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Top fitness gadgets for the athlete on your holiday shopping list

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There’s probably at least one runner, cyclist, swimmer, Crossfitter, baller or all-around fitness enthusiast on your shopping list this holiday season. If you want to help them make the most of their workouts — whether they want to establish a new personal record, conquer a new distance or hit a weight loss goal — consider a gift from the ever-growing market of fitness devices. We’ll start with fitness trackers, continue with watches and end with various accessories.

(Note: Though a longtime runner, the author is not a certified coach of any kind. Always consult a physician before beginning any vigorous exercise program, too.)

Also: 10 Tips for Using Fitness Gadgets to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

Let’s start with some fitness trackers. These examples of wearable tech monitor daily activity such as steps taken, calories burned, heart rate and sleep patterns.

Fitbit makes several fitness trackers. In addition to how they’re worn, Fitbits differ largely based on their capability to set goals, track stair-climbing and measure “sleep efficiency.” All sync wirelessly with Windows or Mac OSX as well as Bluetooth 4.0 devices, all offer free online and mobile tools and all export data to other fitness apps, including RunKeeper and Lose It!

The Fitbit Force ($129.95) gets the vote here, since it displays the time, measures floors climbed and wakes you with a silent alarm, though the Fitbit One ($99.95) will please the wristband-averse.

The Jawbone UP ($129.99) wristband logs workouts and tracks sleep, but it goes a step further to help you log what you eat and how you’re feeling. It does this by syncing with the UP 3.0 app for Android and iOS. The app then uses UP’s “insight engine” to, as the company puts it, “discover hidden connections and patterns” in both daily and nightly activities.

For the iPhone user on your list, you could splurge on the Jawbone UP 24 ($149.99), which uses Bluetooth Smart technology to sync wirelessly with the phone.

The device that started it all back in 2006, with a wireless chip that linked select pairs of Nikes to an iPod, now comes in a colorful Bluetooth-enabled wristband. The Nike+ Fuelband SE ($149) is “uniquely designed to measure whole-body movement;” it tracks the intensity of activities and monitors your progress toward pre-determined goals, with information displayed on your iPhone or Android app. You can connect to other Nike+ Fuelband users, with your activity appearing in a daily leaderboard. You can compete collectively or individually for badges and other motivation.

Blog: Nike+ Run-Tracking App Sleek, Easy to Use

Like the previous devices, BodyMedia products track physical activity and sleep, sync with smartphones and link with third-party apps such as RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal. There are key differences, though: The devices are worn around the arm, not the wrist, they’re seen every week on The Biggest Loser and use of the online activity tracker application requires a monthly $6.95 fee. The Bluetooth-enabled Wireless LINK Armband ($119) does cost more than the CORE Armband ($89), but the former’s free mobile app includes a real-time dashboard and customized workouts in addition to the latter’s food log and workout chart.

The Basis B1 ($199) is the most expensive of the fitness tracker on the list, but it also tracks the most information, logging skin temperature and perspiration in addition to heart rate and calories burned during physical activity. It’s also programmed to tell the difference between walking, running and cycling. The device syncs to select iPhones and Android phones, where a mobile app lets you check your progress. On a PC or Mac, meanwhile, you can get a long-term look at heart rate, sleep metrics and pattern detection such as resting heart rate and typical perspiration levels.

Comparison: Ranking Top Wearable Fitness Trackers

Withings, which makes scales, baby monitors and an iOS-compatible blood pressure monitor, also offers the Pulse activity tracker ($99.95). You can slip it into a pocket or purse, clip it onto clothing or wear it on the wrist. Pulse tracks activity, sleep and, by pressing a finger to the back of the device, pulse. Meanwhile, swiping the device display lets you view up to 10 days’ worth of previous activity. Pulse syncs with the free Withings Health Mare iOS and Android app, as well as more than 100 partner apps for tasks such as calorie tracking and weight loss coaching.

Top fitness trackers are great, but more serious athletes may want a watch that measures how far they’ve gone, beeps whenever it’s time to stop lollygagging and start running Yasso 800s again, provides real-time feedback on heart rate, pace and elevation, and stores workouts for future review — all without syncing to a smartphone.

