My Experiments with Fitness Trackers
Bottom Line Up Front: I recommend everyone get a fitness tracking device of some type to quantify the basic areas of physical fitness such as activity and/or sleep. This is a review of three fitness trackers I have used as well as my wish list for new devices in this category.
Fitness trackers come in many forms. They go all the way from a small device you wear on your belt like the Fitbit One to a fully functioning watch that has GPS capability like some of the Polar devices. I group any device that can be used to measure activity levels (steps, distance, stairs walked) and sleep (quantity and quality) together. Some devices are more powerful than basic fitness trackers in that they do MORE than those basic things. They are, however, still fitness trackers by a common definition. You will often see them reviewed separately. Usually they are grouped into fitness trackers and fitness watches, the difference being watches do all that a fitness tracker does plus more or that the watch is more for serious athletes so it omits basic steps or sleep tracking in favor or performance data. For the purposes of our discussion here, I will treat them the same. They are all fitness devices because they tell you something about some measure of physical activity.
As I got more inundated with articles about the dangers of sitting and the benefits of just base-level activity (not exercise), I decided I wanted to get some tech to help me quantify how much I was moving. You basically have two options at the introduction: devices you wear on your wrist and ones you wear on your belt/pants. I had an expensive watch that I received as a gift and I didn’t like the idea of wearing something all the time on my non-watch hand either, which many people do, so I opted for a belt one. They are also less expensive because they are more basic. As I was unsure of whether or not I would use this device regularly, sub-$100 seemed fair. So I go where I always start for tech reviews, TheWirecutter.com. They have a VERY extensive review over there that I refer to frequently (link is in the Further Reading at the end of the article), even now as it gets updated when new devices come out. Fitbit One was the device they recommended for non-wrist use.
As a tech nerd, this device immediately merged two passions of mine, fitness and technology. I loved it right out of the box. As soon as I could quantify my activity and see it in real time in an objective way, I became much more aware of how little I walked. I knew 10,000 steps was the magical number. This number is one some people swear by and others dismiss. Some say it is a useless number that is arbitrary. I will tell you that it is a really good indicator of an active day. When I do normal moving around, no long walks, no shopping trips, etc., I do less than 5,000 steps. As soon as I throw in a purposeful walk with the dog, I get another 3,000-4,000 (I average 1,000 steps per 10 min of walking). So I have to do normal movement plus a deliberate walk plus some more miscellaneous walking (grocery store trip maybe or some kind of outdoor activity like playing with the kids) to get 10,000 steps. In my experience, 10,000 is a good goal for most people most of the time. I still look for 10,000 even if I exercise that day. I have divorced my activity from my exercise as a short bout of intense exercise does not do what a day of low-level activity does. Various forms of exercise improve things basic activity doesn’t like strength, power, speed, agility, etc. However, of the two, I would chose a physically active day with no intense exercise over a sedentary day with one high intensity exercise session. Many articles I have read recently say your body agrees with this assessment and the negative impacts of our sedentary life cannot be undone by daily exercise despite what you have been told.
So back to me and my Fitbit. Within days, I found this little piece of plastic made me want to walk more. It became a challenge to get to 10,000 steps every day. You can see a little bit of OCD and Type A personality disorder coming through here. As part of my initiative to spend more time outdoors, enjoy nature, get my dog more active, and increase my daily non-exercise movement, this fit right in. Two walks a day plus deliberately walking around at work to break up my sitting desk were the standard within a week. All I needed was a little awareness to make me move more. I have maintained this level of care and commitment to my activity now, many months later. It is part of lifestyle now. The habit has been integrated into my normal day without conscious effort.
