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Watching your step on path to fitness

Red Sox players test latest version of local firm's high-tech pedometer

By Jennifer Rosinski
Globe Correspondent / April 26, 2007

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You won't find these statistics on the back of Doug Mirabelli's baseball card.

But they are just as important to the Red Sox catcher as his batting average. He is among several Boston players tracking their physical activity with a tiny souped-up pedometer created by a Southborough company.

"Being an athlete, you're always competitive and you even compete with yourself," Mirabelli said. "You say to yourself, 'Can I beat yesterday's numbers?' This lets you keep track of those numbers."

If you look closely enough, you'll see the small, round, black devices clipped on the shoes of pitchers Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, first baseman Kevin Youkilis, and infielder Alex Cora. The information has helped trainers track players ' weight loss and exercise routines, as well as determine how activity off the field influences game performance.

"It's fed to them to generate curiosity and to excite them about exercise," said the team's head athletic trainer, Paul Lessard, of Framingham. "It's worked out well."

Called ActiPed, the device uses a sensor to capture the physiological waveforms of a foot stride. It can take those waves and determine, using algorithms, whether the feet belong to a body that is running, walking, or some other activity. The figures are then translated into activity statistics broken down into the number of steps taken, calories burned, active minutes, and miles traveled.

Information from the device, which can store up to 30 days of activity, can be uploaded to the Internet with a wireless connection. The information is then tracked against goals registered online at ActiHealth.com.

ActiPed was created by FitSense Technology Inc., a 14-employee company run by Natick resident Thomas Blackadar. It operates out of a more than 100-year-old brick building near downtown Southborough that was once home to a grain store.

"Initially, it started out all about calories," said Blackadar, who invented the first version of the device in 1997 and started the company soon afterward. "Then we did other work along the way."

The device is a step above most pedometers, which recognize movement with a pendulum system and often cannot distinguish between being shaken or being worn while running.

Versions of the technology, patented last month, have been worn by Boston Marathon runners, Army Rangers, and Marines. FitSense has worked with both Reebok and Nike on products that incorporate the technology.

The Sox players are wearing the latest version of ActiPed, released in January.

"They're going to win the World Series this year, absolutely," Blackadar said with a laugh. "It's something to look for."

The company's product line also includes a wristwatch that displays pace, distance, and heart rate collected from a pedometer; a heart rate monitor, and a medical-grade digital scale that can recognize the individual who is stepping on it.

ActiPed works for the players because it never has to be turned on or plugged into a computer, and its battery lasts a year, said vice president of sales William Flutie, a Natick resident, ActiPed user, and brother of former Boston College and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

"They have so many things to worry about, they want something easy," William Flutie said. "This sits on your shoe and you just forget about it."

Doug Flutie began using the ActiPed more than two years ago when he joined the Patriots as a backup QB, as he tracked his off-season workouts. Now a college football broadcaster, he still wears it when he plays for the Natick Knights in the Boston Men's Baseball League.

"It's cool," Doug Flutie said. "It's something that motivates you. You're rushing back to the computer to figure out how many steps you've taken.

"From a professional athlete's standpoint, it's a good measuring stick to determine how you're doing with your workouts."

The ActiPeds have reinforced assumptions Lessard and other Sox trainers had held about different positions on the field : If ranked based on the number of steps taken, third base is dead last while centerfield takes the top spot. "Coco Crisp, his numbers were amazing compared to everyone else," Lessard said about counts recorded during spring training. "It was kind of neat."

The data also showed Mirabelli is no slouch in the movement category. "You'd be amazed how much work a catcher does, even though he's squatting in a sitting position," Lessard said.

Besides wearing the devices during spring-training drills, the players wore them outside the ballpark.

The trainers also were curious about pitcher exertion during an inning on the mound.

"We wanted to see how much workload they were getting within that five-minute, 10 - minute inning," Lessard said. "Using those numbers, we devised a workout to mimic what they're doing while pitching."

The players competed with one another as they tracked their weight losses and step - count goals, Lessard said, adding that he hopes they use the ActiPed in the off-season.

"It's just another piece of information we can use to try to stay at our optimum player weight or activity level," Mirabelli said. "I really didn't keep a close eye on performance compared to my activity level before."

The players' enthusiasm for the device has been infectious. Now some people in the front office -- Lessard wouldn't share any names -- are using it, and Red Sox wives also have indicated interest.

The device has not yet hit the commercial market, Blackadar said. The company is instead focusing on working with health care plans and disease-management programs.

It is being used in a study of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease conducted by Dr. Marilyn Moy, a pulmonologist and clinical investigator at VA Boston Healthcare System and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Researchers are tracking how much patients walk at home and how that affects their condition.

Dr. Joseph Kvedar, the director of the Center of Connected Health at Partners Healthcare, has tried the device himself and is considering whether to use it in the center's programs for providing medical care outside of the hospital setting.

"I looked at my day in a whole new way," said Kvedar, who also is vice chairman of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.

"I'd say I'm going to take the stairs; I'm going to schedule a meeting so I can walk to that person's office.

"The feedback helps. You can look at it and say, jeez, I sat in meetings all day; I think I'll go for a walk."

How it works
That black dot on Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s shoe is a sensor that captures each of his strides. Called the Actiped, it figures out whether he’s running, walking, or doing some other type of activity. It records the number of steps he takes, his active minutes, and miles traveled. It also calculates calories burned. It can store data on 30 days of activity.

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