Three for the road: Fitness gets in gear

For all the braying about wearable computers, the one area where such devices could be of practical assistance is in monitoring your health. While Star Trek tricorders are still a few years away, a welter of fitness related gadgets have been entering the market now, from sports watches to gimcracks for smartphones.

Specialized sport watches that track your training progress have been available for years, but previously most were aimed at semi-serious athletes, those training for a marathon or triathlon. The new wave of fitness gadgets are more straightforward and designed for a wider audience, from those looking to slim down to runners who want to reach particular goals. Here's a sampling of some the latest fitness gadgets.

TomTom Runner GPS Watch, $170
Navigation company TomTom knows GPS, so it's not a surprise the company wants to help runners improve their routes this summer. The TomTom Runner is a slick, no-hassle sports watch designed to help runners monitor their workouts and progress. If you run outside, the TomTom watch will track your route; for indoors workouts there's a treadmill setting that gauges your distance through movement.

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Some sports watches require an engineering degree to operate, but the TomTom is a paragon of simplicity. It's easily adjusted while running using a single four-way button, tracking your pace, distance, and time. The only problem I encountered was that the waterproof watch is so comfortable and light that I would forget I had it on and neglect to end the timing session after a run (my minutes per mile times were much better than posted, honest). After a workout, the watch face pops out of the band and into a supplied USB cradle connected to a computer where you can check miles covered, calories burned, and even create an outdoor running route.

Like most watch-style trainers, if you want to monitor your heart rate, a separate chest strap is required. TomTom offers a watch and heart rate monitor package for $220. No matter how many chest strap monitors I've tried, however, I've never found one that's completely comfortable or doesn't make me feel like I'm part of a medical experiment. (You may feel differently.)

Withings Pulse, $99
Like Nike's $149 FuelBand and Fitbit's $99 Flex, the Withings Pulse is intended for those people trying to raise their daily calorie burn rate (and in the process, hopefully, lose weight). The size of a USB thumb drive, the Pulse can monitor your heart rate without a chest strap. Just insert it into a supplied wrist strap and the contacts on the back of the device make contact with your skin. It's not as accurate as a chest strap, but it's a lot more comfortable.

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Withings has designed it to pair over Bluetooth with a smart phone, and using a related app you can track everything from exercise targets to sleep patterns (yes, you wear it to bed so that an accelerometer can monitor your nocturnal, er, behavior). When used in conjunction with the app, the Pulse offers a lot of features and you don't have to be an Iron Man competitor to get the most out of it. It's inconspicuous, which I like (no one wants to look like a Borg or be quizzed every time someone notices you're wearing an odd gadget), and the rechargeable battery lasts for a couple of weeks. Its best feature is the pulse rate monitor, which other devices like the Fitbit Flex and more expensive Nike FuelBand lack.

Pear Sports Training Intelligence, $100
Sometimes, you need a little bit more of a push to keep your heart rate up. For those want some coaching (without the actual coach), there's the Pear Sports Training Intelligence package. The hardware comprises a chest strap heart rate monitor and pair of sports earphones with a volume control. The chest strap communicates using the Bluetooth Smart wireless standard, a relatively recent update so it only works with the iPhone 4S or newer iPhone models.

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The key to the Pear system is the downloadable training sessions. There are several free plans, but there are additional charges for more sophisticated programs, such as $20 for an 80-session marathon program. You start by doing a calibration test to gauge your fitness level, and then start working up from the baseline you've established. An audio coach tells you when to, say, turn up the incline on the treadmill ("push it") or slow it down to lower your heart rate. But you don't have to be an experienced runner. There are also workouts that will ease neophytes into the joys of achieving that endorphin rush.

So will buying a fitness monitor or gadget actually improve your health? In one sense, it's a self-selecting group in that anyone who buys such a device is already seriously motivated to improve their fitness level. And for those buyers, each of these devices will help. The trick is to develop healthy habits and stick with a fitness routine. If playing with an app or tracking your progress online helps, all the better.

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