Product Review: The FITBIT FLEX Wireless Activity & Sleep Monitor

header

On September 1st 2012, I embarked on the Herculean task of trying to shift about 3.5 stone from my decaying and decrepit body, a body which had somehow morphed from athletic, slim sporty type, to beer-addled, pie-encrusted laptop lounger, all in the frighteningly quick space of a mere 25 years. Before I discovered pubs and Primula cheese, I used to captain my school hockey and netball teams, was always outside running about at something. I certainly never had a weight problem, and never thought I ever would. But sitting on one’s backside for two and half decades was always going to challenge that theory, especially as I’d always been too career-minded to ever consider alternative forms of exercise, such as having children or arguing with a husband. And because I’m tall, at 5’8″, I always ‘got a way with’ the extra poundage that had been slowly attaching itself to my frame, every time I had a pint.

Waking up on my 40th birthday and realising that, if I wasn’t careful, I was going to turn into an obese old crone if I didn’t do something pretty damn quickly, was enough of an incentive to throw out the cheese grater and begin reclaiming my pre-Domino Pizza body. As most doctors will tell you, the only way to realistically lose weight, and keep it off, is to follow a calorie-controlled diet, combined with plenty of exercise. Only one problem with that – I loathe exercise. I mean, truly loathe it. I would sooner do a bungee jump strapped to Kelvin MacKenzie, than spend five minutes in a gym. Been there, done it, lots and lots of times. I knew that wouldn’t work for me, so there was no point trying. So, I would have to try extra hard with the diet. That’s another thing I loathe, the word “diet”. It’s a toxic word, four tiny letters packed with stress, expectation, anxiety and, in most cases, a guarantee of failure. But I was determined.

I joined a website called Weight Loss Resources, simply because it did everything I wanted it to. I’m a lover of lists, facts, figures, graphs, anything empirical, so when I saw that WLR had a built in food database which was being constantly updated with calorie details on most things in most supermarkets, I knew the hard stuff had been done for me. All I had to do was input my height, current weight and desired weight, plus a few other bits of lifestyle data (“amount of exercise you intend to do daily?: ZERO”), and the program would tell me how many calories I could consume each day. Everything that passed my lips, I would input into the daily chart, and it was easy to keep track of where I was and how I was doing. And it was good discipline. Knowing I had to answer to my virtual personal trainer every day, made me really make the effort. It was horrible each time I’d “go over” (usually when I’d been the pub…so this happened often), seeing the laptop screen flashing BIG RED NUMBERS at me for each calorie I’d overindulged on. It would make me feel miserable and ashamed and terribly, terribly guilty, which of course was the point.

I documented my year-long odyssey through this blog, which also helped in keeping me on track. Knowing there was no hiding place, that at least two other people were monitoring my progress, really, really helped keep me motivated. Motivation, and not the actual food – as every dieter knows – is the most crucial factor in any weight loss success story.

Fast forward to August 31st 2013, then, and despite a few major hiccups along the way, called Christmas, Liverpool home games, Sunday dinner and Pubs Various, I had indeed managed to shift a significant amount of lard – about 2 stone – but was still a way short of my ‘target weight’ (which I’m sure those charts lie about). Whilst pleased with my efforts and, more importantly, the obvious visual results, I was still determined to reach the whole 3.5 stone. I also knew that there was only way that was realistically going to happen….I had to do the E-word.

My previous excuse for never exercising, aside from the hatred of it, was that I just “didn’t have time”. Yep, feeble. But it was true. As a freelance writer, I’d often be working ten hour days just to earn a basic wage. From the usual energetic starts early in the morning, I’d be flagging by midday as my eyes and fingers gradually stopped working, and by 5pm, when I’d take a short break before starting “the evening shift”, the last thing on my list of things still to do was “exercise”. I almost looked on exercise as a waste of time, because I have a big guilt complex when it comes to work. If I’m not in front of the laptop playing Candy Crush working, then I feel that I should be, because if I’m not working, I’m not earning. I usually work every day, too, even if it’s just a couple of hours. Saturdays, Sundays, Bank Holidays, they’re no different than Mondays or Tuesdays to a freelancer, and having experienced more than my fair share of lean periods where I’ve earned absolutely zero, I find it hard to switch off when I do have work on, because I just don’t know where the next gig is going to come from. The only times I ever take an entire day off, is when my hangover demands it. But that’s my choice, my decision, so it would be churlish to complain about it – at least, technically, I can get up when I want, have lunch when I want, finish when I want etc. So it’s swings and roundabouts, but it still doesn’t make exercise appealing.