As I progressed with the Fitbit, the factors that made it attractive made it too simple now. The belt-based tracking which was preferred before bothered me because I had to remember to put it on in the morning. I occasionally would get 30 minutes into a 6 AM walk to find a I left my Fitbit at home. If it isn’t on the Fitbit tracker, it didn’t happen! The simplicity of the Fitbit which made its price point lower made me want more information. It didn’t do heart rate or automatic sleep quantification, which I now was interested in. The Fitbit One did a great job at getting me to move more and the money I spent was well worth it. Quick review of the Fitbit One:
Fitbit One Pros
- two-week battery life
- great app and web-based ecosystem (easy to go through past data)
- simple to use
- wireless bluetooth syncing with app
Fitbit One Cons
- belt-based (have to take it on and off)
- no heart rate data
- non-automatic sleep tracking (have to take it out of one case, put it in a wrist-bracelet and push a button to turn on sleep tracking)
I now looked for a new tracker which needed to be wrist-based so I could leave it on all the time and have some heart rate capability. Keep in mind this is still a new device which will improve drastically over time with each generation, but at this time it’s early 2013 and there aren’t many options. I was between the Garmin Vivofit and the Polar Loop. Garmin Vivofit was the recommended device from The Wirecutter for a lot of good reasons. I opted for the Polar Loop, which had a little more capacity than the Garmin for exercise performance. A key attribute was the ability for it to pair with the Polar heart rate monitor I already owned which was expensive (H7). The Garmin devices don’t work with bluetooth devices, only their own Garmin ANT+ ones. It was $100 cheaper to get the Polar for the same capability. The Loop needs to be recharged every 3-5 days whereas the Garmin has a regular watch battery and display so it lasts almost a year. This is a huge difference I recognized at the time and which became significant later. The Vivofit is still the recommended device at TheWirecutter.com by the way, almost a year later. In retrospect, I should have gotten it.
The Loop did take me to the level I wanted and it accomplished its mission. The exercise quantification was very robust. I could see my heart rate in great detail through the whole exercise session. It was easy to keep on all the time including showering and exercise in any condition (I think you can swim with it too). However, over time, it became annoying a little because of a few things. First, the recharging got to become more inconvenient than I thought. I was getting 3 days basically and it had to be recharged. It uses its own charger (not micro USB like almost all over my other electronics), so it needs its own charging cable. The fact that it needed its own cable and this has to happen many times per week got to me after a few months. I also got annoyed with wearing it on the right wrist with my watch on the left wrist. I found it was problematic to type while wearing the loop (dug into my wrist). I tried to wear it on the left wrist and take my watch off, but while it can tell the time, it was hard to read in the sunlight due to the basic display, didn’t have the date at all plus the button which activate the display became unresponsive after a few months. I had to push it 10 times to get it to turn on to tell me the time at the end. Finally, it doesn’t have a chronograph or timing capability, which I use on occasion on my watch. It really isn’t a watch replacement. It also only has manual sleep measurement. I decided I didn’t like the idea of having to remember to push more buttons. Quick summary review:
Polar Loop Pros
- pairs with bluetooth heart rate monitors
- detailed exercise data
- wrist-based, water-proof
- good app and web interface (easily cycle through past data to review)
Polar Loop Cons
- 3- to 5-day battery life (needs recharging a few times per week)
- uses its own unique charging cable (one more thing to deal with)
- button became unresponsive after a few months (many many taps to get the device to display data)
- manual sleep tracking (have to push a button to turn on and off)
After all these lesson learned, I searched for a new tracker. I decided I didn’t care about heart rate. I stopped using it on my loop. I am not an endurance athlete and while I am mildly interested in my heart rate as a measure of intensity during some forms of exercise, I just didn’t do anything with the data that I was tracking. I can quantify intensity with other more valuable measures. I was using the heart rate features of the Loop because I could not because I actually did anything with the information. I wanted to quantify my sleep more and easier. I wanted to replace my watch. I wanted good battery life (weeks at least if not more). I thought I found a perfect device, the Magellan Echo Fit. This seemingly had everything I wanted: works as a normal watch, has a chronograph, counts steps, normal watch battery which lasts many months, sleep tracking, controls music and can get data from the phone to display on the watch. It also pairs with many fitness apps. I got it the day it was released against my better judgment which was to wait for the detailed reviews to come out. I find it very useful and really close to what I wanted. However, it does have some major downsides. Let’s go over the good things first.
It is a useful watch. The display is a clear normal watch display that has a backlight. The band itself is very comfortable, much more so than my G Shock watch I was wearing. You can pair the watch with an app to modify how the display looks (3 different watch faces) and update the firmware. It tracks steps, distance, calories, and sleep. Step tracking is on par with the Fitbit One (I wore them both to compare). I don’t care about distance, but it’s interesting. It’s not GPS distance but based on the internal pedometer. I don’t care at all about the calories which is at best a vague measure of general activity. Again, this is based on the pedometer movement. While it tracks sleep, it doesn’t do it automatically. It isn’t complicated but you have to manually hold a button before falling asleep and upon waking. Just more thing I don’t want to have to remember to do. The display when you cycle through it shows you the steps, sleep, calories, or distance amount for that day plus a rolling 7-day average and a goal which you have set. For example, for steps, it will say how many you have taken that day, how many you have set for your goal, then the average of the last 7 days. This is a great feature. I love the 7-day averages. I really only use the steps feature as I am unconcerned with distance or calories and I have stopped caring about manual sleep tracking. My sleep is consistent enough now and regular enough that while useful, I am less concerned with needing something to quantify it for me at this point. Battery life is outstanding. Months upon months.
