This week we’ll focus on technology to help us quantify and track our energy burn through exercise.

Last week we discussed how calorie counting could help us start the process of maintaining our weight, but missing some of the key ingredients to make it accurate. This week we will look at the two key technologies that fill those gaps, providing a more accurate picture of the calories used during our workouts.

Exercise Tracking Apps

I realised at some point that I stopped a lot of the cardio exercises from early on in the weight loss process. My wife and I started taking long walks and I also re-introduced myself to the elliptical. I also started running outside – something that’s a real adventure in rural America. Just because there’s an app for everything and was curious, I downloaded RunKeeper to keep track of everything that I was doing.

One of the key features of RunKeeper is that it uses the built-in GPS in the mobile phone to track how far you’ve gone and then tracks it against the elapsed time to determine instantaneous and average speed. It also uses the locations along the path to reference a digital terrain elevation database and determine how hilly (and difficult) the path is. Based on all of these factors, including age and weight, it then estimates the overall calorie burn for each session.

For working out in a gym environment, it has a timed mode for exercises performed on an elliptical or treadmill. In timed mode it will manually take the distance provided by the exercise machine – however accurate that is – and the time expired to estimate the overall calorie burn.

RunKeeper interfaces with several other applications (i.e., MyFitnessPal) and this makes it an excellent central clearinghouse for keeping track of all of your exercises, to include any strength exercises such as pushups and sit-ups, not just cardio from walking or running.

It will also synchronize current weight measurements from other applications, so that any calculations based on that will likewise be accurate. All of these transactions are fairly seamless. They will update each other automatically so that you don’t have to re-enter anything twice.

There are several other exercise apps, to include: Nike+, Strava, Garmin Connect, Training Peaks, MapMyFitness, RideWithGPS, Magellan Active, 2Peak, dailymile, and Cycling Analytics. Each of these might favor one type of exercise over the other or require a specific hardware to augment it, but each is fairly similar in principle as far as tracking speed, distance, and calorie burn. I just settled on RunKeeper because it ‘talked’ to everything else I was using.

Wearable Measuring Devices – Heart Rate Monitors

Each of these apps uses educated guesses of calorie burn for each workout based on time and difficulty. RunKeeper gave a fairly good estimate for cardio, but I still had no idea what the strength exercises were worth. I also noticed that RunKeeper attempted to estimate instantaneous heart rate as part of its calculation. There was no heart rate sensor attached, so how could it possibly know what that was?

Intrigued by this, I decided to settle it with a Wahoo Fitness BlueHR heart rate monitor, which is widely compatible with all of the exercise apps mentioned. The BlueHR is a standard dual-electrode chest strap heart rate monitor. It directly senses the heart’s electric pulses and converts them to a data stream, sent over a low-power Bluetooth connection to the mobile phone. I considered buying a Polar, which would also be compatible with my older elliptical, but that used an older wireless technology that would require additional adaptors.

I used heart rate monitors before. EA Sports Active had one integrated into the arm motion sensor. That particular one was a single-point optical type that looked at localised changes at the skin. Therefore, it was very sensitive to jarring and increases in blood pressure. This caused some pretty large inaccuracies during periods of rapid arm movements and by just making a fist – just the kinds of things you do when you go out for a run.

It is for this reason I am skeptical of the accuracy of the heart rate monitors being included on many of the wrist-wearable devices just coming out for any kind of high-mobility activities. Unless the technology has drastically improved, this kind of monitor seems better suited for one-time spot checks or for hospital patients that aren’t likely to move around a lot.

Instead, the BlueHR uses a traditional pair of electrical pads embedded in either end of an elastic chest strap. Over a long period of use, I can vouch that it’s a much more accurate and reliable pulse-tracking method for strength and cardio activities.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. On occasion, the monitor can be foiled by: a battery compartment with a bad seal that leaked; pads that don’t make good contact with the skin particularly on days with very low humidity; and my favorite – if the strap isn’t snug enough around the chest it can slip off after about 100 steps into a run. I’ve experienced all of these. They happen rarely and each is easily and quickly solved.

But heart rate monitors, by themselves aren’t real new technology. My ages-old elliptical had a version of this embedded in two of its handholds. What is new are the advances being made to make them more useful.

Wahoo Fitness recently developed the next generation of monitors. Their TICKR series have newly integrated features that utilise accelerometers to help analyse cadence along the path as well as motion smoothness. Their advanced model has sufficient on-board memory so it could be used independently from the phone for an entire run. Personally, I use the phone for music and podcasts anyway, so that would be a wasted feature for me.

As previously mentioned, the Wahoo Fitness devices interoperate with MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, as well as all of the other apps mentioned. It even has its own tracking app that operates similarly to RunKeeper, and will export all of the relevant data directly to the other exercise apps.

Calories and Exercise

Aside from having a device that now helps me determine the calorie burn from any activity: from calisthenics, to walking, to running, to shoveling snow; I also have a periodic reading of my heart rate. That’s a good thing to know to prevent a heart attack in case of over exertion, especially if you’re ‘of a certain age‘ like myself. It is really for all of these reasons that I always recommend a heart rate monitor be an essential part of anyone’s exercise kit.

But there’s more to this story than just knowing your caloric burn during exercises. Next week we’ll look at other technology used for measuring and tracking weight, and show how all of this comes together to accurately regulate it, while also getting fit.

Last Week: Technology to Help with Calorie Counting.

Next Week: Technology to Help Regulate Our Weight.