Update: an important note on Fitbit (and other trackers)
What do companies like Fitbit do with your data?
The business model of the vast majority of fitness tracking is that they can use your data to acquire valuable insights about you and your behaviour, and then sell that information on to third parties. (Unfortunately this is the business model for much of mainstream technology.) If you read the fitness trackers’ privacy policies, what they do with your data is both unclear and/or entirely outside of your control. Privacy policies often say they “anonymise” your data if they share it. But data about people, with such a wealth of meta data such as your location and physical attributes, is very easy to de-anonymise using information from another database (such as Facebook.)
These big corporations (both fitness, but also those who make money from combining and selling all this data) make huge amounts of money from us, and we are at a disadvantage as our information can be used against us. Insurance and credit companies buy this information and use it to discriminate against us, advertisers use it to manipulate our behaviour, ecommerce and online services use it to charge us more if we are from a specific demographic.
And of course, the most vulnerable people in society are those who suffer the most. This technology is built by straight white men, they are also the same straight (rich!) white men who both don’t care about our privacy, and whose own lives aren’t so much impacted by a loss of privacy.
I’m a fit and healthy person. Probably not your typical work-from-home desk-based screen-faced designer. I go to the gym 4 to 6 times a week, walk my dog every day, I eat fairly healthily and I’m a good weight.
I wasn’t always though. I’m not pretending I was massively fat, but after leaving university three years ago, I’d got some really bad habits (two cans of Relentless a day, anyone?!) and, whilst I’d been chubby since I was about 11 years old, I was actually pretty overweight. Being subject to the predictable insecurities of a 22 year old girl, I was incredibly insecure about my body, obviously I wanted to do something about it, but that doesn’t mean I went about it in the right way.
What followed was about a year and a half of dieting. It was horrible. I’m only 5’2, and without doing any exercise, I cut myself down to a miserable 900 calories per day and lost around 2 stone (about 30lbs) in those 18 horrible months. That’s really slowly. I was a misery and obsessively counting calories, keeping a food diary, beating myself up whenever I had a bad day and ate chocolate or burgers. I can’t have been much fun to live with either. Whilst I understood more about the effects that food had on my body than ever before, it was psychologically damaging. I might have lost weight but I still felt awful.
Discovering a gym
Once I’d lost the weight, I wanted to help fix my aching back, which was caused by my sitting at a computer all day. (Chris Comben was telling me to do it for ages, I finally did.) Now I was slim, I finally had the confidence to wear loose-fitting clothes to the classes and exercise in front of other people. So I tried Pilates. And I loved it, I’m sure a huge part of this was the classes I went to and the incredibly encouraging trainers there.
So then I started going to the gym, and then tried spin classes, and then more and more classes until I was completely addicted. The adrenaline, the way I suddenly felt so much better about myself, all incredibly addictive.
Learning How to push myself
I had an epiphany in a spin class. I realised that just going along and doing what I was told wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to want to be there, and I had to really push myself. Without actually pushing my body, as someone who was already healthy-ish, I wasn’t going to make any difference whatsoever. And after that revelation, and over a year where my weight has stayed the same, but my body shape has improved massively, I am still loving the gym and finding it has an enormous effect on me psychologically more than anything else.
Working from home
It’s lonely freelancing from home. Especially when you live by yourself. Working out has a few more benefits, I get to see and speak to real human beings (rather than magical beings on Twitter) and I am forced to leave my desk by 6pm in order to be at the classes by 6.30pm most weekday evenings. I’m usually far too exhausted to work after the gym, which also results in me having lovely, proper sleep as my body is now physically exhausted rather than just mentally-frustrated from a day in front of the computer.
Get on with the review of Fitbit!
Ok, so here’s where the Fitbit comes in. I got a Jawbone Up band for Christmas, but it went the way of all the other bands and was kaput within two weeks. Frustrated by the experience (they’ve still not got new hardware in stock!) I decided to buy a Fitbit on impulse.
The Fitbit bit
The Fitbit is a small plastic pedometer that you wear on your person. I favour the waistband or pocket, as I tend to mostly wear trousers, though I have occasionally worn it on my underwear when wearing dresses or trying to stop it spoiling the line of my clothes (that’s a rather girly power-user tip right there.)
The amount of stuff it records is pretty cool. It will record your steps, distance travelled, floors climbed (with the help of an altimeter,) calories burned and activity score. The activity score is a rating of how active you’ve been throughout the day, which gives you a nice goal to aim towards if you don’t want to obsess over steps, floors or calories.
It is a thing of beauty. It has a seamless display which shows you your pedometer statistics in clear blue text, which you can cycle through using the single button. You can also hold the button down to start/stop recording an activity session which allows you to record periods of sleep or specific periods of activity (it records all activity by default, but activity records can be handy if you want to know how far you travelled when you walked to the shops or similar.)
The Fitbit syncs wirelessly to a small dock which works with OS software to sync its stats to the web app. The dock also acts as a charger, which you rarely have to use as the Fitbit seems to have weeks of battery life at a time and charges up to full battery within an hour or so.
