Simply owning a new exercise gadget isn’t going to get you in better shape, but it’s tempting to think dropping cash on a clever exercise/fitness/weight/food tracking gadget or app is the only thing standing between you and those six-pack abs you’re still convinced you want. Unfortunately when it comes to your fitness, there’s no magic bullet beyond actually eating better and exercising. That doesn’t mean fitness tech is useless, though.
I spent the last eight months testing out some of the more popular fitness tools on the market; some were great, others not so great. Here’s a look at my favourite fitness gadgets and apps, and a look at how I got in better shape this year with the help of tech.
First, a note: I’m not a doctor, not a dietician, and I’m not in terrible shape. I’ve always been at least somewhat athletic, and I like staying active, but like most people, I’ve occasionally let stress, time, and, yes, laziness get in the way of health and fitness. At the beginning of this year I decided, puffy-faced after a Christmas of binging, that I needed to get in better shape. I’d been reading raves about gadgets like the FitBit, so I decided to give these tools a try to see if they actually worked.
As it turned out, they did. Some worked better than others, but I dropped the five or so kilos I was looking to leave behind (like I said, I wasn’t in terrible shape to begin with) and have kept it off. It would probably be more impressive if I’d lost 20kg, but there’s no reason the same tools can’t accomplish a larger goal.
I tried most of the fitness gadgets I could get my hands on, trying to tackle as much variety I could in terms of types of fitness tech. If you feel like reading about each piece of tech, just jump down to what ended up working best for me. The gadgets and apps I tried include:
The BodyMedia Fit ($US180-$US260 + monthly subscription): Great Data, Bulky Device
What It Is: The Fit is a tracking arm band that tracks your caloric output by measuring things like body heat, sweat, heat flux (the rate at which heat is dissipated from your body), and your activity, as in motion. It does the latter with a built-in accelerometer — the same thing the detects movements in a Wiimote or your smartphone. As an added bonus, it also measures and analyses your sleep if you wear it to bed and tracks your calories consumed — if you’re willing to enter everything you eat into its web app. You can read more details regarding how it works here.
Pros: The Fit is rich with data, and among all the tools I tested, it clearly does the most, it presents it all in a friendly dashboard, and one charge lasts for days, so you don’t need to worry about charging it all the time. Most of that data is tracked automatically, so all you have to do is wear the arm band. The only thing you have to manually enter into the website is your calories consumed, which you do through a Weight Watchers-like food database, and your weight.
Cons: You have to wear an armband around all the time. I wore the Fit around for a good six weeks, and frankly, I found wearing it kind of gross. My arm would feel a little sweaty, so I’d pull the rubber-y elastic band away from my arm to get a little air in there like you would if you were wearing tight, poorly breathing underwear. The $US180 version I tested also had to be plugged into your computer to sync, which, in a world where wireless is the expectation, felt really tedious. Since I tested it, BodyMedia has released a $US250 Bluetooth-capable version that, I believe, can sync wirelessly to your Android or iPhone. The gadget itself doesn’t have any display, so you can’t get any on-the-fly statistics unless you’ve synced it — in which case you’ll have to visit the web app or open the Fit app on your smartphone.
Verdict: The Fit was the best tracker I tested in terms of accuracy and breadth of information. Unfortunately I’m not a convict, and unless required by law, I, like most people, find wearing a bulky armband every day to be overkill. In the winter, it bulged under long-sleeved shirts like I had severely over-exercised one arm. In short-sleeve weather, several people assumed I had some sort of blood disease that needed constant monitoring (not kidding). I’d consider using the Fit full time if it weren’t such a socially awkward commitment — that is, if it were smaller and could live in my pocket.
Fitbit ($US100): Unobtrusive Tracker, Low Price
What It Is: The Fitbit is a small, key fob-sized pedometer that fits in your pocket and uses an accelerometer to track steps taken, distance walked, and calories burned in a day. Like the BodyMedia Fit, the Fitbit website allows you to view your activity and (manually) log your caloric intake. The point is to see your calories in vs. calories out to get a sense of how you’re doing in the weight loss department. As an afterthought, Fitbit also has a sleep tracking element.
Pros: Fitbit is small, fits easily into your pocket (or wherever you want to clip it on — most of the time I preferred to wear mine in my otherwise unused watch pocket), and syncs wirelessly to a USB dongle-plus-charger that plugs into your computer. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, and the Fitbit interface is attractive and easy to navigate. The pint-sized gadget syncs wirelessly whenever you’re in range of the (likewise small) USB base station, and the device’s onscreen display gives you on-the-fly stats, displaying steps taken, distance walked, and a surprisingly effective flower that grows taller the more you’re walking. (I was always disappointed in myself when I didn’t max out that flower height.)
Cons: The Fitbit’s battery life is a little on the weak side, but it’s not a dealbreaker. If you want to track your sleep with the Fitbit, you have to wear it on a wristband, which suffers the same problems as the Fit: Namely, it sucks to wear an uncomfortable band to sleep.
Verdict: The Fitbit isn’t nearly as full-featured as the Fit, but it makes up for that with convenience. Its wireless activity sync, on-device stats, and small size make it an addictive gadget to carry around in your pocket. I found myself regularly checking (and actually caring about) my daily steps taken. You still need to remember to swap pockets every day, and it can be frustrating when you forget, but you get in the habit of keeping it with you like you get in the habit of remembering your keys. Lastly, my primary activity is jogging, and while Fitbit does have a special “activity” mode, it’s much more of a walker’s device.
