Tried and tested: Vital statistics?: Fitness monitors

It's all very well eating lettuce leaves and jogging, but is it doing any good? Our panel tests fitness monitors
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The Independent Culture
FEELING FLABBY? Stressed? Anxious about your heart? Don't worry: you can keep on top of bodily functions with the plethora of devices now available in the home monitoring market. Already much used by serious athletes, the relative low cost of the latest monitoring devices means anyone with a degree of biological curiosity can benefit from working out what makes their heart beat faster - or their blood pressure rise.


We looked at a cross-section of devices with a view to improving health rather than encouraging hypochondria. The results were surprising: some intriguing gadgets turned out to be a waste of money and might be better replaced by a little light reading in a medical encyclopaedia. Other apparently pedestrian machines turned out to be essential.


The panel consisted both of regular gym users and self-confessed idlers ranging in age from 23 to 72. They were: Steve Webster, Jasmine Davies, Andrew Purvis, Ruth Rose, Claudia Simpson, and Donald Hudd.


Standard TBF-531 pounds 89.99; Athlete's model TBF-515 pounds 139.99

Essentially clever bathroom scales, the two Tanita Body Fat Monitors aim to replace humiliating methods of fat measurement, such as callipers (traditionally used to shame new gym members by squeezing rolls of their spare flab), with super-whizzo new technology called BIA (Bio-electrical Impedance Analysis). The principle is clear enough: having programmed the monitor with your sex and height, you step on to the scale with bare feet and an imperceptible electronic impulse is sent through your body. The electricity is conducted by water in your cells; fat impedes its progress, so its presence is measured as a percentage of your weight. Earnest accompanying literature reminds users of the importance of measuring body fat; diets without exercise, for example, lead to muscle reduction, so weight loss can be deceptive. True. There's just one tiny snag. The Tanita Body Fat Monitors didn't work for us. They give impeccable weight readings, but assessments of body fat in the same testers varied by as much as 15 per cent from day to day. Warnings in the instructions about the user's level of hydration and exercise history hint at the complexity of body fat monitoring. A person who performs more than 10 hours of intense aerobic exercise a week and has a resting heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute is supposed to buy the more expensive machine, which has an "athlete mode" adjusted to the fluid capacity of their particular muscle cells (although not to those of body builders). Disappointingly, neither machine was found to be reliable by testers, no matter how much they drank or which machine they used at any given time of day. It may be that this sort of technology requires a sophisticated computer to interpret the data, which just isn't possible in such budget machinery. As Steve Webster remarked, "Try looking in the mirror. You can see if you're getting fat."


pounds 84.99

Surprisingly, perhaps, this heart rate monitor, consisting of electrodes inside a rubbery chest strap and wrist monitor which doubles as a digital watch, turned out to be the single most useful gadget in our survey. It's designed for sport rather than for normal daytime use, but testers loved watching their heart rate soar in stressful office situations or "after eating half a bar of Belgian chocolate" (Jasmine Davies). A booklet explains how to calculate optimum beats per minute in order to burn fat (ie approximately 70 per cent of your top heart rate, which is found by deducting your age from 220); you then set the upper and lower limit to your "target zone" by pressing a button on the Fitwatch. The watch receives signals from the monitor, beeping when your heart rate strays out of the desired zone, so you can adjust your exercise accordingly. Andrew Purvis loved it, and barely took his off for a week. Only two testers criticised this product: Steve Webster wanted a memory function which would tell him whether he had achieved his performance target after a strenuous feat, such as "trying to beat the rowing machine clock"; and Donald Hudd said, "You can measure your pulse manually for six seconds, multiply it by 10 and then assess this in relation to your exercise programme." The rest of the panel disagreed: "It's brilliant if you really want to get fit and haven't done much training before," said Jasmine Davies. "At last, a product that lives up to its name."


pounds 19.99

Anything with a calorie counter sells well, according to industry sources, so you can hardly blame the manufacturers for producing a pedometer which also claims to calculate calorie usage by multiplying distance travelled by your weight. But the Sportline Pedometer, worn on the belt, takes no account of muscular effort; for example, going uphill, climbing stairs or jogging. "For pounds 20 or so, you can have some fun counting how many footsteps you take in a day," was Claudia Simpson's conclusion (10,000 steps is the desired daily goal), even if, as Andrew Purvis noticed with much disappointment: "Walking what I thought was several miles to the office turned out to be just one and a half." Hardened hikers Jasmine Davies and Donald Hudd both pointed out that programming the pedometer with the user's stride length (calculated by walking 10 paces, measuring the distance and dividing by 10) is a hopelessly optimistic stab at accuracy. "You only have to start talking to another walker for your own steps to shorten. Nobody walks like a robot and the result is that the distance recorded is terribly approximate," said Jasmine Davies.


pounds 74.58

Slightly more sophisticated than a pedometer and delivered complete with instruction video and calorie count booklet, Caltrac has "a pleasing conceptual simplicity", according to Donald Hudd. It records your height, weight, age and sex, plus the calories you eat each day as you tap them in, in order to tell you whether or not you are burning all that you eat. It does this, apparently, via a "sensitive motion sensor" like those used in "space exploration" - but not on a day-by-day basis. Instead, over a five-day test period, you have to calibrate the machine to assess your "resting" calorie expenditure. Your active calorie expenditure is a separate figure. Sounds complicated? It is at first. Meanwhile, testers found that if they were particularly active, the machine told them they had a calorie "debt" to pay - they were starving but the machine said they should burn more calories with exercise. "Pretty galling," complained super-thin Claudia Simpson, while Andrew Purvis was infuriated by the endless programming. In any case the Caltrac's technology, space age or not, struck testers as dubious, despite filmed endorsements from Californian professors. Its thesis is good - don't be a couch potato - but as the panel agreed, you'd have to be clueless about your body's requirements to invest in this gadget. Strictly for the sort of people who need to look up the calorific value of fried apple pie.


pounds 7.99

Awareness of cholesterol and its connection with heart disease is now so widespread that many people are keen to discover whether they are at risk. Boots' straightforward once-only testing kit offers a clear procedure and instructions for anyone not too chicken to prick their own finger. Its only problem is that it doesn't tell you anything about high lipo- protein or low lipo-protein, only about cholesterol in general. And despite assurances that you can perform the test whenever you like, testers found significantly fluctuating readings, depending on how much greasy food they had eaten in the preceding couple of hours, so the results of a single test should be taken with a pinch of salt.


pounds 129.95

Unfashionably associated with age and obesity, high blood pressure is also linked to stress. Whatever its cause, its role as "a silent killer" influences some people to keep a careful check on it. This impressive German-made svigonomometer has automatic inflation and deflation, a specially shaped cuff to fit all wrists and is easily fastened with velcro. It's so simple, a child could do it. Systolic and diastolic (upper value and lower value) pressures are displayed as the air wheezes out. Donald Hudd suggested using the machine "for bio-feedback; practise lowering your blood pressure by meditating, looking at fish, a lava lamp or whatever." Ruth Rose was keen to use the device, but admitted, "At first I used it too often, and the huge differences - from 84 to 96, say - drove me crazy. Doing it twice each day at the same times is more realistic."


Polar Fitwatch, Caltrac and Sportline Pedometer from Lilywhites, London W1 0171 915 4078; Tanita Body Fat Monitors from John Bell & Croyden, London W1, 0171 935 5555, Lilywhites and Harrods 0171 730 3188; Omron blood pressure monitor, 01273 495033; Boots Blood Cholesterol Monitor from branches nationwide. !