According to Wikipedia, the Quantified Self is “a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs, states, and performance (mental and physical)”. I find data to be a catalyst towards improving my behavior and habits, so I decided to quantify an area of my life that I have often neglected in favor of others: my fitness level (or lack thereof). 🙂
I looked into several devices that could aid me with my goal, and found that the two most accurate, appealing, and convenient trackers were Fitbit One and Jawbone UP. The latter’s most recent version is slated as “coming in 2013”. Cool as the Jawbone UP is, I opted for the Fitbit One due to its discreet and comfortable nature, as well as the reputation of the company behind it.
If you prefer a bracelet (much like the Jawbone UP) to a clip on tracker, Fitbit recently announced that you can now pre-order an alternative to the One in the form of a bracelet/wristband form called Flex. Same features, different format. It will be available to ship come spring 2013.
While reading reviews about the Fitbit One I noticed that the same generic information was being rehashed all over the place, so I decided to write a very in-depth review myself. In this post I’m going to tell you everything you need to know before deciding if this device is for you or not. The bad, the good, and the ugly.
Fitbit Aria: a wi-fi enabled scale that automatically records your weight and body fat % on the Fitbit.com website.
Fitbit Premium: a paid section of the otherwise free Fitbit.com website. (This link brings you to a side-by-side comparison of the free and paid services, if you’d like to see a comparison of the features.)
Fitbit One Review
I ordered my Fitbit One from the official site. They offer free shipping, but I opted for the standard (inexpensive) shipping, as I was very eager to start using my Fitbit, and it reached me here in Canada in four days (in the midst of the holiday mail rush). Check your local Apple or Amazon site if Fitbit won’t ship to your country.
What’s in the package?
When my Fitbit parcel arrived it contained the following items:
The Fitbit Tracker, which is surprisingly tiny. I got the black one with a blue display, but there is also a gorgeous burgundy one with a pink/purple display, which may appeal more to some women.
A clip on holder that enables you to clip your tracker to your pocket, belt, or bra.
A wireless dongle that allows you to synchronize your activity and sleep data with your computer.
A USB charger.
A sleep band that you put on your wrist at night before going to sleep.
Fitbit is a company that understands what a polished hardware product is. Everything, starting with the packaging has an “it just works”, Apple-like simplicity and feel. After unwrapping your Fitbit, you need to charge your tracker (charging is really quick and should take less than an hour) by plugging it into the USB charger and installing a software called Fitbit Connect on your computer. This software, along with when the wireless dongle, will allow you to routinely synchronize your data.
The Fitbit tracker has the ability to collect the following information:
The exact time all these metrics took place
An arbitrary activity score (out of 1000)
Hours, initial time to fall asleep, and number of times you woke up during the night
The daily stats for all but the last item can be seen directly on the tracker’s led display before you even synchronize them by pressing on its sole button.
You can also enable alarms (including weekly schedules such as Monday to Friday wakeup alarms that don’t go off during the weekend) to gently wake you up through a vibration against on wrist (instead of the dreaded alarm nightstand alarm clock). This is a feature I found to be surprisingly nice. The vibration definitely grabs your attention enough to wake you up, but I never feel annoyed by it. It’s a gentle process, and above all else, it doesn’t wake up my wife, who is an incredibly light sleeper, like an alarm would (I work in EST while living in PST, so I essentially have to be up by 5:30 am during the workweek).
Accuracy and durability
When you setup your tracker, you create a Fitbit.com profile in the process as well. The procedure asks you personal questions such as your height, weight, gender, age, etc. So the calories burned in relation to your recorded activity level can be better estimated. It’s worth noting that the calories displayed on your tracker include both activity calories and the basic metabolic rate (BMR). Essentially this means that even if you’re in bed still and don’t bat an eye, the tracker will slowly increase to account for the energy expenditure required by your body to keep you alive.
Based on my home tests, the tracker is very accurate when it comes to steps, distance covered and floors climbed.
All in all, I’m pretty confident about the numbers this little device spits out. It’s also very robust for its size, and water resistant. This means that it can come in contact with sweat or the occasional drop of water, and you won’t damage it. Just don’t shower with it, submerge it fully in water, or put it through the washing machine. Other than when I’m showering in the morning, it’s with me at all times.
I found the clip on part to be less durable however, given that the bottom part came off after a week, though it is possible I received one that was defective and was just poorly glued on. My Fitbit is still usable without that end cap, it’s just more likely to snag on fabric as you clip it on. Either way, I contacted Fitbit support and they promptly replied, telling me that a complementary replacement clip on was on its way. That’s good customer care and another notable plus for this company.
