Gift Guide 2013: Health and fitness gadgets

Use technology to start feeling better after the holidays

There's no time like the present to start thinking about ways to make you feel better or get healthier. The gadgets and gift ideas presented here focus on exercise-related gadgets and two ways on getting a better night's sleep, which has been shown as one of the best ways to get healthier. Use these in-between your long bouts of videogame playing or video watching on the couch!

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

[ALSO: Wacky and unique gifts for the holidays]

Product: Technogel Sleeping PillowsPrice: $169

Buy this if: You have tried a ton of other pillows and are looking for a healthy and more comfortable option.

technogel pillow

We usually have a rule for our holiday gift guide that the products we review have an on/off switch, which signifies some sort of technology involved. However, in this case, we’re making an exception, because the technology behind these pillows are very interesting, plus it has the word “techno” in its name.

The Technogel pillows are made of gel-like materials that should remind you of the gel-based inserts used in some Dr. Scholl’s products (if you aren’t using those, I’d highly recommend them as well if you are experiencing some foot pain). Like memory-foam based pillows, the Technogel “molds itself to each individual user’s structure,” creating a “substantial reduction in pressure peaks leading to an improvement in blood circulation.”

After using this pillow for a few months, I can honestly say this is the best pillow I’ve ever used. My sleep has never been better -- I don’t wake up with any neck crinks, lower back issues and other aches and pains that I often could associate with other pillows. If you suffer from those issues and feel that your pillow might be the culprit, I’d highly recommend trying a Technogel pillow.

The Technogel pillows come in a variety of styles, depending on your sleep style. I tried the “Deluxe” version, which is aimed at people who prefer thicker pillows (as well as side sleepers), but they have pillows aimed at those who prefer lower pillows, stomach sleepers, back sleepers, etc. The company also makes a travel pillow and Travel Collar style, which would be highly recommended for commuters who need to catch some winks on the next red-eye.

In addition to the form-fitting nature of the Technogel, the pillows also feature thermal regulation (the pillow did feel cooler than other pillows) and ventilation, which aims to make the pillows more durable in the long run. Since I’ve only had the pillow for a few months, it’s hard to test the durability, but it still feels great after those two months.

If you love the Technogel pillows, the next big step would be to look at Technogel mattresses, but that would be a major purchase rather than a “holiday gift” -- start small, see if you enjoy it, and then jump up to the next level.

The hardest part might be finding a pillow -- for the most part, the company sells them through mattress and other dealers, offering a site to locate a dealer near your state. However, we were able to locate some online sales locations -- Healthy Back, Pacific Pillows and Back to Bed.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: BackBeat GO 2 wireless earbudsCompany: Plantronics

Price: $80

Buy this if: You want a good pair of wireless earbuds for your workout that won’t short out when you sweat or fall out of your ears while running.

backbeat

If you enjoy listening to music or podcasts while working out, a few issues come up related to your headphones/headset/earbuds. If you’re using wired earbuds or headphones, the wire inevitably gets in the way during a run, and either your earbuds or music player gets flung across the room.

If you’ve solved that issue by buying a music player or accessory that clips onto your shorts or arm, the second issue that comes up are earbuds that constantly fall out of your ears as you begin to sweat.

Plantronics aims to solve both of those issues with its BackBeat brand of wireless earbuds. The company has updated these to address earlier issues related to users sweating and shorting out the earbuds, so much so that it’s now a selling point for the headphones -- the company promises “military-grade nano-coating” that “protects the earbuds against sweat, moisture and spills.”

The BackBeat GO 2 earbuds are basically two earbuds connected by a small, thin cable. Bluetooth wireless connects the earbuds to your music player / phone / audio source, eliminating the bulkier headphone cable. You wear the cable behind your head, so your swinging arms won’t get in the way. Three sets of eartip sizes (small, medium or large) let you decide the best fit for the inside of your ear -- the company says a better fit will produce better bass for your music. In theory, you want a tighter fit so the earbuds don’t slip out when you start to sweat, but not so tight that your ears start to hurt after 10 minutes. On the cable itself, close to the right earbud, is a control system with three buttons – power, and two volume controls.

Plantronics claims about 4.5 hours of listening time and 5 hours of talk time -- if you want to wear these while talking on the phone -- and the unit comes with a portable charger/case that can offer up to 14.5 hours of listening time (if fully charged). You can go for a long time before you need to recharge the earbuds with the wall charger (if you keep the portable charger/case charged up).

