and better design

By Mark Baard | May 22, 2012

Attention, you sedentary devotees of high-definition television: Whether it’s your doctor, your partner or your grown children prodding you toward better health, this is a great time to get off the couch and back in shape — with the help of a new fitness tracking gadget that interacts with your smartphone.

 
Like PCs, mobile fitness devices are becoming cheaper and better designed, making them less awkward to take on a walk, jog, bike ride or swim. And the technology has evolved beyond GPS tracking: The latest devices monitor your sleeping and eating habits as their motion sensors capture and analyze your every move. They even pester you when you spend too much time sitting on your duff.
 
GPS-Enabled Watches
 
Still the best-known mobile fitness devices, GPS-enabled watches record your routes on maps as well as your pace. Many of the newer watches connect (indirectly) to Facebook and Twitter, making you accountable to friends and family, and most work with websites that chart your progress.
 
But improvements to GPS-enabled watches have come slowly. Prices in this category are relatively high — a watch typically costs a couple of hundred dollars or more — and even the latest models tend to be bulky.
 
“Some of these GPS watches feel like dinner plates on your wrist, and for some reason they do not seem to be getting any smaller,” says David Dobrindt, a sales executive who lives in Milton, Mass., and who lost nearly 40 pounds in six months after he started running seriously in 2002.
 
The watches can also be tricky to program, according to Dobrindt. “I wish Apple would get involved in the design,” he says.
 
Dobrindt wears the Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS-enabled watch (about $200) to record the distance and duration of each of his runs. Like many of these watches, the Forerunner 305 uses the wireless ANT+ wireless sensor network to connect to other devices, such as a heart rate monitor that can be held in place by a chest strap.
 
When he's back home and in front of his laptop, Dobrindt uploads his data to a free web-based service, Garmin Connect, where he can share his runs with friends via Gmail, Facebook and Twitter. Runners and walkers can also export their favorite routes from Garmin Connect to Google Earth for others to discover use.
 
Mobile Fitness Wristbands
 
The latest category of mobile fitness devices isn't watches, however — it's wristbands, which look more like high-tech LiveStrong rubber bracelets. The wristbands are smart yet unobtrusive companions, whether you like to climb the stairs in your office building on State Street in Boston or the Hyland Hills in Bloomington, Minn.
 
Within this class is the Nike+ FuelBand (about $150), a wristband that records every footstep you make throughout the day. It relays that data wirelessly to your iPhone or iPod (and the internet) via a special app that only interacts with Apple gadgets.
 
Designed to motivate, the Nike+ FuelBand has a strip of tiny LEDs that gradually turn from red to green as you close in on the number of footsteps and calories burned that you have set as your daily goal on the Fuelband mobile app. The app will also share your progress reports with friends, if you like.
 
Another smart option is the Jawbone Up, a flexible, digital wristband you can wear 24/7, even in the shower. The Up not only gathers data — it also “talks” to you. It vibrates if it senses that you have been sedentary for too long. If you wear it to bed, you can set a wake-up time in the Up’s mobile app, and the wristband will  wake you up with silent vibratations.
 
Unfortunately, like the FuelBand, the Up app is designed only for Apple mobile devices — no word yet on Android versions. Another bummer: It’s temporarily off the market due to a hardware glitch. But is expected to return this summer.
 
Wrist-free Options
 
If you prefer to have nothing on your wrist when you work out, consider the Fitbit Ultra (about $100), a wee device that you can clip onto your waistband or put in your pocket.
 
The Fitbit Ultra logs every step you take and the number of flights of stairs you climb in the course of a day. And it does so seamlessly: The device synchs its data automatically to Fitbit.com whenever it comes within 15 feet of a special wireless base station plugged into your computer. You can share this on-line information with friends or set competitive goals.   
 
Another bonus: There's not only an iPhone app for the Fitbit Ultra, but an Android version as well that offers the same features.
 
The New Reality
 
Next up for fitness gadgets: augmented reality. With future mobile fitness devices, you'll be able to learn something about the giant redwoods you're hiking through, or that famous Italian bakery you just sailed past on your bike. (Although they are not fitness devices, Google’s cutting edge, augmented-reality sunglasses are expected to hit the market soon.) 
 
AR is high on Dobrindt’s wish list. As he puts it, “I’d love, when running in New York City, to know when I’m passing a landmark from an episode of CSI or Law and Order.

Mark Baard is a Boston-based science and technology reporter who focuses on the future. You can follow him on Twitter: @futuretripping



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