Earlier this season John Calipari, coach of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, measured each player's performance with a heart monitor. The experiment enabled him to tell who was working to maximum potential and who wasn't.
Even if you're not a college athlete, there are gadgets that will measure your exercise intensity. And some of them are expensive, but some are free.
Each brand of fitness gadgets — among them the Nike Fuelband and the Fitbit — has its camps, but heart rates might be better measured by devices produced by Polar and Garmin, according to Corey Donohoo, health and well-being director of the Beaumont branch of the YMCA.
The devices typically consist of a strap that you wear around your chest or a watch-like monitor for the wrist. The gadgets are pricey — from $60 for a Fitbit Zip to $150 for a Nike Fuelband.
"While I know of these gadgets, I do not use them," Kirk Abraham, associate professor of exercise science at Transylvania University, wrote in an email. "This is certainly an area of interest in the exercise science community, and many groups are working to validate these devices by putting them to the test in experiments on energy expenditure."
Sheila Kalas, owner of Fitness Plus, said several of her clients who compete at high levels are successful users of technological devices that give feedback to help them win races and competitions.
Others, she said, have been raised on technology — smartphones and Internet applications — and gravitate toward the Fitbits.
"It really depends on your personality," she said. "All of these devices are very good motivational tools for people who are motivated by technology. But technology is not necessary to make you fit and there's nothing magical about it. Most people are just motivated to get off their butt."
Kalas' fitness center recently got a treadmill that allows users of Fitbit, Nike Plus and iPhone technology to plug in their devices and get a custom screen showing their progress as they work out.
Mark Abel, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health promotion at UK, has conducted research with accelerometers (basically a more precise pedometer), pedometers and heart rate monitors.
"They all have their limitations, and they have their advantages," Abel said.
For the average athlete, a pedometer is a simple and effective way to track your activity, Abel said. The recommendation by the American Heart Association is to walk 10,000 steps a day.
So, fine: Let's say you're not going to be running with the Wildcats any time soon. How do you ensure that you work up to your own personal best?
Abel suggests that you time your walking. If you're walking about 100 steps a minute, "for most people that would be the lower level of moderate intensity classification."
That's about three miles an hour.
A free way to measure your heart rate is to count how many beats of your heart you get in your wrist or neck for six seconds, and multiply that by 10. Abel said it might not "be attractive from a fancy technological standpoint," but as long as you have a clock or watch, it works. He said one of the department's graduate students, a member of the UK softball team, is studying how well the Nike Fuelband works.
A colleague of Donohoo's at the Beaumont YMCA had used a Nike Fuelband but found it didn't track intensity, so it wasn't really helpful in measuring activities that get the heart rate up, he said.
Still, for many who exercise, the intensity that comes from elite athleticism isn't the challenge: Simply being active is.
"We have people who have years and years of inactivity," Donohoo said. "Just coming and doing something for 10 minutes is good; it doesn't even matter what their pace is."
Working to the heart's maximum can be dangerous, he said, and it can be discouraging, particularly for those who have been inactive.
As for intensity, Donohoo said, "Sometimes we don't worry about it."
For the iPhone, Pedometer by the Arawella Corporation is a free and easy option. Just walk and let it count your steps.