By Su Reid-St. John
For the cost of about an hour with a flesh-and-blood personal trainer, the Itami FiTrainer, a new audio workout trainer/heart-rate monitor, could guide you through workouts for years to come. But would you want it to? I decided to find out.
The setup, happily, is easy: You turn it on, select an exercise type (walking, running, or aerobics), enter your age, choose whether you want music, and that’s it—you’re ready to go. Then you put the earphones in place, clip the heart-rate monitor to your left earlobe (yes, you read that correctly), and start your workout.
The device uses a combo of resting heart rate (your rate when you first put it on) and your age to come up with a target heart-rate zone, then tries to keep you in the middle of the zone using data from the earlobe monitor. Based on its readings, every 15–20 seconds, a woman’s voice prods you to slow down, speed up, or stick with your current pace.
If you’re the type of exerciser who needs constant badgering, this is for you. If, like me, you’re not, you may find it slightly annoying. The first time I tried the FiTrainer, I kept the music off, so all I heard (beside the woman’s voice) was a metronomic sort of ticking, designed to keep me on pace.
Oddly, the FiTrainer doesn’t seem to take into account that your heart rate needs a smidgen of time to climb into the target range during the warm-up. It kept telling me to follow the beat and exercise "much harder”—even though I’d just started out. Before long, I found myself inwardly cursing the “trainer,” much as I used to curse our assistant coach, Anita, during high-school cross-country ski practice when she would stand at the top of a hill, barking at me to pick up the pace.
But I digress. Back to the workout: I was walking in my very hilly neighborhood and quickly learned that the FiTrainer was designed for level ground. Like clockwork, every time I started to go up a hill (and my heart rate increased with the exertion), it would tell me to slow down; as soon as I began to descend, it would tell me to exercise harder—even though I was already walking faster than the beat. Finally, I’d reach some level ground and earn blessed silence…until I was reminded 15 seconds later to keep exercising “at this pace”.
Effort-wise, though, the device did its job. For fun, I had punched in an age several years younger than I actually am. The resulting pace was slightly faster than my normal speed, but doable. I ended up finishing my favorite walking route a couple minutes faster than usual, and since more speed equals more calories burned, that was a good thing.
The second time I tried the FiTrainer, I headed out on the much flatter walking path across from where I work. I was feeling a little low-energy, so I put in my actual age. It kept me at a slightly slower, but still challenging, pace—that part was good. Here’s the thing though: I switched on the background music this time. How can I describe it to you? Imagine an endless calliope with a touch of boardwalk carnival, overlaid with a hint of some guy trying out all the nifty accompaniment buttons on his new keyboard. Help me, Bono!
So, as you’ve probably gathered, the FiTrainer isn’t for me. But—and this is a significant but—if you’re the type who wants or needs to be led through your workout, the type who depends on outside motivation to burn maximum calories, the type who longs for a personal trainer but doesn’t have the bucks, this device would be a sound investment. Just ignore the music option. Trust me.
Product: Itami FiTrainer
Pros: It’s a cinch to program, very effective at keeping you working out at a good pace, and much cheaper than a “real” personal trainer.
Cons: The frequency of the “trainer’s” comments can be annoying, and the device doesn’t work well on hills. Plus, the optional music is pretty awful.
Cost: $60 at Itami.com
Extra tip: You can connect the FiTrainer to your iPod to pipe in your own music, but don’t bother. Unless you’re miraculously able to choose a song with the same beat as the device’s metronome, it just ends up sounding jumbled and is hard to follow.