Sleeping with the Fitbit
The sleep recording functionality is pretty cool. Usually you’d move a lot less during your sleep, so you need to wear your Fitbit around your wrist. I found the provided wristband a little bit uncomfortable, the band itself is soft but the velcro fastening is a little bit abrasive round the edges. I made my own Fitbit wristband out of a tennis sweatband. I cut a hole in the sweatband, and stitched a Fitbit shape into it to stop it from getting stuck inside the band. This is much more comfortable and works just as well as the admittedly-slightly-slicker provided wristband.
You start the sleep function by holding down the button. The Fitbit is smart enough to know that you’re sleeping by the amount of movement you’re (not) making.
The Fitbit web app
Now by itself, you could argue that the Fitbit is just a rather fancy, slightly expensive sleep-recording pedometer. Really, it’s the addition of the web app that makes it so incredibly valuable.
Starting with the sleep log, the Fitbit will tell you how long you slept for, how often you woke up and use that to judge your quality of sleep. This is pretty handy if you want to improve your sleep quality, especially as you can see your sleep history, comparing each night.
This is my favourite part. There is no better way to motivate yourself than seeing how much exercise you’ve been doing in statistic form. And if you’re competitive? You can also share your information with friends (this allows you to lock down or make public as much or as little info as you’d like) to compete and motivate yourself to beat the other people in your group with daily, weekly or lifetime scores.
And, as with all good apps, you can earn badges for your achievements (I love badges!) I’m doing fairly well with mine. It’s actually really lovely when you get a little notification email telling you you’ve earned a new badge. The achievements seem to be infrequent enough that they actually feel meaningful (you don’t get a badge for just anything) but not so rare that they feel like hard work.
I’d say that the Fitbit is really best if you’re a walker or a runner, as it really is just a pedometer. You can easily record other types of exercise through their Activity Log but these are just basing a lot of the values on averages, rather than the actual calories you are likely to have burnt, actual steps taken etc. This doesn’t mean that the Fitbit is useless though. The majority of exercise I do (asides from walking) isn’t something that the Fitbit records itself, activities like biking or lifting weights. It will pick up that you’re doing some kind of activity, but won’t necessarily reflect the intensity. I actually find this just pushes me harder to do more exercise that the Fitbit does record.
I truly believe that the best way to lose weight is to keep a food and drink diary. It really makes you realise what you’re putting into your body. The Fitbit food log helps with this as you can quickly enter in your foods from its extensive database, in whatever quantities suit you best. Like other food databases, it tends to mostly feature food from the US, but you can easily add new foods yourself, and they’ve got a much better database of raw ingredients (fruit, veg etc.) than any other web app I’ve used.
My main criticism of the Fitbit web app is the focus on calories in the food log. Their food plans allow you to set reasonable goals based around calorie consumption, but this isn’t necessarily the healthiest way to lose weight. Whilst you do get an indication of how much Fat, Carbs and Protein you’re consuming, the emphasis is still on losing calories when an emphasis on less fat and carbs would probably be more beneficial to people looking for a healthy diet. Apps like Daily Burn do this better.
The weight log is handy and has become even more so since I got the Fitbit Aria scales two weeks ago (prior to that you had to enter your weight and body fat statistics directly into the app yourself.) These beautiful scales look lovely in the bathroom and sync wirelessly to the Fitbit web app via WiFi. This means there’s no tricking the scales by rounding up or down when you enter your values into the app, it’s all completely automatic, and that really adds to the motivation to lose weight!
You can also manually input your body measurements, which is great because it helps defeat that myth that appearance and body shape is all about weight, and you’re presented with some lovely graphs and charts of your body data to help you see how you’re doing and where you want to be.
There’s also a whole host of other logs that you can use to keep an eye on your body. In case you couldn’t tell by now, I’m loving these stats. Nothing makes me feel quite so much like a future person than looking at graphs about my own body. I feel like an android (the cool robot, not the rubbish phone.)
I make use of the Mood log a fair bit. I think it’s healthy to assess your mood from time to time, understand yourself better and try to get to the root of what’s making you feel happy or sad.
I’ve also made use of the one custom tracker you’re allowed on the free plan (unlimited on Premium) to record how many fruits and vegetables I eat in a day. This is a great motivation for me to eat more!
A lovely little addition to the Fitbit web app is the weekly stats you get sent via email. A nice little reminder of how you’re doing compared to last week, and a kick up the bum if you’ve been lazy.
Fitbit seems to work with about a million different web apps, which is great if you want it to work with something else you use, and also has its own API. Elliott Kember has made the genius FitBit Racing where a load of us have a weekly race to the most steps or floors (great for competitive people!) and I’m sure if you’re a smarter developer than me, you can make a lot of cool stuff with your data.
I love my Fitbit. I love it to the point where I actually go back for it if I leave it at home when I go out. I’ve got to the point where I wonder what’s the point of walking if I’ve not got my Fitbit on? Maybe that’s not healthy…but maybe it’s actually a sign of a gadget that has become so completely a part of my life that I’d really feel like I was missing out without it.
With the motivation my Fitbit provides, the confidence it’s given me in my ability to keep myself healthy and multiple ways to track myself that goes so far beyond miserably standing on the scales and counting calories, I really couldn’t recommend it more.
And if you do get one, be my friend! I share all my data with my friends by default (there’s no obligation to do that though!) it keeps me in check…