Synchronizing Fitbit data, and battery life
There are two ways to send the information the device tracks to your profile on Fitbit.com: through your computer (wirelessly via the USB sync dongle), and through your smartphone (via bluetooth). So far I’ve found that the smartphone route (via my iPhone 4s) works every time.
The same cannot be said for the wireless computer sync which will fail sometimes if the tracker is not in clear sight of the USB port where your tiny wireless dongle is plugged in. (Or it could just be that my belly is in the way :-)).
When it fails, you’re told so and can try again, which is nice because it means you’re not left with a frustrating “I’m not sure if it synced” type of situation. Nevertheless, I find myself more inclined to use the smartphone option, as it will automatically synchronize the data as long as the free iOS Fitbit app is running.
The estimated battery life of the tracker, even with my multiple synchronizations each day, is about a week. I usually get a warning on the Fitbit.com site that I’m running low on battery power every five days or so. When this happens, I remove it, charge it as I sit working at my computer, and then place it back in my pocket where it’s invisible to onlookers. I find its battery capacity to be both adequate and convenient.
Sleep is one of the most determining factor for your health, energy, and mood throughout the day. I know for a fact that I, like many other programmers and entrepreneurs, don’t get nearly enough of it. So I was excited about the ability to track my sleep.
I wasn’t disappointed by the sleep tracking capabilities of the Fitbit One; here’s an overview of its workflow:
Remove the tracker from your clip on or pocket, and slip it into the arm/wristband provided.
Place your arm/wristband on your non-dominant arm (in my case my left wrist).
When you are ready to try to fall asleep, hold the button on the tracker for a second or two. A timer will start.
When you wake up in the morning, hold the button on the tracker for a second or two, as this will stop the timer and thus cease recording how long you were asleep for.
The tracker will log the first time you pressed the button as the time you went to sleep. And the second time your press it, as the time you woke up. Meanwhile it will calculate, based on the movements of your arm, how long it actually took you to fall asleep. It will also record how many times and when (in one minute intervals) you woke up during the night.
Once this data is synchronized on the Fitbit website, you’re able to see the sleep data for a given day, as shown below (my mouse pointer was on a particular red spot to display the time):
Empirically, I found that a bathroom visit at night appears as a series of red rectangles next to each other in the middle of some blue rectangles. A simple waking up, rolling over, and falling back to sleep again will show up as just a rectangle or two in my case.
With this data at hand you can start to spot patterns and correlate your lifestyle with your sleep. Since the site allows you to log mood, you can even compare how your sleep pattern affects your overall mood (keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t imply causation and all that jazz).
By observing your sleep data, you may be able to answer questions that you have such as, does drinking coffee during the day affect how many times I awake at night? Whether I get a fairly uninterrupted night of sleep? How long it takes me to go sleep? What about reading at night? Or exercising during the day? And so on.
The obvious shortcoming is that if you’re really tired, you might fall asleep before you press the tracker button that tells the tracker you are ready to fall asleep in the first place. Thankfully you can log sleep manually if you remember the approximate times for when you went to sleep and when you woke up, (the red spikes within that range of time will still be shown as times when you woke up, because your movements are recorded whether you’re in sleep mode or not).
I would rate the iPhone app as a 6/10. It’s bare boned and gets the job done (most of the time), but the cool reports available on the website are nowhere to be found on the app.
I think the basic idea is that you can use the app as a way to track food or synchronize your data on the go, but if you really want to do some serious analysis, you’re better off grabbing a computer.
Truth be told, I also find the iPhone app somewhat slow at times, particularly when I haven’t retrieved data from the site for a while. We are talking a few seconds tops for the wait time though, nothing too annoying, but I have seen more responsive apps for sure.
The food tracking section of the app doesn’t have the ability to scan food labels like many weight loss and food logger apps do, which is certainly a shortcoming.
Sadly there isn’t an iPad app either, which could really shine given the greater real estate that an iPad screen affords. Instead you can use the iPhone app on the iPad and enjoy the eye straining or pixelated (at 2x magnification) experience. It’s a missed opportunity for Fitbit, and one that we can hope they’ll pick up on in the future.
While I’m happy that there is an iPhone app at all, I find it to be one of Fitbit’s weakest links. (An Android App and a mobile site also exist, but I can’t comment much on these as I haven’t personally tried them.)
