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Healthy Heart Gift Gadgets

Electronics has figured into physical activity since at least the 1780s, when Luigi Galvani used static electricity to make a dead frog twitch.

This may seem like too much Frankenstein and not enough frankincense given the time of year. I'll de-myrrh on that point. But Galvani's breakthrough in biology leads to an important point. What happens inside your body when you exercise is governed by a set of measurable reactions, and one good way to help yourself get in shape is to keep track of what's going on: It will motivate you as the progress accumulates and keep you honest when it doesn't. (Was my last workout really three weeks ago?)

The technology to monitor and analyze workouts has become progressively more sophisticated, and priced across a broad range. For well under $100 you can get a brand-name heart-rate monitor; an investment of $300 to $400 will buy a training watch with software that lets you analyze and customize workouts, set pace, distance, interval or calorie goals, and track your whereabouts with a GPS function.

With the gift-giving season under way, it seemed a good time to walk through some of the choices. Three of the main manufacturers, Polar, Garmin and Suunto, provided test units that included general fitness models and higher-end trainers. And that's just a taste of the range of products available, down to $10 pedometers.

That's the good news: Competition seems to be forcing all of these companies to innovate, pack more features into their equipment, improve the analytics included in accompanying software and offer products across a spectrum of prices. Even some of the more basic models have evolved into training devices that let you send data to your computer, plan workouts and track your progress.

Now, the not-so-good: There are almost too many choices. The same competition that has raised the bar also is prompting the companies to match one another relentlessly. Garmin's GPS-equipped models, for example, have led other companies to develop their own satellite units, even though they are cumbersome by comparison and do less; likewise, Garmin, rather than sticking with its expertise, offers a $99.99 sport watch (sans GPS) that tries to appeal to the general fitness market dominated so far by companies like Polar.

"GPS, speed and distance is their turf. Our turf is heart rate and intensity on the body," said Jeff Padovan, president of Polar, whose array of heart-rate monitors, sport watches and accessories is diverse but a bit dizzying in its breadth.

Bottom line: Forethought and careful shopping are required to weed through the choices. All of the units offer many of the same basic functions: monitoring heart rate with the use of a chest strap, estimating calories used and allowing you to set goals to guide your workout. The decision of what to buy is going to be a matter mostly of how much more you want (or don't want). Check some of the companies' Web sites to learn what's available (stores typically won't carry all the models of any brand) and compare options.

Here are a few basic questions to ask — about yourself or your intended gift recipient — to clarify the process:

If you want just a heart-rate monitor, major manufacturers such as Polar and Timex offer basic models for as little as $50 or $60. These won't go far in terms of data analysis and won't measure speed or distance if you walk, run or bike. But they are fine for tracking a vital statistic. For about $150, Polar's new FT40 gives each user a "dividing line," based on heart rate, between his "fat-burning" and "fitness" zones. This is a somewhat artificial distinction, related to how the body uses energy, but it's one that Polar thinks simplifies things. For about $20 more, the Polar F11 provides a more sophisticated set of heart-rate training zones and will automatically construct a weekly program based on them. Both let you upload to an online journal that totals what you do and compares that with set goals.

If you are a walker, runner or biker, and want to keep track of how far and fast you go, you'll need a unit that is compatible with some sort of speed and distance sensor: a small device that clips onto your shoelace, separate sensors for your bike or one of the increasingly popular GPS units. Look for package deals where the sensor is included with the watch. Garmin's Forerunner 405 comes with a GPS device built into the watch-size unit, an engineering marvel that includes a nifty iPod-style touch control around the outer bezel. At $300, it is pricey, but it makes for an easy, one-stop purchase. Keep in mind that GPS devices are only as good as their signal. If you run on an indoor track or in a canyoned urban neighborhood, or don't want to risk a loss of data, you might want to buy a foot sensor separately as a backup.

Polar, given its background as a fitness company, has put its focus on improving the foot sensor and delivers a unit that will measure stride length and cadence, important if you are trying to improve your running style and speed. Both Polar and Suunto sell separate GPS receivers for their higher-end watches, but the muffin-size, strap-on units seem almost antiquated compared with the Garmin. Bike units, which use magnets on the wheels and pedals to measure speed and cadence, are sold separately by each company.

One tip: If you use a foot sensor, calibrate it to a known distance. Out of the box, I found them off anywhere from 6 to more than 10 percent. It is an easy adjustment to make, and an important one.

If you're trail-running to Grandma's house and want to make sure you get home — or want to save favorite routes and have access to directions during a workout — Garmin is the choice. The Polar and Suunto GPS units will track speed and distance, but the watches don't have the navigation features that Garmin offers — helpful, as one Suunto executive noted, if you want to know how fast you went on a downhill ski run, but not so much if you are lost in the backcountry.

One downside to the Garmin: It is an energy hog, so be sure your escape from the backcountry does not take too long. The rechargeable battery runs down pretty steadily and needs to be clipped to its charger when you are not using it.

"It is not a watch," said Garmin systems engineer Claudette Stevenson, who said battery time was one compromise the company made in favor of size: Previous Forerunners were about the size of a cellphone, worn on the wrist.

Comparable models, Polar's RS800 and Suunto's t6c (both about $400), have conventional, user-replaceable watch batteries, though keep in mind that their GPS units use a separate set of AAs.

All three companies offer software and online tools to upload data, analyze them and plan workouts while you're sitting at your computer. On this front, Polar's RS800 series and Suunto's t6c have stronger analytical tools than Garmin.

Based on accumulated effort, Suunto rates each workout on a 1-to-5 "training effect scale," with a 2 being basic maintenance, a 3 meaning you're getting a bit stronger and a 5 meaning you overdid it. (One of its watches, the t4, uses that information to recommend workouts.)

John Lally, who manages the company's training products in North America, said the aim is to "be the best analytically for saying if you have improved your fitness" and to broaden the appeal of those tools to more than serious runners and bikers.

Polar converts a run workout into a "running index," related to your oxygen consumption.

All three companies allow you to set up custom workouts including a warm-up time, a speed goal and a set of intervals. Polar has an online database of downloadable workouts (currently just a few but with plans to expand). Garmin offers a virtual partner, a little icon running buddy to pace yourself against, which is a bit more interesting than the beep you'll get from Polar or Suunto if you fall below the target pace.

Garmin has nailed this category. It uses a Bluetooth-like technology called ANT to automatically upload data from its watches with nary a button push. It just happens when you return from a workout, as soon as you get in range of your computer. The same technology allows you to trade workouts with a friend. Suunto's higher-end t6c comes with a USB cord that clips onto the watch — an almost automatic download that is also convenient. Polar's RS800 uses an infrared-USB link that requires a few clicks to get rolling but seems to work fine. Be sure that you know what you are getting: Some of the models require you to buy a separate piece of gear to do the downloading.

As holiday shopping season begins, you can give memories, and monitors, to the fitness fans on your list. Washington Post photo by Bill Webster - The Washington Post