Rebirth of the heart rate monitor

As I described in my previous post, my point is to use several digital solutions to back up my project for this year. The reason for this is our changing perspective to our daily lives, partly due to smartphones and applications.

Cyber fitness of yesterday

A few years ago, I read an article with the headline “Cyber fitness”. It described top-of-the-line health gadget, being essentially a wrist-worn heart rate monitor with some inbuilt intelligence to build you a personal training regime. The article touched on the topics of whether a device can replace a personal trainer, and how a piece of electronics can influence one’s motivation.

Polar's FT80 is still one of the top of the line models sold today

The device was Polar FT80, and I bought one immediately after reading the article. I have been using it ever since to track my heart rate and calorie burn for swimming, walking, running, cycling and the gym.

Most people consider a heart rate monitor as a nice, nifty gadget. To many athletes it is a must, and for anybody it gives a huge amount of data about their workout. Couple that with GPS in outdoor sports, and you get a track on a map, together with your heart rate. You can literally see that during the third kilometer, while climbing that hill, your heart rate was around 180 and that you burnt a total of 400 kcal. It even transfers this data to Polar’s web service, for me to browse through later on.

Polar’s idea was spot on, but the execution fails in a few key aspects. With smartphones and connected devices showing us more and more about capabilities and possibilities each day, my FT80 seems like an aging piece of machinery. Why?

The reason would be transparency. I don’t remember to sync the data from my monitor often enough, so mostly what my exercises reside behind this small glass attached to my wrist. Hard to navigate, hard to see and hard to use.

There is only one way to get my data out, and that is to sync it to Polar’s website which only logs my exercises and knows nothing more of me or my life. Sure, there are tools for me to input my weight, mood and so on, but the entire thing on my wrist feels disconnected from my reality.

My Polar is ok, but it already is years behind of what a smartphone can do. Or could do.

Against the clever solutions of today

Mothership Software's Kinetic GPS is prime example of fitness smartphone app

Now, consider a premium health application on a smartphone. Most who have used one know that they can

  • Store vast amounts of information,
  • Present things in an engaging and useful way,
  • Use the phone’s GPS if necessary and
  • connect and upload data to various services.

A smartphone app, when designed right, provides you with a lot of possibilities. At least a lot more than a small piece of electronics wrapped to your wrist, singled out for one thing. The applications can also be designed for one thing, and they tend to cost just a few euros compared to premium hr-monitor’s price tag of hundreds.

It is true that you also need a smartphone. But then again, I have one already. So do you, probably.

I tend to take my phone everywhere I go, also for workouts. My key driver for this used to be music and connectivity, but now applications and measurements tend to take the first place.

My point is that even though hr-monitors are small, durable and single-minded, they are losing to smart devices and applications due their lack of flexibility and connectivity. The devices and applications are more flexible, and provide more with less money. Their logic includes connectivity and updates, sharing and tweaking. To survive, heart rate monitors and fitness computers need to evolve to incorporate some of these traits.

This is why I’m not considering replacing my FT80 with a more recent training computer. I believe I can solve most of this with smartphones, apps and less obtrusive devices.

There are many key factors here, one of which I can touch briefly in this context.

Have a heart

The most often excluded feature from the applications is heart rate monitoring. The existing hr-monitors of today rely on sensors attached to straps around your chest, which communicate with the wrist unit using each manufacturer’s own specifications – mostly this is a radio frequency. Everyone who has used one knows that one manufacturer’s heart rate straps do not function with other brands.

This is, of course, one good example of needed standards. It has also been the sole reason I’m using my Polar at all, as until this spring I have been unable to ditch it. I’m  accustomed to tracking my heart rate, after all.

Polar H7 connects to smart devices via Bluetooth 4

During the last year, a few brands have released smartphone-compatible heart straps. They connect to your phone, and deliver the hr-data to an application capable of understanding it. I bought a Polar H7, which communicates with my iPhone and my trusty old FT80. While I have no trouble connecting or using it to my phone, there’s currently only one app that can utilize it – CardioMapper – and from the user interface point of view, it’s horrible.

As soon as more applications learn to utilize this, my FT80 will become almost obsolete. I will still use it for swimming, but with a bit of frustration. You see, I have to then remember to type all the data someplace else.

One thought on “Rebirth of the heart rate monitor

  1. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who had been conducting a little research on this.
    And he actually ordered me dinner because I stumbled upon it for him…
    lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the
    meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this topic here on your web

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