Conclusion about the Fitbit One
I absolutely love my Fitbit One and I have already recommended it to a couple of family members and friends. So far both my mother-in-law and my friend Marco have purchased one, and they immediately fell in love with theirs.
Of the three products I talked about here, to my mind, the Fitbit One is the most indispensable one. At $99.95, it’s worth every penny, and I think most people would enjoy — and could benefit from having — a greater awareness about their activity level throughout the day.
Fitbit Aria Review
I went all out with my order from Fitbit. I got the tracker, and also decided to buy their wi-fi scale. It’s gorgeous. If Apple designed scales, this is what they would look like.
The setup is done through software on your computer, so there aren’t any buttons on the scale and don’t have to enter your wi-fi password with your feet. 🙂
You can configure it to recognize up to eight different registered users. Once you step on the scale, it shows you your weight, body fat %, and your initials. If two or more people using the scale have a similar weight, the scale will show the one person it guessed and allow you to tap it with your foot to select a different user if its guess was mistaken.
After the weigh-in, the scale will automatically use your internet connection to communicate with Fitbit.com and update your profile with your weight and body fat % for the day.
Realistically, if you already have a quality scale (which I did) this is more of a convenience than anything else. You can very easily weigh yourself with your existing scale and then manually log that date into the Fitbit system either on their website or through a smartphone app.
Perhaps surprisingly, I ended up giving the scale away to my lovely mother-in-law who was considering buying one (and who by the way, hardly needs one as she is in great shape), just two weeks after purchasing it.
My mother-in-law likes the scale a lot, however, I did not. I appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the scale. I also really enjoyed the convenience of stepping on and having your weight recorded automatically. What I didn’t like, and the main reason why I gave it away, is the fact that I didn’t find it to be accurate.
Let me explain. When my mother-in-law and my wife used the scale, the accuracy was great. They could step on the scale multiple times and get the same reading virtually every time. It was consistent. When I did the same thing though, being much much heavier, the location of my feet and my balance really affected the pressure value of each of the four springs at the base (that was sitting on hard floor). So depending on how I positioned my feet, as well as my posture and balance, I got different values. And I’m not talking about a fraction of a pound here, I mean up to 3 lbs difference between one reading and another taken just ten seconds later.
As such my trust in the scale was tarnished, and when you are trying to lose weight, it’s unnerving to not be able to trust your scale. Which value do I go off of? The one that said that I lost two pounds or the one that said that I gained a pound? The body fat % estimates, which are already known to be inaccurate on bioelectrical impedance based scales, was also variable (sometimes by as much as 5-10%) between readings.
I don’t care if a scale doesn’t give me a value that is actually my weight to the exact pound. What I do care about is the delta, as it’s harder for me to believe in the numbers I’m seeing and to figure out how the changes I’m making to my diet and lifestyle are having an effect on my weight and body composition.
In my case I have a bad knee due to osteomyelitis (which I contracted at birth), so my weight tend to be distributed unevenly between each of my feet. This might have something to do with my bizarre results. Still, the older scale I have (a Tanita BC-554) tends to give me consistent values between consecutive readings that differ at most by only 0.2 lbs. If I step on the Tanita scale trice, I’ll get two values, if not three, that are identical each time.
Conclusion about the Fitbit Aria
My conclusion is that the Fitbit Aria works best if you are not too heavy and you have good balance. If you’re a heavier weight, I have a hard time recommending this scale to you based on my personal experience. This is a shame because it’s a sleek, beautiful looking scale and a great concept. Down the road, I might buy a new one, or a 2.0 version, once I’ve lowered my weight to below 200 lbs. But for now, I feel less stressed dealing with a scale that I trust.
Fitbit.com Basic and Premium Review
The Fitbit.com website is where you get to analyze your data in all of its glory. It’s also the easiest place to log all sort of measurements and, of course, the food you ate (if you decide to track calories).
The basic site is free, but there is a Premium section with extra reports and tools. A very short free trial version of the Premium service is available (it only lasts for a day for most reports), but let’s first take a look at what the free version has to offer.
When you log in on the site, you’ll be directed to the Dashboard which prompts you with key information about your stats. By default most of the information displayed pertains to the current day and your progress in relationship to your goals. By default you’ll have goals set by the site which can be customized to your liking, as I did, for example, for the number of daily steps (which I reduced from 10,000 to 3,000).
You can select if you want to see the same information on an arbitrary date.