I thought, then, that as with the online WLR food database and pretty progress graphs, I would need something similar to kick me into some exercise action. One form of movement I am not totally averse to, is walking. As kids, we spent many a Sunday tramping over the Derbyshire Peaks, or through country parks, and there’s always been a sense of escape, freedom and almost ecstasy about yomping through the Great Outdoors. However, I live in Everton, which doesn’t really have many picturesque hills, dales or woodland tracks to make exercise entertaining. But as long as I have my dodgy 80s playlists blasting through my ears as I march, I can pretty much walk forever. I still needed that extra kick, though, something gadgety, something that could record all kinds of data and make lots more pretty little graphs to tell me what a good girl I was being.

So, after researching the market in Useless Gadgets You Wouldn’t Really Need If You Could Just Motivate Yourself Properly, I came across the team at Fitbit. Founded in 2007 by two stupidly fit San Franciscans, Fitbit manufacture a range of wireless trackers which record your steps, calories, sleep patterns, and even the number of floors you climb in a day. Data is recorded in the small battery and can be uploaded to either your PC or smartphone. There are currently three different Fitbit trackers to choose from:

fitbitone

Fitbit ONE

Fitbit ONE (Sep 2012) – a clip-on device that can measure altitude, calories burned, steps taken, sleep cycles, and also includes a stopwatch and digital clock. As with all Fitbit devices, Bluetooth wireless technology syncs data to PCs and certain smartphones like iPhone4 or higher, or Samsung Galaxy. RRP: £80

Fitbit ZIP

Fitbit ZIP

Fitbit ZIP (Sep 2012) – slightly lower spec, with a disposable battery, and only records steps, distance and calories. Also syncs wirelessly to PC/smartphone. RRP: £55

flex

Fitbit FLEX

Fitbit FLEX (May 2013) – the main event, this is a wristband as opposed to a clip, so it’s a lot easier to keep with you, and you can basically forget about it once it’s on, which was the main reason I chose it. I’ve had other pedometers where I’ve left the blasted thing at home and only realised halfway through my walk. Also, standard pedometers do just that, and only that – record your steps. I wanted something that would combine my steps, with calories burned, and also be able to differentiate between activities. It’s a smart gadget, and comes in either black, grey or pink (because all girls love pink, right?). I went for grey.

Wristband, dongle, power lead.

Wristband, data pack, power USB.

Upon opening the box, I found the Fitbit in four pieces – the wristband itself, the data recorder that slots inside the wristband, the tiny USB dongle that syncs the data to your PC/smartphone, and a USB power lead (there is NO mains power cable). In addition, there is an extra wristband provided, in a smaller size, for kids and very slim-wristed women, the latter of which should be banned from using any fitness equipment, on account of them already being thin.

Not my arm...

Not my arm…

It took just seconds to put the Flex together (it was already charged), so now it was time to get the thing set up. You do this by logging onto the Fitbit site and registering the device. Once signed up, you can start setting targets. Unlike the Fitbit One or the Fitbit Zip, the display on the Flex is not digital, it’s a set of five sequential lights. That’s it. No alphanumeric LCD, just a five-light LED.  You can set these lights to show your progress on either steps taken or calories burned.

Steps/Calories

Pretty stats & stuff

Pretty stats & stuff

So, I wanted my own walking target to be 5 miles a day which, with my stride pattern, equated to around 10,000 steps. At the start of each day, the first light would flash until I’d reached 2.000 steps, then remain lit, while the second light began to flash, until I’d reached 4,000 steps, when the third light would flash, and so on. When I reached 10,000, the wristband would vibrate to tell me I’d reached my goal, and all five lights would do a cute little victory dance, which was actually quite gratifying. If you choose to measure calories burned, a similar process would happen, telling you as you went about your day, how many calories you’d burned through your various activities.

