Fitness Technology Goes Social

Like a lot of people, Kenny Thompson had trouble balancing a 40-plus-hour job with a fitness regimen. The 34-year-old food-market manager, a resident of Morristown, New Jersey, used to work out regularly when he was younger, but over the past couple of years he had become more inactive. Recently that all changed, thanks to his Xbox 360 Kinect add-on and a game called Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.

An avid gamer who realized the need for a lifestyle change, Thompson entered Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolved Bootcamp contest for a chance to be among the first to play the game. Since then the game has become part of a regular commitment to diet and exercise, and Thompson has lost more than 15 pounds. His favorite feature in Your Shape: Fitness Evolved is cardio kickboxing, but he can also try one of the many programs designed by experts from Men's Health and Women's Health magazines. Through Kinect's motion sensors, which track more than 50,000 points on his body, the game gives him feedback on how he's moving through the exercises.

"Boom! There's a personal trainer in my living room ready to walk me though a routine," says Thompson.

The game appeals to Thompson's competitive personality. The Xbox 360's multiplayer capabilities give him a support group of friends with whom he can compare scores and calories burned. "It's extremely motivating," says Thompson. "Working out with other people is better than working out by yourself."

Fitness technology started with tools that tracked and graphed calories burned, steps taken, and reps performed. The category gained a bit of fun when Nintendo released Wii Fit, and when mobile apps let you share your accomplishments with online compatriots. Now the latest crop of fitness technology--pumped up with gaming and social networking features--adds a deeper level of fun to the sweat and burn.

Kinect With Your Sporty Side

Kinect fitness
Take a class in cardio kickboxing using the Kinect and Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.
When Microsoft released the Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 in November 2010, developers released a slew of fitness games along with it. Unlike the Nintendo Wii and Sony's Move add-on for the PlayStation 3, the Kinect responds to body motion without the need of a controller. Kinect's motion sensor, facial recognition, and body scanning can analyze your movements to ensure that you are doing the exercises correctly.

The Your Shape: Fitness Evolved game "coaches you through the whole process," says Thompson.

Another Kinect fitness title that marries entertainment with exercise is THQ's The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, a spin-off of NBC's fitness reality TV show of the same name. (The game is also available as The Biggest Loser Challenge for Nintendo Wii.) The Biggest Loser trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels guide users through ten routines in four environments: the ranch, the gym, a yoga studio, and a boxing ring. You can incorporate a stability ball, free weights, and resistance bands into your workout, as well as record progress in a video diary. And in true Xbox 360 style, you can work out with three other players online.

Biggest Loser Game
Work out with Bob Harper (shown here) and Jillian Michaels from NBC's 'The Biggest Loser.'

Geocaching

People who prefer trails to gyms can grab hiking boots and a GPS device and participate in a high-tech treasure hunt called geocaching. Geocachers put toys and trinkets into boxes (called caches), leave them in parks and neighborhoods, upload their GPS coordinates, and allow other people to hunt and find them. GPS coordinates let players get close--but beyond that, hints and old-fashioned hide-and-seek are involved in finding the cache. Players can take the goodies out of the box so long as they leave something else of equal value.

Websites such as Geocaching.com let players post and find hikes and caches in their area, log their experiences, and even compete in teams. According to Groundspeak, which hosts Geocaching.com, about 4 million people worldwide have found about 1.4 million caches. The activity is popular in the United States, Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom.

Garmin Chirp
Upload geocaching locations and hints using the Garmin Chirp.

Not surprisingly GPS maker Garmin has gotten in on the geocaching action, having recently launched its own geocaching Website called OpenCaching in December 2010. Garmin also released in October 2010 the Garmin Chirp, a small wireless beacon that lets geocachers upload coordinates and hints for caches. This durable device lives in the cache and can count the number of people who find it.

Canadian entrepreneur Martin Pedersen says that geocaching has helped him lose 35 pounds. On his Website FamilyNavigation.com, he has pledged to lose 100 pounds, walk 2500 kilometers, and find 1000 caches in a year. (He and his family have found 999 caches so far!) He started geocaching in July 2009 after his wife introduced him to the activity. After a move from Calgary to Vancouver Island, he found it a way not only to get in shape but also to explore his new environment.