The chart at the bottom of the first section of the dashboard, also reveals interesting information about the amount of activity you did in a given day.
You hear the words sedentary and active tossed around rather lightly sometimes, however here you actually get to quantify them in relationship to your daily life and activity level.
The dashboard also include a section for your Food Plan, something that allows you to specify how many pounds you want to lose and how aggressive you want to be in doing so (there are four intensity levels spanning from easy to hard).
Once it’s set up, the dashboard will tell you how many calories you have left to eat for the day (or how many you ate on a previous day, if you want). This number automatically adjusts based on your activity level, so as to ensure that you don’t go too “underboard” on the amount of food you consume if you are working out really heavily.
The dashboard can also display statistics for the week (which are also sent by email), month, or even year. For example, the weekly view of your Food Plan section in the dashboard will appear in the form of the following type of calories in vs calories out chart.
Make sure you disable “Calorie estimation” in your account settings. Otherwise during days when you log very little activity (e.g., you spent your day sitting at your desk for twelve hours), the site will assume a default average sedentary lifestyle (as it thinks you forgot to wear your tracker for a while), which is actually higher than the level of activity you did. So the daily expenditure will be estimated to be higher than it actually was. This happened to me one day. It was my “laziest” day ever while using Fitbit and yet the calories reported were on par with some of my most active days (yes, that tells you that I’m pretty sedentary).
Aside from all these details and many others (your weight, body fat %, sleep, etc), the dashboard features badges when you achieve milestones, as well as a friendly competition with your friends, based on the most logged steps in the past 7 days. The My Achievements tab will also tells you lifetime stats and personal records (e.g., the day you walked the most steps).
Friends only get to see the details you intend to share. And that can range from as little as your daily steps all the way to making your entire profile available to them (or even to the public at large, if you’re so inclined). The site gives you full control over your privacy settings, as well as sensible defaults (in the past these defaults weren’t too sensible).
I find the gamification aspect of the site to be very compelling. You really want to push yourself to surpass your friends, while collecting badges for both activity and weight loss (assuming you’re trying to lose weight).
The dashboard will also display a list of the groups that you belong to for quick access. These thematic communities (e.g., Canadian users) provide a discussion forum and a leader board of the most physically active participants in the group (as well as your ranking amongst group members). Sadly, there is no search function to find groups (short of using external tools, and the groups aren’t indexed in Google either, to further complicate matters), so you are forced to go through pages of groups starting with !!! in their name in an effort to appear first. Joining groups is frustrating. This is a major oversight by the Fitbit team, and one that should be addressed as soon as possible.
A complete list of communities can be accessed via the Community tab at the top.
Aside from the Dashboard and Community tab, the site has a free Log tab. From there you can log food, additional physical activities that aren’t recorded by the tracker (e.g., swimming, cycling, or weight lifting), weight, body measurements, sleep, mood, allergies, journal entries, heart, blood pressure, glucose, and custom metrics of your choice.
Along with logging, these sub-tabs act as reports of sort with charts and useful information.
Realistically the charts get the the job done, but I have seen prettier and smarter ones on other sites before. I’d like for example to see a trend line and have the chart zoomed in on the area where the current values sit.
Logging is generally all fine and well, however the Achilles’ Heel in this case is the food logging system. The database is pretty limited compared to other applications and websites of this nature, so you’ll have to manually enter quite a few foods (depending on your eating habits of course). The US database also contains different nutritional information for some products that are also sold in Canada. So sometimes I still need to enter a custom food even though the same product name and brand already appears in the system.
The most annoying part when it comes to food logging is that you need to enter the name of the product carefully and in a certain order or the search function will occasionally fail to show you the most obvious product. I would expect the results to place user entered foods at the top, but they don’t. So if I enter “Dark Chocolate” I won’t even see the delicious 88% Endangered Species Dark Chocolate entry I’ve created earlier on at all. There are favorites, recent, and custom foods lists from which to pick from to speed up the process of logging foods, but it would be nice to have a larger database and a more polished search feature.
Some users opt to use the free (excellent, may I add) site MyFitnessPal (MFP) and synchronize the information they log there with Fitbit.com. In practice, you log foods on MyFitnessPal and the nutritional information is sent over to Fitbit.com. In turn, data regarding your weight, body fat %, etc, gets taken from Fitbit.com and placed into MyFitnessPal as well.
