· hardware · geek ·

I haven’t yet written about the other item I bought with my birthday money: a Fitbit wireless tracker. It’s really a kind of fancy pedometer that tracks the number of steps you’ve taken, the number of flights of stairs you’ve climbed (it has an altimeter), and various other estimated measures like calories burned and distance travelled. There are a couple of reasons why I really wanted to get one of these units. One is that I’ve been trying for a while to become a bit more active and also to lose a bit of weight. I think it’s hard to change what you can’t measure (and even harder to know when you’ve achieved your goal), so I wanted some objective way of measuring just how inactive I am. The other reason is that the Fitbit isn’t just a bit of hardware, but comes with online software (and an iPhone app), which gives you a great deal more information about your activity and your progress over time, and I’m a sucker for a nice graph.

The bottom line is that while I want to be healthy and I want to shed a few kilograms of weight, I’m bone idle at heart. I don’t like exercise much, except for walking and cycling. However, I prefer to do both as a means of transport from A to B, rather than as exercise in their own right. If you want to get fitter, this isn’t necessarily an impediment, as any activity (even if it is fairly low intensity) can help, as long as you are active. This is where the Fitbit really comes into its own. It is small and light enough to wear all the time (it clips to your belt or to a pocket), so that you can track your activity all the time throughout your normal day. There’s a button and an LED display on the device, so you can scroll through your steps, distance, floors climbed, calories burned and general activity score for the current day. The unit syncs wirelessly with a basestation connected to your computer via USB, so you also get a more detailed breakdown (and information for past days) on the website.

The website is very well thought out, and you get a ‘dashboard’ with progress bars for each of the main measures, showing how close you are today to your goals (10,000 steps per day, 5 miles, 10 floors, a certain calorie expenditure tailored to your age, sex and weight, and an activity score of 1000). You also see a graph of your activity over the day in 5 minute blocks, with the bars colour coded for activity level: sedentary (aka ‘complete couch potato’), lightly active, fairly active and very active. A pie chart shows you how many minutes you have spent in each of those activities in the current day. If you’re in to counting calories (I’m not) you can log the food you eat and it shows you a kind of ‘meter’ display of your current consumption and how many more calories you can consume today. This takes into account your activity level in working out how much energy you have burned. I did try this for the first couple of days, but if you don’t eat many processed or pre-packaged foods, it’s a bit of a hassle to work out the calorie content of your food. However, if you are counting calories anyway as part of a diet, this would be very helpful. I just ignore that part now and try to increase how many calories I’ve burned, while keeping the amount I eat fairly constant.

Looking at the statistics gathered while wearing the Fitbit for a week was encouraging and horrifying in roughly equal measures. The good news is that when I am working at the University, I am fairly active. Commuting to work involves some periods of activity whether I cycle or get the train (I have to walk to and from the station), and the geography of the building is such that I end up walking long corridors or going up and down stairs a fair bit in the natural course of my day. Similarly, at weekends and while I’ve been on holiday over Easter, if I’m going into the city to shop or out for the day visiting National Trust properties (which we did quite a bit of over Easter), I’m also fairly active. So far, so good. The horrifying bit was what happens when I’m working from home or just spending the day at home at the weekend, footling around on the computer: a sea of terrible low grey ‘sedentary’ bars. Eeek! I suppose that I knew that I was pretty sedentary at those times, but actually seeing the figures and the difference in energy used between ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ days is really sobering.

I’ve set a target to gradually increase my activity over a number of weeks, and the instant feedback you get from the Fitbit is really helpful in sticking to those targets. Luckily, you can make quite a bit of difference by just getting up from your chair periodically and wandering around the house or running up and down the stairs a couple of times: regular bouts of even light activity can help a lot. It’s quite addictive actually. On more than one day, I’ve got tantilisingly close to 10,000 steps late in the evening, and have had to explain to Mr. Bsag that I am wandering aimlessly around the house to get myself over 10,000 steps, not because I’m going senile.

If you’re in to the whole Quantified Self thing, you’ll probably love the Fitbit. The website includes all the now de-rigeur ‘social’ aspects, but you don’t have to use it like that. I use it in a battle with myself to try to understand my activity (and lack of activity) in order to do something about it. I like measuring myself and aiming for targets. Another handy feature of the website is that you can view your position in the population of data collected by other Fitbit users, either overall or by age, gender or BMI (or all of those). Thus, you can see what is ’normal’ (in the statistical sense, for the population of Fitbit users) and try to improve your percentile position against others. My steps and activity level are not great, but I’m in something like the 90th percentile for stair climbing for some reason! You can also opt for ‘Premium’ membership for an extra annual fee which gives you more detailed reports and access to a virtual ’trainer’ to help you achieve specific goals, as well as a the ability to export your data. I wish that exporting was part of normal membership, as I think you have a right to your own data if you purchase the unit, and the other benefits of Premimum are still substantial enough to get people to sign up without holding your data hostage. Apart from that minor quibble, I’m very happy with the Fitbit. It is really helping to motivate me to be more active, which must be a good thing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and wander around the house and bag a few more steps…