Many athletes turn to the Timex Ironman collection. Study your options, though. Some watches aren’t GPS-enabled, so runners must map routes beforehand, while others aren’t water-resistant and therefore won’t work for swimmers. The Ironman Run Trainer 2.0 ($225), is both; it also features a customizable display, stores up to 15 workouts and connects to popular online training sites.

Garmin watches are a common sight at many a starting line. Models range from the top-of-the-line Forerunner 910XT (starting at $399.99), which is water-resistant to 50 meters and records a swimmer’s stroke type, to the Forerunner 10 ($129.99), which comes in six colors and remembers a runner’s best time at various distance. The Forerunner 210 ($249.99) will work well for the runner on your list, though, as it lets users program interval or fartlek workouts and view their pace for each repetition.

Polar makes a wide range of watches, from those with basic heart rate monitors and activity trackers to the RS800CX GPS ($519.95), which includes smart coaching, cadence measurement and stride sensing features, along with an altimeter, barometer and thermometer.

If that’s a bit much, especially for a beginning runner, consider the GPS-enabled FT60 ($179.95). You can start with an aerobic fitness test at rest and use that, along with Polar’s training software (Mac and PC compatible), to device workouts and set weekly personalized training goals. You can set “heart rate target zones” to establish the intensity of a workout and trigger alarms if heart rates leave these preset zones.

For some, a watch alone doesn’t provide enough data to measure fitness. To that end, Garmin and Polar offer accessories compatible with many of their watches.

The Garmin Foot Pod ($69.99) measures cadence, or steps per minute, for runners and cyclists. It also measures distance when GPS is unavailable. The Soft Strap Premium Heart Rate Monitor ($69.99) wraps around the chest to measure heart rate during a workout. Bonus: The monitor detaches from the machine-washable strap.

Meanwhile, Polar makes the H7 heart rate sensor ($79.95). H7 uses the company’s GymLink technology to connect to various Polar products and Bluetooth connectivity to link to late-model iOS devices.

All scales measure body weight, but that’s only part of the story. Body fat percent provides a more accurate indication of a person’s overall fitness, while body water percentage offers insight into how whether a person is sufficiently hydrated.

The Tanita BF-680W scale $59.99) measures weight, body fat and body water (or, with the press of a button, only weight), calculated after you enter your height. The scale can stores data for two adult users and features an “athlete mode,” which accounts for the fact that active adults may have higher body fat and lower body water percentages than the norm.

Blogging at sister site ComputerWorld, Jonny Evans identifies nine great gifts for iPhone-using cyclists. The coolest item on the list: The ReeCharge Power Pack ($100), a weatherproof power system that attaches to a bicycle hub dynamo, stores energy created by the generator in the hub and uses that energy (and a micro-USB cable) to recharge a smartphone, camera, GPS or other USB-chargeable device, not just an iPhone. You can charge a device while you ride or store the power for use when the ride is over.

Evans’ list also includes a device that could literally save your life. The ICEdot Crash Sensor ($149) attaches to a bicycle helmet and pairs with a smartphone app — currently limited to iPhone 4S or later, but coming soon to Android 4.3 or later — to detect a rider’s motion, impacts and changes in forces. When “critical forces” occur, the sensor triggers the app, which sounds an alarm and starts an emergency countdown. If the incident is a minor one, the rider can disarm the countdown. If it’s not, the app texts emergency contacts with GPS coordinates and other pertinent information. The company also recommends the device for cross country skiers, hikers or others who exercise in remote areas.

OK, so this is neither invisible nor a bike helmet, but it’s still pretty darn cool. Hövding (€399; approximately $540) is an airbag for cyclists. Worn as a neck collar (but Swedish and, therefore, stylish), Hövding uses embedded sensors to detect changes in speed or angle. In the event of an accident, the airbag inflates in one-tenth of a second, before a cyclist makes impact with the ground, building or automobile. According to an insurance study cited by its makers, Hövding offers three times the shock absorption of more traditional bicycle helmets.

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