I linked the two sites, but I don’t bother logging food on MyFitnessPal, as I prefer to use a single site (i.e., Fitbit’s). Others might find Fitbit’s logging system too frustrating and thus welcome the MFP option. If you do, keep in mind that MyFitnessPal’s huge database is user contributed and as a result sometimes has incorrect nutritional information. Double check how many people confirmed a given entry before blindly trusting it.
Where Fitbit absolutely nailed it is the way they handle different units. Very often you can just specify the quantity in your preferred unit (e.g., g, oz, tbsp) and the system will do the proper calculation for you. In fact, when you specify custom foods, you can provide alternative units that are not directly convertible. For instance, you can provide the nutritional information for both 50 g and 5 slices of a given ham, and you’ll be able to specify grams, kg, oz, or slices next time you want to log that food.
The Food Log section also provides you with a bare bones report of what your macronutrients are and what you ate at different times throughout the day.
In the sample screenshot above you’ll notice net carbs. That’s something I added in with a basic Google Chrome extension I created, as I’m eating low carb these days and need that information. If you are not on a keto, primal, or low carb diet in general, you probably won’t need my Google Chrome extension. Stock Fitbit.com doesn’t have Net Carbs (which are the total carbohydrates minus indigestible fiber) in the daily total, and by the same token it has Sodium instead of Net C. in the table.
The Premium tab has six sub-tabs: Benchmark, Food Report, Activity Report, Sleep Report, Trainer, and Export. These optional features are available for $49.99 a year.
Benchmark compares the number of steps performed against other users in similar demographics (and among all demographics).
Food Report gives you a wealth of information about your weekly macronutrients. (The image below is intentionally shortened with the black band in the middle.)
Activity Report is like Benchmark, only based on calories. This report also includes details about how you’re meeting the goals set by the automated trainer program. The trainer program is activated through the Trainer tab and helps you increase the number of calories you burn on a weekly basis, by increasing this goal gradually each week.
Sleep report does the same comparison with other users, but based on sleep time. The blue area tells you the recommended amount of sleep you should be getting, and the green bar points out the typical amount that other Fitbit users got. It also provides details on whether your sleep levels are improving or getting worse over time.
Finally, the Export tab allows you to be in charge of your own data by exporting it and then analyzing it with the software of your choice.
Conclusion about Fitbit Premium
The reports, export, and trainer are nice features that enrich the Fitbit experience. Are they indispensable? Not by a long shot. But in my case I find them to be worth the less than $5 a month (paid yearly) that Fitbit charges. For the same price of a Starbuck visit, which I’m not doing anymore to begin with, I get an extra boost of motivation.
In my case I find the statistical distribution for my demographic to be very telling of how much I need to improve my fitness level. There is a certain sample bias at play here, given that you’re amongst a group of people trying to improve themselves and not the general public. Still, I find that being so much on the left hand side of the distribution has been a strong motivational factor to improve and slowly reach a point where I’ll do better than the typical user on all the performance variables that matter.
Likewise the trainer has been a great feature for me, as it promotes behavior altering thoughts. For example, now I’ll park my car further than I used to, so as to get in those extra steps. I will happily shop with my wife for hours on end, and will take the longest route possible when walking somewhere, so as to do better in these stats.
In fact, the following graph from last week tells an interesting story.
As you can see I wasn’t meeting my goal for the week, so I really gave it my all on Saturday in order to compensate. If the trainer wasn’t in place, I wouldn’t have had a reason to try to go the literal extra mile.
In conclusion of what is now a huge review, I’d like to point out that as cool as data is, awareness without action is pretty pointless. I’m finding the whole Fitbit ecosystem to be a catalyst for my weight loss and overall fitness improvement.
Over the past month I’ve lost over ten pounds, gotten my blood pressure and heart rate to a desirable range down from some rather dangerous levels, and also been able to drop my blood glucose drastically to, practically, within normal levels without taking any medicine. Things are improving and doing so quickly. I attribute 80% of the merit to my diet, and only 20% to the increased activity level. Thankfully, Fitbit has been helpful with both for sure.
The most important tool is always going to be my willpower and a desire to pursue a healthier lifestyle, but I find Fitbit to be a rail upon which my hand can rest as I embark on this huge uphill climb. If you are in the same situation or simply want to improve your health, I highly recommend giving Fitbit a try.
Note: Links within this review include my referral id. I do not let this affect my judgment of the items and services I review. Whenever I felt there was a shortcoming or issue, I had no problem pointing it out for the sake of my readers.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Development Manager at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging (The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.