What Exercise Monitoring Device Should You Use? (Part I)

Until yesterday, I was feeling so good. I had overcome my knee pain and started running again, loving it like I never did before. I was bounding up the hills near my house, fit and powerful.

A model shows off a wearable monitor at Health 2.0. Photo by Laird Harrison. All rights reserved.
A model shows off a wearable monitor at Health 2.0. Photo by Laird Harrison. All rights reserved.

Did I really need to know that I was only doing a 10-minute mile?

That information came to me courtesy of a cell-phone app I just downloaded, RunKeeper. It’s part of a new era of devices that continually monitor all our bodily functions, aggregate the data, store them in the cloud, analyze them using artificial intelligence, compare them to the data of our friends or celebrities, and make them publicly available.

I am not exaggerating. On assignment for Medscape, I spent three days in Silicon Valley last week at Health 2.0 Fall Conference, a celebration of digital health technology. The meeting included a fashion show of health monitors inside pendants, bras, shirts and wristwatches.  “We envision a world with sensors all over the place,” said Christopher Glode, Under Armour vice president of connected fitness.

There was June, a bracelet that measures sunlight exposure and tells you to put on a hat. There was Sensoria smart socks that correct your gait. There was Medtronic’s Guardian Real-Time glucose monitoring device that literally  gets under your skin.

There was also an embarrassing moment when Jim Taschetta, chief marketing officer for iHealth, was demonstrating the company’s wireless blood pressure device and the overhead screen showed  177/132 mm Hg — a hypertensive crisis requiring emergency care. (He seemed fine, actually.)

The question I kept asking myself through all this, is how much of this information do I actually need? On the theory that there is only one way to find out, I tried my own experiment with self-monitoring yesterday.


I chose the RunKeeper because my friend Peter had recently tried it out with interesting results, because I had been wondering how far I actually go on my usual course, and because other running apps I’ve looked at seemed confusing. Also the basic app is free.

Runkeeper generated this report on my run through Dimond Park in Oakland.
Runkeeper generated this report on my run through Dimond Park in Oakland.

Using GPS and a clock, RunKeeper collects three streams of data: distance, time and elevation. From the distance and time, it computes your speed in minutes per mile and estimates calories burned. Every five minutes its robotic voice tells you have far you’ve come and how fast, so you don’t have to stop and look at the screen. That’s handy.

What’s not so handy is that you have to find some way of carrying it around with you. Since I don’t have a stylish strap-on iPhone holder, that means I have to wear shorts with big pockets.

My course took me into Oakland’s Dimond Park, on a couple of pleasant wooded trails along Sausal Creek, where I thought I was going about 5 miles in 40 minutes, up about 500 feet, down again, up again and back down.

Wrong. RunKeeper tells me I went gradually up 675 feet, then pretty much gradually back down again, covering 4.25 miles in 43:25, for 10:13 per mile.

While I could have gotten similar information with an old-fashioned stop watch and pedometer. RunKeeper saves me the calculations, gives me milestones along the way, and displays a pretty map when I’m done. It also gives me lots of ways to share my results with the world.

I’m a little embarrassed to post these statistics, given that Peter described a run where he was cruising along at 8 minutes a mile for a longer distance. Of course it doesn’t help that Dennis Kimetto set a record for a marathon on Sunday, running the 26 miles at a rate of 4:42 per mile.

I can think of lots of excuses. I’m older. I had hills. I was on a rocky trail for part of the course. Etc. But the bottom line is that I can do better. And now I feel inspired to try.

Next week: What Heart Monitors Tell You and

What Monitors Fitness Experts Use

6 thoughts on “What Exercise Monitoring Device Should You Use? (Part I)”

  1. I’ve been using an electric sit/ stand desk for years. It’s been great but I’ve thought of the benefits of the treadmill with it as well. Last time I looked a few years ago, it seemed rather cost prohibitive but in my brief Internet search, it seems that things have changed. Are there any in particular that you recommend?

    1. Sandra, I use the LifeSpan TR1200 DT. I bought it as a package with an adjustable desk. I have a chair next to the tread mill. When I get tired of walking, I push a button on the desk to lower it and sit in the chair. A monitor arm swings my monitor over to the new position, and I slide my keyboard along the desk. I’ve been very happy with all this. But it was expensive. I paid $2300 for the desk and treadmill together. I think you could get the two as a package for $2000 or less now. Also, some people have created DIY versions for a few hundred dollars. Here is an article I wrote on the topic: http://techpageone.dell.com/downtime/2014-resolutions-boost-treadmill-desk-sales/#.VC2cvVeOp8E. I plan to do an update for this newsletter, having walked at my desk for half a year. The short version is that I’ve lost about an inch around the waist, but eased up on the walking after developing a slight lower back pain.

      Here is the website where I bought my equipment: http://www.workwhilewalking.com/
      The base I got: http://www.workwhilewalking.com/lifespan-tr1200-dt3-treadmill-base-review
      The desk I got: http://www.workwhilewalking.com/product-review-rise-height-adjustable-desk
      The monitor arm I got: http://www.workwhilewalking.com/product-review-ergotron-lx-desk-mounted-monitor-arm

      Let me know what you end up doing.

  2. Well, my 7-miler was actually at 8:20 pace, and it was in the flatness of Redwood city, so perhaps not so impressive. I wonder what they eat on Mr. Kimetto’s planet?

    1. Mr. Kimetto’s planet is Kenya. He belongs to the Kalenjin people who win a large percentage of international foot races. According to RunnersConnect, Kalenjin’s eat lots of tea loaded with milk and sugar, cornmeal, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. But as NPR reports, there are lots of theories about other factors that contribute to their success, including genetics and a culture where people run a lot and practice enduring pain.

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