I basically have no natural athletic ability. Fortunately, people like me can be trained. And the best way to get fit (and competitive, if you want to be) is with a heart-rate monitor. In fact, if there's one thing that can make your workouts more meaningful, less painful, and completely un-boring, it's that tool. I can do a workout just fine if I forget my iPod, but when I forget my heart-rate monitor, I struggle to know whether I'm making the most of my workout. Here's why I swear by it:
It eliminates "junk workouts," as heart-rate guru Sally Edwards calls them. Once you know your own personal maximum heart rate (everyone's is different, see "How Do I Use This Thing?"), you can give a purpose to every workout. Some workouts will be about teaching your body to burn fat (essential if you're doing endurance events); others will be about teaching it to sustain a high heart rate for a few minutes (helpful for breaking away from the pack or running from a dog (or bee) in your neighborhood).
You can see/chart/be amazed by your progress In a short time, you'll go from, say, running 11-minute miles at a low-for-you heart rate to running 10-minute miles at the same rate. The faster you go at a low heart rate, the fitter you are.
It keeps you focused on the right things During a workout, the only question you need to ask yourself is "am I at the right heart rate?" not "how many minutes do I have left?" or "am I going fast enough?" Working out in the future (worrying about whether you have the stamina to go the whole way, or whether you can stand running/walking/biking for another five minutes) puts you in the fast lane to misery. When you know what your heart is supposed to be doing, all you have to worry about is whether it's doing it.
It eliminates boredom Playing with your heart rate—taking it up for two minutes, down for one, back up for 30 seconds, back down for 30 and endless variations like that—teaches your body important things and makes workout time fly.
How Do I Use This Thing?
(aka: Getting Started with Your Heart Rate Monitor)
The first thing you need to do when you put your heart-rate monitor on is to figure out your maximum heart rate (the old "220 minus your age" formula won't tell you anything). Find easy tests to get your true max in books including The Heart-Rate Monitor Guidebook to Heart Zone Training by Sally Edwards or Total Heart Rate Training by Joe Friel). Or, get heart-rate tests right in the box when you buy one of the new Timex Fitness Series watches (in Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, and REI stores in feminine sizes and at totally affordable prices).