Sleep

sleep

The Fitbit Flex also monitors sleep patterns. By tapping the wristband firmly a few times, it will revert to sleep mode. It records every time you move, wake up, and the level of movement. When you get up next day, tapping the wristband again makes it go back to normal mode, and your steps/calorie record will begin for that day. Simply upload the data to your PC/smartphone, and you’ll soon have a fascinating record of your sleep habits. As someone who often struggles to sleep properly, I have become almost obsessed with the sleep mode, and because I also keep a diary, I am now able to see patterns in my sleeping habits that might explain why I have problems.

Activities

general dashboard

Via the website, you can record different activities such as running, swimming, walking, all of which have different calorie-burn levels. Inputting everything you do, enables you to see how many calories you have not only burned, but earned, too, which is handy when it comes to the…

Food Log

Move away from the cheese!!!

Move away from the cheese!!!

Combined with the steps, the calories I’m consuming is probably the most integral part of my current ‘regime’. Like Weight Loss Resources, the Fitbit website has an existing database of foods that you simply click on to record what you eat that day. When you register, you’ll input the usual height, weight and goal info, and the program will figure out how many calories you’re allowed to eat that day, deducting calories each time you input something you’ve had. The downside of this particular database, though, is that all the foods are American. There is the facility to add your own foods, but this is obviously going to be time consuming in the beginning as you’ll spend a  long time adding hundreds of products from your preferred supermarket. After a couple of weeks, though, most of that will be done and you can just click and go. A quirky feature of this log, too, is that after you’ve done some exercise and upload your stats, your daily calorie allowance will increase, which is actually incredibly motivational. For instance, if I’ve gone overboard a bit on lunch and only have 200 calories left for dinner, it makes me want to go out for a one or two mile walk, because I know that will earn me another 200 calories to add to my existing bank. Seeing figures in front of your eyes, really does instil that desire to achieve goals.

Battery

The battery on the Fitbit Flex lasts around 7 days, so it’s easy to make recharging it a regular thing. Just remove the tiny data pack, click it into the USB charger and plug it into the PC. Once all five lights are illuminated, the battery is charged – only takes around an hour.

Syncing data

Again, very easy. When you register the device and plug in the dongle for the first time (which you can keep permanently plugged into your PC/smartphone if you prefer), the ‘Fitbit Connect’ program will install itself on your chosen device. Just open this, hold your wrist down to the dongle, and the data will upload wirelessly to the Fitbit website. Once synced, you can then access all your data, and change goals, see patterns/progress etc. Only takes around 10 seconds to sync, so quick and easy. You don’t have to sync at set times, either. There have been gaps of up to two weeks before I’ve uploaded any data  – the wristband keeps track of everything you do, regardless.

The Website

All owners of a Fitbit product have access to special parts of the Fitbit site, including the dashboard and personal logs. But you don’t have to be a member to access some parts. If you like to try before you buy, anybody can register and spend time using the food database, activity logs etc, to see if it’s something you get on with. Then, once you purchase a device, you’ll be able to use the full range of facilities (obviously syncing your personal data is the main function).

I’ve been using the Flex for around three months now, and it’s become part of my wardrobe, like socks or shoes. Unlike the other two devices, the Flex is waterproof, so you can shower in it, bathe in it, get drenched in it, it doesn’t matter. This means the chances of losing it are slim, even for me, who loses everything. Don’t worry about it interfering with sleep, either. Usually, I’d take my watch off when I go to bed, but I didn’t notice wearing the Flex at all. Having said that, one of the major drawbacks of the Flex is that there is no clock, because there’s no LCD display, like there is on the Zip and One. And because the Flex should ideally be worn on your less dominant hand (which is where I’d also wear my watch), I’ve found it’s too cumbersome to wear both. I miss my watch, and I never know what the time is anymore, but that’s no bad thing.

So, the pros and cons of the Fitbit Flex:

Pros

1. It’s lightweight, has an attractive design, and can be worn all the time, even on ‘posh nights out’. Except if you buy the horrible pink one that makes you look like you’re on day release or something.

2. It’s motivational! Seriously, it is. Every time I glance at it, it makes me want to go outside and get marching. Maybe the Paul McKenna Fitbit Flex Hypnosis CD that came with the wristband, had something to do with that…

3. The website is comprehensive and, mostly, user-friendly. And it’s free, for those who want to see what they get before they buy.