Martin Pedersen
Martin Pedersen combines hiking and treasure hunting in the high-tech activity of geocaching. (Photo by Lisa Pedersen)
Pedersen says that he's not "a gym rat," so he was looking for an exercise option that was inexpensive yet interesting. He likes to hike, but found that it could get mundane. The incentive of hidden treasure keeps him walking. "Some of the caches are on trails that are not easy hikes, but there's a cache at the end of the trail, so you're going for it," he says.

Sometimes Pedersen geocaches with his wife and three kids, and other times he walks alone. He uses Geocaching.com to find caches in areas he wants to explore. The site gives hints of what's in certain caches, so he can find things of interest to his kids (toy animals and bugs) should they accompany him.

His last geocaching trip took him to scenic Elk Falls Provincial Park, where he walked by a river to a lake and finished out by a waterfall. His geocaching kit consists of a notebook (for thinking and writing), water, spare batteries, hiking gear, a bag of items to trade, and of course a GPS device. Pedersen uses a Garmin Oregon 200.

Magellan Explorist 710
Magellan's Explorist 710 lets you post your geocaching notes and guides you through city and back-country terrain.
Garmin GPS devices aren't the only ones designed for geocaching. Magellan's waterproof Explorist 510 ($350), 610 ($450), and 710 ($550) are built for rugged hiking. Each comes with a 3.2-megapixel camera and a microphone for sharing geolocated images and notes on geocaching sites. You can also view names, descriptions, logs, and other information about caches right on the device. The 610 and 710 come with a compass, altimeter, and topographic maps. The 710 includes city maps, too.

Garmin Approach S1
Improve your golf game and your timeliness with the GPS-enabled Garmin Approach S1 wrist watch.
In case your idea of strolling involves golf clubs, you might opt for Garmin's Approach S1 Golf Watch. The light, backlit wristwatch not only tells time but also comes loaded with more than 14,000 North American golf courses. Select a course, and get distances to holes. You can measure how far you've hit the ball, and the built-in odometer lets you know how far you've walked.

Apps Gone Social

There is no shortage of fitness-focused mobile phone and iPad apps. Many people enthusiastically download them when they first decide to get healthy, but eventually the apps become unused memorials to broken diets and lapsed training programs. Several apps, however, are employing social-networking mainstays, such as badges, to provide motivation against quitting when the going gets tough--or at least when it gets just plain boring.

RunKeeper (standard version free, Pro version $10) is a GPS-enabled app for iPhone and Android that lets you track the distance, time, pace, route, and even elevation of your runs. Its partnership with Foursquare lets you earn badges when you have completed 5Ks, marathon runs, and distances in between. Your badges appear not only on your Foursquare account but also in your RunKeeper feed so you can impress your running buddies.

WorkSmart Labs CardioTrainer
CardioTrainer motivates you to stick to your resolutions by putting a donation to a charity at stake.
WorkSmart Labs CardioTrainer, one of the first Android fitness apps, uses a smartphone's GPS capabilities to track your participation in outdoor sports such as running, biking, and even cross-country skiing. You can record how far you went, as well as how many calories you've burned. It's smart enough to stop recording when you're waiting at a traffic light. The latest update even helps you out with New Year's resolutions by placing a humanitarian wager on them: Pick a resolution (such as "I will exercise twice a week for the next two months") and then select a cause (such as "donate $20 to the Red Cross"). If you don't make good on the resolution, your cause gets its money. If you stick to it, your money is refunded.

Mashable is reporting that Nike will be revamping its NikeWomen Training Club iPhone app in January 2011, replacing its current cartoon style with a sleek photographic look. The revised version will include 60 audio-guided workouts at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels and at 15-, 30-, and 45-minute durations. You'll unlock different badges with kudos from sports celebrities as you continue to use the app.

When it comes to getting fit and losing weight, no technology can eliminate the effort required to exercise regularly, cut calories, and eat healthy--but today's hardware and software can make the commitment a little more entertaining.

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