There are some downsides though. My biggest complaint was the way it was described on the web site and what it actually does. It seemed like automatic sleep tracking (it didn’t say manual anywhere on any product descriptions I saw) and at this point in fitness tracker evolution, I thought it was a standard feature. It seemed like the display was a touch display, like you could touch the watch face and control it like a smart watch, but it is all button-based. Doesn’t bother me per se, but it was not clear to me that wasn’t the case when I bought it. The app itself doesn’t do anything except control the watch settings. There is nowhere to download the data to for archival purposes. This shocked me initially because all the other fitness trackers do this. The only place the last few months of my activity resides is in the watch itself. With my Fitbit or Loop I could tell you what happened by going through the app or web site on any day I had my device on. I actually don’t care that much about this as, again, I wasn’t really doing anything with the information I had collected. I wasn’t comparing my movement over time or cross-referencing it with my weight or bodyfat. I do like the option though I guess and this doesn’t have it. Summary review:
Magellan Echo Fit Pros
- battery life (many months)
- doubles as a normal watch
- tracks steps, sleep, calories burned (through movement), and distance
Magellan Echo Fit Cons
- VERY limited app
- no historical data collection and downloading from device
- manual sleep tracking (hold a button to turn on and off)
All in all, the Echo Fit has made my life easier and is very close to what I want, but it just isn’t there. When you realize what it is meant to be, you get more of what it can do. It is meant to be a platform to let you connect your phone’s fitness app with your wrist for easier consumption. It has taken out a lot of internal power (GPS as a major one) in place of other things, mostly battery life. If you pair the watch with a running app on your phone, the watch will show you what the app is tracking (pace, distance, time, etc.) without having to pull the phone out. The watch is meant to be used for advanced features with a phone. The original Echo model did only this. The Echo Fit added some watch features like the steps and sleep tracking that don’t need to pair with an app. I didn’t really understand this until I played with the watch and what I had read made sense. This device has a lot of potential as a platform for developers though. This is a very good device for someone who uses their watch to track their exercise. I would like to see them make a solid app/web interface like Fitbit, Polar, and Jawbone have though.
There are a lot of devices coming out now that I think are turning the corner and becoming a lot more useful. As of this writing, the new features most of them have are automatic sleep tracking (quantity and quality of sleep) and built in heart rate monitoring. Some people think the smart watch and fitness tracker world will clash and smart watches will consume the fitness tracker. I can see this happening like what happened to MP3 players and smart phones. At one point everyone who listened to music had an MP3 player/iPod (this product dominated the category) and a phone. By 2010, iPod sales went down as smart phones could do the same thing PLUS work as a smart phone. While some people have standalone music players, most people I know use their phones. Same thing is kind of happening to tablets too. Phones are becoming larger and people are consolidating devices by not using/buying tablets, which seemed like a new major product category. I think it is years until the smart watch becomes normal for non-geeks to use. When the battery life gets better, people may move that way. I think a lot of watch wearers will want to keep regular watches and will be content to just carry a phone. The fitness minded will be content to wear a fitness watch or bracelet.
With that in mind, here is what I want out of my next device and a few links to upcoming devices I am looking at. My wish list device would have the following specs
Things I Want:
- Good battery life. I would like to see it use a watch battery like the Echo Fit and Vivofit, but I would take rechargeable if it lasted at least a few weeks. I can charge something twice a month and be fine with it. If it brings a strong display and powerful internals, I can pass on the watch battery.
- Touch display. I like the idea of swiping things and tapping things on the watch face itself.
- Durability. Has to be able to be worn during exercise without fear of breaking it. I would not feel comfortable wearing a Moto 360 during intense exercise although it is a pretty awesome smart watch.
- Water resistant. I do not want to take it off to shower. I don’t care to wear it in a pool, so it doesn’t need to be water proof, just resistant enough for showering for me.
- Great app and ecosystem. I want a user-friendly app I can sync with my device to give me detailed data if I want it. I want to be able to log into a web site and see it there in even more detail if I want to as well.