4. The sleep mode is fascinating…

5. Long battery life – only needs charging once a week, tops, and you get an email and/or text message when the battery gets low.

6. No cumbersome chargers or mains leads – just the tiny, short USB cable that you hardly notice when charging. It’ll charge off most smartphones, too, if needs be.

7. You can sync your data with many smartphones and tablets – although not with Blackberry or Kindle…yet. But if you have iPhone 4S or higher, iPad 3rd Gen, iPod Touch 5th Gen, Samsung Galaxy Note II or Galaxy SIII, then you’re laughing. If you don’t, you can still use any laptop/PC. All Fitbit devices can also sync to the Fitbit Aria wireless SmartScales.

8. Fitbit devices are also compatible with websites/apps such as MyFitnessPal and LoseIt, so you don’t have to sync to the Fitbit website/food database if you’re already registered with another one. You can mix’n’match.

Cons

1. No visible clock, so if, like me, you’ve had to take your watch off to use the wristband, you might start being late for stuff.

2. Food database is US-based. Unlike Weight Loss Resources, which has a brilliant, UK-based supermarket food database, the Fitbit website is 100% American, so initially you’ll have to spend a lot of time manually inputting and saving everything you eat and drink until you exhaust your regular menu.

3. It’s difficult to find where to reset goals – Six weeks in, I’d fallen off the cheese and vodka wagon so many times, I thought it best to just start again. I’d assumed I could just go on the website and click “Reset Goal” but there was nothing. It took me a very long time going around in virtual circles before I happened across a forum where “Colin” showed me how to do it. It was ridiculously convoluted, and a random bugbear on what is an otherwise excellent platform. Surely resetting or changing a goal is one of the most common actions a person would want to do in a fitness program?

Verdict

After a year on my semi-successful No Exercise Diet (The NED, as it is known), I found that signing up to Fitbit did give me that extra bit of motivation to get on and shift these last stubborn pounds by traditional, sensible means. So far, so on target. Wearing the wristband is the next best thing to having a personal trainer, I can almost hear the cute, grey rubber thingy shouting at me every morning to get my arse out of bed and onto the pavement. My retentive brain loves the little things, like obsessively tapping my Flex to see if I’ve lit another light yet, or getting ready for the Victory Dance that gently vibrates its way through my wrist for five seconds when I hit my daily goal (which is actually very thrilling, especially when I’m not expecting it).

It might seem a hefty outlay – the Flex retails at around £80 (I had an Argos voucher…) – but it’s a one-off investment that, so far, has done its job in keeping me motivated and keeping me on track to my target. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, the Fitbit Gods will develop the Blackberry app, because not everybody has an iPhone, believe it or not. Similarly, if Fitbit can sync to MyFitnessPal, which has one of the most comprehensive British food databases I’ve come across, then why can’t MFP send the love the other way, and make that database available on the Fitbit website, too?

The biggest difference the Fitbit Flex has made to my life, is it’s made me want to exercise, even if it is only walking. OK, so the wristband doesn’t actually move my feet for me, but there’s something about it, that constant reminder on my wrist that I should be doing something that’s, well, making me do it. I regularly walk 5 miles every day, sometimes further. And do you know what? I do find the time. Those 5 miles only take me 90 minutes (I’m no dawdler, that’s for sure), and I can do it at any time. 90 minutes, it’s nothing, is it? That’s a surfing session on the net, it’s a read of the paper, it’s tarting about on Candy Crush or Pet Rescue Saga. It’s a footy match (unless it’s Man Utd, which would take a bit longer). 90 minutes. Hardly anything at all. Get up 45 mins earlier, go to bed 45 minutes later. Sorted. There’s the time, that’s how you ‘find it’.

I now think of my Flex as my walking buddy. I did forget to wear it once and halfway through my walk I felt alone, isolated, abandoned even. I had no way of checking ‘which light I was on’, knew there would be no victory vibration, and I was kind of a lost soul as I wandered around Kensington aimlessly. When I got home, I grabbed my Flex, strapped it back on, and swore we would never be parted again.

I’ll be honest, it’s my longest relationship.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s