I’ve been wearing a Fitbit for the past 9 months. I guess it’s the tech equivalent of carrying a baby to term, minus the pain but it’s wrought changes in my life nonetheless. My Fitbit journey has been an evolving one: from initially checking my progress every few hours to a period of nonchalance to accepting it as a really positive part of my life. And 9 months later I’m now thinking about taking my relationship with Fitbit a step further.
I like technology and I like fitness, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been mildly curious about wearable fitness technology ever since I first heard about it. The truth however is that I was a bit skeptical of its accuracy, and as someone who already enjoys keeping fit I didn’t feel that I needed a device to help motivate me. However when in June last year my company launched a “Fitbit Challenge” and offered subsidised devices, I decided to take the plunge. I opted for the Fitbit Flex and have worn it on my wrist ever since.
Fitbit has a range of devices, some which track more than others. The Flex has two main functions: it tracks your activity and your sleep. The Flex is a tiny device that you insert into a wristband (which comes in a range of colurs!) and wear around your non-dominant wrist. It syncs with computers and smartphones via Bluetooth and allows you to track your progress using an app. You can add friends and compare your progress with them, or form teams and compete for the highest activity. The latter is what my company did last year with their challenge. Along with the ability to compete with others, Fitbit gamifies fitness by awarding badges based on certain achievements.
The main way that the Fitbit Flex measures activity is by counting the number of steps taken and measuring the time that you’re active. It also tracks the distance you have traveled and calories burned. Other Fitbit models will also track the elevation you’ve gained, i.e. the number of flights of stairs climbed. It’s good at tracking walking and running, but the app also allows you to manually enter other activities such as swimming, cycling or weight-lifting, which will then be added to your active minutes total. You can also input the food and water that you consume to see the number of calories that you’re eating and drinking versus what you are burning. Fitbit syncs with other fitness apps such as MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun.
As the device is worn around your wrist it’s not going to be completely accurate in measuring the number of steps that you take. If I move my arm around enough it will also register ‘steps’ — but then again, that’s activity too. In fact, moving your arm to increase your step counter gets tiring after a while! In order to get an idea of how accurate it was, I decided to take it on the treadmill and compare the distance that the treadmill said I’d traveled with the distance that Fitbit reported. I did this several times and found that the Fitbit reported approximately 10% more distance than the treadmill. If I walked around with the app open, the step count did seem to increase by one for every step I took. There is the option to enter your stride length in your online profile, but I haven’t done that. That may increase the accuracy.
I found that the Fitbit considered me to be “very active” when I moved at a brisk walk or faster, so it counted my walks to and from the office as part of my very active minutes for the day. At first I was surprised by this, as I don’t consider this walk as being particularly active, simply a necessity to get to work, and certainly not a part of my daily exercise. But then again, I like to work out pretty hard when I exercise and normally don’t think I’m doing enough unless I’m sweating. The thing is though, it’s actually good for us to be out walking. I actually added a daily walk to my routine. And I was even surprised at how much distance I could cover if I was out shopping for a few hours!
When I first started using the device, I’d obsessively check it every few hours to see how I was tracking. The Flex device itself only gives you a rough progress count (it has five LEDs that indicate 2000 steps each) so I had to use the app to see my exact step count. With my goal set at the recommended 10,000 steps per day, I was damn determined to hit it every single day. In fact, I began finding ways to deliberately take more steps and I even found myself walking in circles around my house to get in those last few hundred steps or so if it looked like I wasn’t quite going to make 10,000 for the day. This lasted for quite a while and I was legitimately disappointed the first time I couldn’t make 10,000 steps in a day after getting the device. It motivated me way more than I had expected it to. This obsessive motivation didn’t last forever, but it did make me aware of how much activity was needed to reach my goals. Today, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit 10,000 steps, but I have a pretty good idea of how I’m tracking anyway, and I’m more aware of my activity (or lack of it!) than ever.
When you’re going to go to sleep, you tap the Fitbit Flex a bunch of times to put it into sleep mode, and do the same again the next morning to put it back into normal mode. In sleep mode, the Fitbit will monitor your sleep pattern, including times of deep sleep, restlessness and time awake. It’s not always that accurate because it uses movement to gauge your sleep. If I am wide awake but lie still, it will think I’m asleep. In fact, it only really registers me as awake if I’m out of bed and taking steps. The rest of the time, if you’re moving a little, it records you as being restless. The total sleep reported by the app actually subtracts your time awake and restless and only considers deep sleep. So you might have been in bed for 8 hours, but only had 7.5 hours of quality sleep. One thing that I found strange was that the Fitbit almost always says that I took 6 minutes to fall asleep. This must be pre-programmed in or something because I usually lie very still when I first decide it’s bed time.
For me, the best thing about the sleep tracking was that it gave me a good idea of whether or not I was getting enough sleep. If I stayed up late a few nights in a row, it was really clear in the app. As someone who can easily stay up way too late on the computer or playing games, it made me way more aware of when I needed to get to bed, especially when I didn’t realise I’d been staying up too late for the past few nights.
The Fitbit Flex also has an alarm function, where it will act as a silent alarm and vibrate to wake you up. I tried it out, but I prefer my regular alarm so I don’t use it. As I mentioned earlier, it also lets you count your calories, along with water intake. I don’t count calories and to be honest I find it tedious as most of my food is homemade, but I’ve heard a lot of good things from people who use apps like Fitbit or MyFitnessPal to count calories. Being able to not only track your calories but also see your expenditure would be a huge benefit to those who are trying to lose weight.
The Flex device is waterproof, which means that I can keep it on and pretty much forget aboutit. I wear it swimming and in the shower. The battery life is also good and I get about five days in between charges. When my Flex was new, I was very good about charging it regularly, but over time I’ve become more lax and don’t really think about how long it has been between charges. I usually wait for it to alert me that the battery is low.
I have found myself wishing that the Flex had additional functions to make it a more rounded fitness device. A heart rate monitor would be nice, along with a slightly larger display so that I could see my actual step count and even the time. Recently Fitbit released a new range of trackers, including some that have these functions and now I’m suddenly very tempted to upgrade!
I don’t think that one of these devices is really necessary for someone who is already active, although I was surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing all of my stats in detail and by the fact that having the device there did motivate me to do more. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Fitbit to someone just starting out with fitness in order to not only help motivate them but educate them about their activity levels too.