Computing Yourself Fit (Part 3)

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The really smart phone

Early in my project I found that my phone was one of the best tools for helping me get fit, mostly because it could be taken with me while I exercised. It also has an important feature that can make the big difference and that’s GPS.

Global positioning is the technology that most smartphones have, which tells the phone where it is in the world, and on a phone it can use a combination of both telephone mast triangulation and real global positioning satellites to pinpoint your position, often within a few feet.

Description: Description: The really smart phone

When you combine this with some easily downloadable software for the phone, then you can not only record where you go on a walk, run or ride, but also how fast you went, the rise and fall, and how long it took. By putting in your weight and age it’s also possible to make a reasonable calculation of how many calories you’ve consumed on that five-kilometre walk or two-mile run, which is very useful information.

At the simplest level, this is basic data that you use to chart your progress and see improvements in your general condition, the sort of feedback that everyone trying to get fit needs. And amazingly, most of the software to do this is free or very cheap.

Description: Description: Sports Tracker

Sports Tracker

One of the most popular tools of this type is Sports Tracker, which I first used on a Nokia Symbian phone (it’s also available for Android). There are very similar products on the iPhone, and they’re not expensive. Sports Tracker is free, but the Pro version allows you to upload your activity for a modest fee of $5.

There are plenty of other products that do something similar on Android, and others work on the Apple iPhone and Windows Mobile platform.

Telemetry by other means

If you don’t have a smartphone but are still interested in collating your efforts, what else can you do?

The simplest approach is to buy a heart-rate watch and monitor strap, and the most popular brand for these products is Polar. The beauty of this technology is that it’s built into much of the exercise hardware that you’ll find in your local gym, so the monitor strap can double as a means to sense your heart rate for the treadmill or crosstrainer.


Description: Description: Unisex 30-Lap Heart Rate Monitor Watch

Unisex 30-Lap Heart Rate Monitor Watch

Polar makes a vast range of these devices, the cheapest of which is around $45. Spend a bit more and you can get one of its data collection watches, which support Polar FlowLink, is data transfer system that works with both PC and Apple Macs. The elegance of this solution is that you don’t need to plug the watch into anything. The Polar FlowLink device is a USB cabled dish onto which you put the watch (FT40, FT60, FT80 and RS300X) and it then triggers a transfer.

The system is then designed to upload your data to its global website,, where you can access it from any computer.

There are other brands that offer these types of features, and it’s entirely possible to just key information from any data recorded into the computer, but having a system that’s designed to link your monitoring equipment to the PC is ideal.

Going an extra mile

You have software on your phone that tracks your walks/runs/cycles/crawls, and you’re uploading that to the internet, where you can access it from your PC. Where do you go from here?

The true fitness addicts, and I’m getting there, then go to complete the loop by recording the activity of the heart along with the other data that your phone can get itself. To do this you’ll need a Bluetooth heart monitor, the cheapest of which is around $90, but they can cost more than $150.

Description: Description: a Bluetooth heart monitor

a Bluetooth heart monitor

Usually worn as a strap that goes across the chest, these gizmos pick up the electrical signals given off by the heart beating through the skin, and then wirelessly transmit that data to your phone via Bluetooth. This means that not only have you got a geographic record of where you went, and how fast, but also what the impact was on your body in terms of heart rate.

Actually, depending what sensor you get, it can record not only heart rate but also the cadence of your heart, breathing rate and even skin temperature.

Other than avoiding unintentionally dying, is this really useful?

Research suggests that to burn more fat you actually need to keep your heart rate down, doing more of a long low intensity burn than driving yourself to the very edge of exhaustion. Being 50 years old, the walking machines I use at the gym encourage me to maintain a heart rate of 111 beats per minute to shed the fat, and faster than that if I’m doing a cardiovascular workout.

Therefore, with a heart rate monitor you can adjust your work rate to better maintain the level that’s doing you the most good, depending on your particular focus. It’s also obviously useful for helping you avoid exceeding any heart rate cap that your doctor might have defined, and most software can be set to alert you if you exceed a predefined threshold.

This is again another feedback tool, because it’s great to do a set circuit and note that your heart rate is less than it was for the same exercise level from a few months ago, and it’s also good to see your recovery times come down.

Like the track and speed information, this can all be downloaded from the phone, so it provides extra depth to the data you’re collecting about your fitness program even when you don’t a PC handy.

It all comes down to how seriously you take getting fit, and if you’re prepared to invest in managing your fitness project to this degree.

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