Overall I was pleased with the two issues the earbuds are meant to solve -- I could listen to music or podcasts during my workout without the fear of having my arm hit my earbud cables, or constantly needing to re-attach the earbuds to my ears because of the moisture.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: PulseCompany: Withings

Price: $100

Buy this for: The health-conscious friend who has everything and wants a lot of data about their health.

pulse

The Pulse measures a variety of data for the health conscious. It’s a pedometer that will also tell you distance traveled, calories burned, and elevation climbed. Wear it while jogging and it will tell you how long you worked out and how far you ran. It can read your heart rate, although it doesn’t constantly track it during the day. Finally, it analyzes your sleep patterns, so you can know how many times you woke up in the middle of the night, how many hours of deep sleep and light sleep you received during the night. All of this information can be safely stored in a private Withings account on your smartphone. Once you download the free app, the Pulse will sync with your phone. And it only weighs 8 grams. It’s tiny!

Now for the downsides - it didn’t always work well in our tests. One day, I forgot to wear it, but it told me that I went for a two-mile walk while it sat on my kitchen table. A few times it told me I was awake all night, and I knew I wasn’t. So while it does a lot of really great things and tracks a lot of health data, it wasn’t flawless in our testing of the unit.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Jennifer Finn

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Product: PolarPillow

Company: PolarPillow

Price: $120

Buy this for: Anyone who constantly shifts their pillow to “the cool side” and wants a better night’s sleep.

Polar pillow

Lately I’ve been fascinated with sleep technology, and so I agreed to test out the PolarPillow, despite it not having an on/off switch (or being an accessory to a device that does), which we usually require for the Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

The PolarPillow is a very heavy gel-based pillow similar to the Technogel pillow (see above), but with the addition of a pocket in the middle that can contain a cold pack. Place the cold pack in a freezer for about an hour (you can place it in longer, but it won’t freeze solid and it won’t get any colder), and then slip it into the pillow’s pocket. You then have an “always cool” pillow for sleeping, which can be wonderful for those nights when you suffer from “hot head”, or those hot summer nights when the cool side of the pillow beckons.

The pillow can be used without the “Turbo Cooling Pack”, in which case you receive “subtle cooling” - some may prefer this method, as the first few times you use this you’ll be quite aware of the cooling nature of the pillow. I also tested this during the colder autumn months, when I preferred sleeping with an electric blanket to keep me warm. I’d imagine that this pillow becomes better during a hot summer night than a cold winter evening.

At $120, this pillow comes with a price - you may balk at such a cost, but for those who constantly wake up looking for relief, it could be well worth it.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: MIO Alpha heart-rate watchCompany: MIO Global

Price: $200

Buy this for: The athlete on your list who wants to better monitor their heart rate without having to wear an uncomfortable chest strap or provide heart-rate data to their smartphone app.

alpha watch

Over the past year I’ve lost 50 pounds, and part of that weight-loss plan included getting more exercise. While I never thought I’d be a runner, eventually I started to run in order to generate a faster weight loss. The key for me, at least, was to maximize my heart rate while I was walking (and eventually jogging/running) on the treadmill. While the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill itself is a nice status reminder of what your heart is doing, the MIO Alpha heart rate monitor is a nice watch accessory that could tell me my heart rate without having to put my hands on the treadmill monitor.

There’s also no chest strap attachment like you’d find with other heart-rate monitors, which is uncomfortable for many runners. The watch also uses Bluetooth to connect to a compatible smartphone to tie into fitness apps. (I just wish MIO would do a better job of announcing which apps they work with, or create their own. The apps I tried were all outdoor/GPS-enabled running apps - so while it could display the heart rate, it never recorded my distance since I was running on a treadmill.)

The device seems to be geared more for the upper-end runner or athlete - I’m not yet training for a triathlon (nor do I plan to), so the once-or-twice-a-week runner might not want to shell out $200 for this kind of system if they aren’t training for something specific. But for a nice watch that tells you what your heart-rate is in real-time, it’s a nice little device.

This also offers some kind of preview about the types of apps we may soon see on smart-watches being developed by other manufacturers - I’d imagine that when Apple or others finally perfect their watch, that heart-rate monitoring will be high on the list of features.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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