Withings WiFi Body Scale ($US160): Dead-Simple Tracking, Easily Understandable Data
What It Is: The Withings WiFi Body Scale is what it sounds like: A scale that connects to your home Wi-Fi network. Aside from measuring your weight, it also measures your body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage. It syncs the results to the Withings website, where you can track you weight over time. Withings works with multiple users, so every person in your household can track their weight using the device. [imgclear]
Pros: You won’t find anything much simpler to use than the attractive Withings scale. After you’ve set it up with your network, associated it with your MyWithings account, and added yourself as a user, you just stand on the scale whenever you want to use it. It weighs you and measures your BMI and body fat percentage. It automatically syncs the results to the web. There’s nothing easier than stepping on a scale when you get out of the shower, so Withings has the lowest hassle to adoption. The weight change over time is, for me, effective. Rather than having a vague idea that I’ve gained or lost weight, I know exactly how much I’ve gained or lost, and even though it doesn’t have any way of tracking your caloric intake/output, normally I have a pretty good idea of when and why it’s happening. As an added bonus, Withings can incorporate its data with third-party fitness tools — including RunKeeper (see below).
Cons: The Withings scale can’t track the same data as the Fit or Fitbit for obvious reasons. It’s limited to the three weight measurements.
Verdict: I really like the Withings scale. Incorporating gadgets like the Fit or Fitbit into your life is a big commitment, but there’s nothing to using a scale. You just stand on it. Everyone understands that, and beyond the initial setup, that’s all there is to it. A good weight history is, for me, really powerful. It’s hard data saying: “Adam, you’re getting a little on the heavy side for you. Time to shape up.”
RunKeeper (Free app, $US20/year for the Elite service); Low Price, Great for Runners
What It Is: RunKeeper is an Android, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 app that uses your smartphone’s GPS to track your runs, hikes, walks, skis and pretty much every other distance-based and motion-based activity. It tracks distance, duration, pace, speed, elevation and calories burned. When you finish a workout, the RunKeeper app syncs the results to RunKeeper.com, where you can track your activity history. It’s far from the only app of its kind, but it is the only one I know of with strong, cross-platform support. (I like to know I can switch between an Android or iPhone and still use the same tracking app.) Other good tracking alternatives include RunStar Runmeter and Nike+. The same pros and cons of of RunKeeper will mostly apply to other apps of its ilk.
Pros: I like listening to music or podcasts when I jog, so I’m taking my phone with me anyway. RunKeeper works well (as long as your phone’s GPS doesn’t suck; when I had the abomination of an Android phone that is the Samsung Captivate, the GPS tracking was all over the place) and does exactly what it advertises. The app is customisable, allowing you to set time-based or distance-based announcements for your distance and pace, place specific playlists, and so on. The option that really blew my mind was the Coaching feature, which allows you to create your own workouts with specific time-based or distance-based intervals (e.g. run fast for .0.5km, then slow for one minute; rinse and repeat as often as you like). Once I discovered coaching, I was hooked.
Cons: As I mentioned, RunKeeper is only as good as your device’s GPS. This isn’t really RunKeeper’s fault, but it is an important factor to keep in mind. The RunKeeper app is free, but some really nice advanced features are only available once you’ve signed up for the $US20/year RunKeeper Elite. I’m motivated by personal bests, so the main benefit of the subscription is the full-featured Personal Records and Trends. (I run the most, by far, on Tuesdays.) I count the Elite requirement as a con in the context of a free app, but it’s also pretty cheap relative to buying any of the gadgets above.
Verdict: If you’re a jogger, RunKeeper (or other tracking apps like RunKeeper) is incredibly useful. You get all the tracking information you want for your exercise, and you don’t have to carry yet another gadget around with you everywhere you go (assuming you already carry a smartphone).
What Worked Best for Me
I spent months using the devices above to get in better shape, and for starters, I should mention that it worked. All of the tools I included worked better for me than nothing by nature of what’s involved. As soon as you start actively tracking this data, you can’t help but become more aware of your fitness. That’s a good thing, and any feedback loop is better than no feedback loop.
Still, I found that the less painful the path to adoption, the more likely I was to actually keep up with and pay attention to the results of the tool. Even if I started with the best intentions, I could never convince myself to log everything I eat, and for me, wearing a dedicated tracking device everywhere I went got annoying after a while. So while I enjoyed perusing all the data that devices like the Fit and Fitbit gave me, my sweet spot combined the Withings scale and RunKeeper.
As I mentioned above, I like to jog as my primary form of fitness, and RunKeeper is an excellent joggers companion. And while measuring caloric input and output does, in theory, narrow the feedback loop between eating and gaining a few kilos, weight is a metric that everyone understands, without effort. So tracking my weight with Withings filled in some of the gaps between RunKeeper and the Fit/Fitbit.
Additionally, the Withings scale data can integrate with RunKeeper, which — while not that useful on its own — is a nice bonus.
What I’m Still Keeping an Eye Out For
Health and fitness tech is still in its infancy, and in the next few years, this kind of health-related quantified self technology will only improve. I’m still eagerly waiting to see what comes out of Massive Health, for example, a startup from the former creative lead at Firefox Aza Raskin.
Devices that I didn’t mention (and that many of you may already be using) include gaming-integrated tools like the Wii Fit. In theory more and more of the better tech — like the Fit and Fitbit — will manage to shrink down and integrate directly into your smartphones so that you don’t need to carry an extra gadget with you everywhere you go.
How About You?
Have you spent a lot of time with a fitness-tracking tool, whether it’s as old-school as Weight Watchers or as new as the tools above? Share your experience — including what’s worked well and what hasn’t — in the comments.