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Heart Rate Monitors Gain Wider Use Among Recreational Users

* The gadgets, once costly and used mostly by elite athletes, are more popular in the mainstream as a training tool.

November 20, 2000|CAROL KRUCOFF | WASHINGTON POST

Some call them speedometers for the heart, others say they're like having a full-time coach strapped to your body, but nearly everyone in the fitness business agrees that heart-rate monitors are one of today's hottest devices.

Once used only by elite athletes, these portable biofeedback units with the accuracy of a hospital EKG machine have become increasingly popular among everyday exercisers in recent years. Sales have soared as prices have dropped to as low as $50 for a no-frills model--less than the cost of a good pair of running shoes.

Consisting of two parts--a transmitter that straps around the rib cage and a receiver worn like a wristwatch--these monitors continuously assess the heart rate, enabling exercisers to ensure that they're working at the proper intensity to safely achieve their goals.

"When you're exercising, it can be very difficult to figure out exactly how hard you're working," says Dave Ruff, national director of fitness and personal training for the Fitness Co., which owns and manages 73 health clubs along the East Coast. Very often, "people push themselves too hard, which can lead to injury and burnout--or not hard enough, which won't get them the results they want."

Tuning into the heart rate gives an exerciser a specific, accurate measure of intensity: The harder the workout, the faster the heartbeat.

"Learning to monitor heart rate is the single most important thing we teach new exercisers," says Ruff. "When they get that immediate feedback of what their heart rate is, they can adjust their effort to keep their workout in the appropriate range."

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Heart rates once could only be determined manually, typically by placing two fingers at the carotid artery on the side of the neck to find the pulse and count the beats. Although this method is free, it has many disadvantages. It is inaccurate, generally requires an exerciser to stop moving and is cumbersome--a pain in the neck, so to speak.

Athletes' desire for a portable device that would continuously monitor heart rate led an engineering professor to design the first of these gadgets for the Finnish cross-country ski team in 1977, according to Corey Cornacchio, director of public relations for Polar Electro Inc., which brought monitors to the United States in the mid-1980s. "Mostly high-level competitive cyclists and triathletes used them at first," Cornacchio says. "By the early '90s, they started moving into the mainstream. In the mid-'90s, they began to be seen as a weight-loss tool, rehab tool and get-fit tool."

But it wasn't until prices dropped dramatically in the last few years that sales truly soared. The basic model, which provides just heart rate, cost $99.99 two years ago and now sells for $49.99, Cornacchio says. Their most expensive model, which sells for $389.99, provides an eye-popping array of data--including air temperature, altitude and caloric expenditure--plus flashy features such as three heart-rate target zones with alarms and the ability to link to a personal computer to visually review workouts.

Although Polar Electro pioneered these devices, many other companies--including Freestyle, CardioSport, AccuFitness and Acumen--now make good heart monitors. Sold in most good sporting-equipment stores, they're also available through online retailers such as Road Runner Sports (http://www.roadrunnersports.com) and Performance Bike (http://www.performancebike.com).

The typical exerciser doesn't need many "bells and whistles," says Kirt West, a running coach who works with members of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club in Maryland. "All a beginner needs is a monitor that shows the heart rate," West says. "The next level up would be one that shows the upper and lower levels of your training zone, with a beeper that goes off if you go out of range."

Competitors might also want a monitor that includes stopwatch and lap counter, West says, and some might enjoy the practicality of getting one with a "regular" watch that tells time.

"The number of people using heart-rate monitors in running has exploded," says West, who wears his "religiously" and calls it "an invaluable training tool that provided the missing piece from my 20 years of running." He credits his monitor with boosting his running performance--noting that he has achieved "personal best times" in marathons, 10K and 5K races--while in his 40s.

"What happens to runners is that we tend to be very motivated people with a tendency to overtrain and run ourselves into the ground," West says. "In this case, the monitor helps us slow down our training runs, to give our body a chance to recover, which allows us to go faster during races."

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For beginners, a monitor is generally most useful in helping them gradually build fitness, says Edmund R. Burke, director of the exercise science program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and author of "Precision Heart Rate Training" (Human Kinetics, 1998).

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