- Price below $199. I am not asking for an advanced triathlete watch here, so I think this can cost less than $200 easily. If I wanted that capacity to know everything (elevation, GPS, 3G data connection) I will happily pay for it.
- Wrist-based. I want to leave it on all the time.
- Watch-capable but can be a non-watch band too. I would like to have basic time and date display on it if I want to get rid of my watch, but I also want to be able to wear it on my non-watch wrist should I decide to wear a watch (if I am in a suit for example or just because some people like to wear watches).
Things I Maybe Want:
- Heart rate internal to the device. I wouldn’t mind it paring with a dedicated HR monitor if you need that. I am not concerned with the device itself having the ability to measure HR, but on some occasions I would. I think the technology isn’t that great yet (it is vaguely accurate but not nearly like a chest-based monitor), so I am not sure it is worth it. I also think HR doesn’t matter so much that it essential to a good fitness tracker. A lot of people think it does, but for the common person, like 99% of us, measuring heart rate isn’t important. It is only important only during exercise and then only during intense exercise. If you are a 45-year-old woman who is on a stationary cycle at the gym for 30 minutes a few times per week, you should be working as hard as you can/care to – that’s it. If you can, you should push the intensity but only to a point. Everyone doesn’t want to exert themselves even if they can and this is fine. If you are doing a dedicated physical activity meant to improve physical fitness, you should work as hard as you can or as hard as you care to. This “fat burning zone” vs “intensity zone” stuff you see on machines is stupid. If you are exercising, work hard. If you are just monitoring your general activity, HR isn’t needed at all.
Things I Don’t Want:
- Phone notifications. I don’t really need to read text messages or know who is calling me by looking at my wrist, but I don’t NOT want it either…I am fine with pulling my phone out. I don’t get that many messages that this would save me much time. It isn’t worth the upgrade in cost, battery life hit, and constant pairing with my phone it would require (hurting the phone battery life too).
- GPS. I am not a runner. I run sometimes, but just because I include running in my exercise program that doesn’t make me a runner. Kind of like how I cook, but I am not a cook. If it had GPS I may use it on occasion, but it isn’t worth the internal upgrade the device would need for me. I have an expensive Garmin GPS running watch that is very useful for long distance running. I have used it less than 10 times in the past 5 years. To add a little controversy to this, I think being a runner is stupid. “Runners” are usually injured, skinny, weak, and inflexible. They have poor mobility and muscular strength. They are great at something that is useless for every day life and survival, running long distances.
Fitbit is coming out with a few devices that have three levels of capacity, which I think are all great. They have the Charge, Charge HR, and Surge. Basically, they go from a fitness tracker without heart rate, to one with HR, to one with HR and GPS. Pretty good. All of them have a base watch capacity and have pretty good battery life. The I am debating between the Charge and Charge HR. I am not 100% sure it isn’t worth the upgrade though for a little more money to have the ability to measure HR if I felt like it. I do intense exercise and would potentially use the data. Fitbit is a good company and I was very happy with the One. I retrospect, I would trade my Echo Fit for a Charge today, but now that I have spent $130 on the Echo Fit, it doesn’t seem like a responsible upgrade for the improvements. Doesn’t mean I won’t get one, but at least I am doing the mental gymnastics.
Jawbone is coming out with the Up3. This one looks really promising as a non-watch band. They are sticking with the band only, no display, in favor of a strong data collection platform. I like a lot about this device too.
There are new devices coming out or announced in this category every week it seems. Again, combining tech and fitness gets me excited. I will report back if I buy any new devices after I test them out. If you have any questions or want some more thoughts before you buy one, contact me.
QUESTION: Do you use a fitness tracker? If so, which have you tried? If not, why not? Post thoughts to comments.
- The Wirecutter’s Best Fitness Trackers. Really good review which is kept updated. I don’t always agree with the writer’s opinions, but it is very thorough and a good place to refer back to.
- The Wirecutter’s Best GPS Running Watch. Also a great review, but as they integrate fitness tracking (steps and sleep mostly) into the more robust GPS watches, this is a good place to find fitness tracking devices too. I would pay a few hundred for a watch like the Garmin Forerunner 220 for sure if it had all the info the new fitness trackers have.
- Gizmodo Fitness Tracker Review. Current as of late December 2014. Has all the new devices and a very detailed review.
- Fitbit. Go to the source for the details on their new products I mentioned.
- Polar Loop
- Magellan Echo Fit
- Jawbone Up3