Health & Fitness Business '06: Heart rate monitors still dominate personal electronics

Evolutions in the consoles on the likes of treadmills and indoor cycles aside, there was unfortunately little to be seen in personal electronics at the Health & Fitness Business Show in Denver in August. The only electronic devices that were creating some buzz were personal heart rate monitors.

Evolutions in the consoles on the likes of treadmills and indoor cycles aside, there was unfortunately little to be seen in personal electronics at the Health & Fitness Business Show in Denver in August. Per usual, there was a rash of low-tech training accessories like balance boards, exercise balls and dumbbells (you don’t call them that for no reason, you know). The only electronic devices that were creating some buzz were personal heart rate monitors. We know from the SNEWS® Annual Retailer Survey that it’s one electronic accessory sold by many, if not most, specialty shops (and if a shop can’t sell one with a piece of equipment, or doesn’t try, we gotta question their future, to be honest).

While grip pulse monitors are standard on most exercise machines these days, many consumers still want to wear personal heart rate monitors, or could be convinced into wearing them, because they provide more reliable data, they stay with the user as he or she goes from treadmill to trail, and often offer more features, including downloading for analysis. In fact, manufacturers, including some we saw at the show such as Polar and Suunto, are now making it easier and easier for consumers to record, download and analyze their workout data, which is one prime way to rate progress and provide motivation. If someone can program and sync cell phones, PDAs and iPods, then tracking workout progression on a monitor should be a given. And retailers should sell even more of them, especially with the choices these days.

High-price personal units (more aptly called “fitness monitors” since they do more than dumbly watch heart rate) continue to evolve, offering the ability at very reasonable prices not only to record your pulse rate, but also to assess everything from power used to calories burned. And, yes, monitors work in tandem with online programs to customize and analyze your workout — the latest version of iTunes (6.0.5) will even synch with Nike + iPod to track progress online, and both Polar and Suunto have downloadable models that can graph and track to any tech geek’s or curiosity-seeker’s content.

By September, the next big evolution of the heart rate monitor will move from military secrets to store shelves — electronics integrated into apparel. Don’t be mistaken: This IS equipment and technology more than it’s a fancy shirt. In the not-too-distant future, this technology — we at SNEWS® already reviewed a sport bra in by Numetrex in March 2006 (click here to read the review) — may make monitors with chest transmitting straps a thing of the past, so don’t be left at the station. Electronics built into workout clothes — read below about the partnership between Polar and adidas, which we have discussed in previous SNEWS® reports — will be as common in gyms as Lycra. On the other end of the spectrum, however, it is also now easier to purchase a low-price (even cheap!) and effective heart-rate monitor than ever before, and the surge of training regimens that depend upon monitoring your vitals is in part fueling the price-point end of the market.

(Several weeks of show coverage began Aug. 7, so don’t miss any of the reports, from general attendee information to education reviews to category reports. As always, SNEWS® gives you the best and most accurate and detailed show coverage anywhere. To continue our line-up of show reports is this week’s coverage of the cardio equipment category and heart rate monitors/electronics. One last report next week will take a look at a few of the odd, unusual, cool or plain wacky things we saw there.)

Suunto — In the past known more for its complex “wrist-top computers” rather than simpler heart rate monitors, Finnish company Suunto at the Health & Fitness Business Show this year launched in North America its first line of just plain ol’ heart rate monitors (although some models still tip-toe into the wrist-top computer realm). Even in the simpler monitors, Suunto continues to re-envision the high-tech market with a wide range of units that focus on workout analysis instead of simple collection of data. But this doesn’t mean overly complex since the company has in the past been dinged a bit by that criticism. At the show, it launched three new monitors that make data analysis simple. The t1 records calories burned and fills the price point niche for Suunto at $100. A step up, the t3 features what Suunto calls “Training Effect” (TE), a system that uses a simple scale of 1.0 to 5.0 for quickly rating changes in workout intensity, good or bad. The t4 features a so-called “Training Coach,” which creates five-day plans based upon the data it records.

The most intriguing story this year, however, is Suunto’s Team POD, a system that allows a coach, trainer or workout leader to monitor the vitals of a whole group of athletes during a workout. We suspect this will be ideal not only for teams, but also could find a big following (and sales) in gyms and clubs where instructors will able to monitor a whole class. Even more enticing to the individual athlete looking to boost performance is the t6, a monitor already in the line which now allows you to download your data and send it to Carmichael Training Centers for professional analysis from the pros working for Lance Armstrong’s famed coach (the monitor comes with a free one-month trial of the coaching program).

Polar — Another major player with Finnish roots and one that has in the past mostly dominated the fitness market, Polar has focused on style this year, introducing a new line of women’s-specific monitors that will offer a fashionable, slim flair to an otherwise technical glob of plastic on the wrist. Thank goodness. Strangely enough, heart rate monitors have yet to catch up with other sport manufacturers that have catered to consumer desire for women’s products — or even just gender-neutral products that aren’t huge and over-powering.

But, as we said, the industry-shaking story coming from Polar is its partnership with adidas, which should in October finally launch after a delay of nearly a year (click here for a story about it from the Winter ispo 2006 show in Germany). The launch as of now is set to include the release of the RS800, a wrist computer that collects data from transmitters built into adidas adiStar Fusion apparel (long- and short-sleeve shirts, sport bras and other apparel) — with electronics integrated into the fabric — and the shoes the exercisers are wearing. All the data collected from your duds can then be transferred to your computer, if you desire. The military has been experimenting with “data shirts” — apparel that records and analyzes vital sign information — for years, so expect to see more apparel with monitors at future shows. The RS800 monitor and related electronics will retail for $489, the apparel around $65, and the shoes $120. But a user who already owns a Polar “WearLink” transmitter can already use that with the tops and, until users are ready to invest in the whole get-up, they can also wear shoes they already own with the pods attached. or

Reebok — SportsBeat, with a license from Reebok to use the name, has managed to integrate both the trends of technical innovation and price-point value into its latest heart rate monitor. The Fit Watch 10S is an effective strapless monitor with a calorie counter that retails for a very reasonable $100.

MultiSports — This Houston, Texas-based, manufacturer of exercise equipment also offers a very serviceable heart rate monitor retailing at $80. Why? “People want a daily record of their entire workout,” explained Alice Lian, “not just the results from one machine.”

Cielo — While not as flashy or effective as heart rate monitors, the old pedometer is still an effective tool for hitting target rates during light exercise. Although other suppliers have been at the show in the past, Cielo seemed to have the corner this year. The company offers a wide range of affordable-yet-techy pedometers — the best of the bunch are the PasoPulse ($30), which also monitors your heart rate, and PasoBodyfat ($25), which analyzes the calories you burn, not that we’re vouching for its accuracy, but it’s a start.

If your product or company wasn’t mentioned here, that’s either because it didn’t strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it (unlikely, but possible!). Remember, we started reports out of the show on Aug. 7 and will continue them through Sept. 11.