Cybernaut 

iPhone dials up the fitness

The general reputation of technology, highly deserved, is that it makes us fat and out of shape. Video games are forever being blamed for the childhood obesity epidemic, and bigger and better televisions make a pretty convincing argument to spend more time on the couch. People used to walk around offices carrying pieces of paper, but now most office worker bees are tethered to their computers for eight hours a day.

There are, however, some ways that technology can actually help you get fit. The most obvious example are the people that wear portable music players when they exercise, or pick the stair machine in front of the television at the gym so they can catch up on sports scores while breaking a sweat.

Myself, I like to play video games while I’m at home and riding a bike hooked up to a wind trainer — it makes the game more challenging, and the time flies by. A co-worker turned me onto the idea. He prefers car racing games, while I like strategy games like Final Fantasy.

Those are examples of adapting technology for fitness purposes, but there are plenty of recent examples of technology crafted specifically for exercise.

A few years ago Nike came out with an iPod Sport Kit that works with portable iPod devices to track time, pace and other variables, with real time voice feedback to give you encouragement. You can even program play lists to correspond with your workouts, speeding up or slowing down depending on where you are in your run, or motivating you at the right time to get over the hump. You can also program a power song that you can kick in the moment you need a boost. I recommend the theme from Rocky.

The Kit only costs about $30, although it works best with Nike+ shoes that will add another $120 or so to your price tag. There are ways to work around that if you prefer different shoes, but the Nike+ have a built-in cut-out in the insole for the sensor and the work-arounds on the market have been criticized for not being as accurate.

It takes some programming to make this effective, and it’s not precise — the pedometer won’t distinguish between small steps uphill or long steps downhill, so your distance or pace measurements may not be exact. You can create alternate settings — faster pace and larger steps for shorter runs, slower pace and shorter steps for longer runs — but it can still only take the average. Also, many of us in Whistler prefer to run trails, where pace usually varies with the terrain.

For those reasons alone, Nike’s iPod Sports Kit may not be the best kit out there for really serious runners, but anyone who needs a boost or a way to measure progress could probably benefit — especially if you run the same routes regularly and want to compare your performance by uploading your data to the Nike website.

While this system has been around for a few years, since the iPod Nano was introduced, things get a little more high-tech with the iPhone and iPod Touch. While you can still use Nike’s kit — although most people won’t want to run with a phone in their pocket — Apple’s online App store has dozens of other small fitness programs to help you get in shape and stay there. I found a list recently at Appleblog.com.

Some apps, like Restaurant Nutrition, provide health information for fast food restaurants to help you make healthy choices, while others like LiveStrong track your calorie intake and usage. Weightbot tracks your weight and fluctuations thereof, and there are dozens of personal trainer applications that will guide you through gym workouts. GymGoal Lite lets you track things like the type of exercises you do, the amount of weight you use, and the number of reps and sets you complete to track your progress.

RunKeeper is similar to Nike+, but it uses the onboard GPS to physically track your distance and speed, and will provide you with all kinds of measurements including calories burned. Its accuracy depends on the quality of the link you get to the satellites, but it’s generally pretty good.

The map system lets you plot your routes for future consideration at an account you set up at Runkeeper.com. This program also works while cycling, hiking, and even skiing and snowboarding (although a built-in altimeter would make that possibility a lot cooler).

You can use first generation iPhones or the iPod touch for this, but apparently the results are not as accurate as they are with the new iPhone 3G models.

The Fitinio app is similar, but doesn’t have as many bells and whistles. One neat feature is an emergency contact button that will use your iPhone 3G to call your wife/husband/next of kin if something happens during a workout. It also has a cool down feature that other devices lack.

All I need is a couch that doubles as a home gym.

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