Thoughts on Fitbit and activity trackers

I recently started using a Fitbit Zip activity tracker because I was intrigued by this whole idea of doing 10,000 steps a day to keep fit. At S$78 (before the Challenger member 10% discount), it’s not cheap but it’s not expensive either for a tiny pedometer that comes with Bluetooth wireless capabilities and built-in user account.

To be clear, it’s not like I need a pedometer, because I already jog regularly two to three times a week and I watch what I eat most of the time. I weigh myself daily now with a Fitbit Aria scale that logs my weight to my personal account and I can always study my weight variations anytime on my phone or PC.

But once you pique my curiosity and it involves tech and fitness, I just have to try it out to gain an understanding of what other people are raving about.

I’ll confess that I haven’t really heard about this 10k steps method until recent weeks – is this due to the lack of education/marketing from our SG health authorities (who always espouse some vague guideline like exercising XX hours a week and have dozens of advisory materials that keep piling up on their website), or is it just another short-term fad among techies and Singaporeans, or am I generally ill-informed because I don’t really like to read health magazines?

Maybe all of the above!

According to the folks at Fitbit, this 10k figure actually originated with Japanese companies trying to market pedometers to the public. Over time, research was done on it and major health associations like the American Heart Association decided to endorse it as well. This recent press release from AHA claims that walking has similar benefits to running when it comes to reducing health risks.

Researchers analyzed 33,060 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study. They found that the same energy used for moderate intensity walking and vigorous intensity running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and possibly coronary heart disease over the study’s six years.

What it doesn’t really say is how fast one should walk, but as long as you aren’t plodding along, I guess it should be ok. Of course, it’s always better to be running versus walking, if you can afford the energy and time.

“Walking may be a more sustainable activity for some people when compared to running, however, those who choose running end up exercising twice as much as those that choose walking. This is probably because they can do twice as much in an hour,” Williams said.

Anyway, I’ve been using the Fitbit Zip for the past week and some initial conclusions as follows

It can change bad habits

Because I’m a regular jogger, I wouldn’t really know the health benefits of walking. However, like all fitness related gadgets out there like GPS watches, Wifi weighing scales and such, the idea of such gadgets is to get you to become more aware of your lack of fitness and sedentary lifestyle, and then regular usage will get you to slowly change your lifestyle and habits. The change will not happen overnight, but may take months or years.

I started jogging regularly over three years ago when I got a Nike Sportband pedometer for my own Xmas present. Once you have something that records your data, it has a good chance of motivating you to do better or not slack off. Before that, I was never disciplined about doing my runs, and only hit the roads before the next IPPT fitness test.

Over time, I graduated to better GPS watches and they continue to do the same thing – keep me on my toes. And the main reason why I keep sharing my run data on Facebook is not for showing off (ok, not always), but to keep me accountable to my friends and to hopefully motivate them to do the same too.

It was the same with using MyFitnessPal to track my calorie counts – after a few months, I didn’t need to keep logging my diet intake anymore because I could quickly estimate the day’s calories easily.

All it takes is practice and awareness of one’s daily activity. Most people continue to live in ignorance of the truly important things in nutrition and exercise. (Read my inexpensive book if you want to know)

It’s a good indicator of a slothful lifestyle

It’s shocking to read online research on how sedentary people can take less than 5000 steps a day. I’m restless by nature (I tend to fall asleep if I sit still for too long) and I can easily hit 8000 steps just with my normal activities.

But the modern lifestyle means too much sitting, and snacking, and most people give themselves the excuse that their “metabolism slows down as we age”. It’s just a rubbish excuse, we just aren’t moving enough and our bodies are just sitting there getting fat.

10k steps (or about 7.5km of walking) may seem like a lot to many people, but I suspect it’s what our bodies really need on a daily basis for proper functioning. When you don’t walk or exercise to that extent, that’s when you’re ill-treating your body and letting it down.

Don’t depend on its accuracy

For steps counting, the Fitbit Zip is fairly accurate. It doesn’t count any steps when I’m driving or taking the train. However, false data may creep in when I’m riding my motorcycle for example, and the upward/downward oscillation movement while on the road may trick the pedometer into thinking I’m walking. So in a day, I may have about 2000 false steps.

That’s ok as long as you know how to account for it. Some people will cheat or bluff themselves into thinking they’ve achieved 10k steps without actually having done so.

Also, the calorie counter in the Fitbit is probably not accurate as well. Calorie burn is better measured with heart rate monitors in tandem, because those truly measure real effort. BTW, fitter people burn less calories per kilometer of running too, as the body is more efficient from exercise. So just take the Fitbit calorie counter as a rough gauge.

Even more important is to watch your diet, because like I tell my friends, 70% of a weight-loss program or weight maintenance regime comes from the food, and not so much the exercise.

I’ve observed that many people have this awful false sense of security every time they’ve done a little more exertion than normal – “Oh, I should eat more today because I’ve been exercising more than usual” – and then go on to gobble down some oily, sweet and/or fatty dishes.

The net result is that they actually gain weight in the process, then they declare that dieting and exercise is futile.

You won’t believe how many times I see this weekly either online or offline. I just keep my mouth shut.

Do you really need one?

No.

Ok, it depends on how you determined you are to improve your health.

We’ve got to remember that most gadgets are invented to hopefully meet a potential need, not an actual one, in the desire for commercial success. Gadgets that succeed are those that find a viable and growing market – that’s why so many product launches fail.

Activity trackers have become very popular because they obviously feed into a person’s desire to get fit and healthy, and they work with today’s crop of smartphones and tablets.

But buying and using one does not work wonders unless you have the mental strength to eat a proper diet and to exercise with absolute discipline. It’s just a tool, it’s not a miracle drug or formula.

(And people keep asking themselves why they are overweight, then they munch on the next tea-time cake)

These trackers come in useful for people who are seriously earnest about getting their health in check – it’s convenient and fun to take out the Fitbit Zip once in a while from the pocket to see how much it’s logged for the day. That’s why I leave it in my pants pocket daily – it’s good to know and it’s a geek thing.

(Note: This is an incredible tool for army pathfinders and commanders because you can use it in place of a manual pace counter or mental counting for wilderness navigation. I wish I had this when I was still serving my National Service, especially since it can count steps and also gauge distance travelled. Maybe that’s why it also comes in green?)

I also like the fact the Zip doesn’t need constant USB charging as it uses a small flat battery that will last several months. We spend too much time plugging in USB cables these days.

The only niggly thing is that the rubber clasp/cover attracts lint like crazy (see picture of my blue Fitbit)

By the way, I’m not so persuaded by the newer wrist models like the Fitbit Force because I like wearing my favorite watches and I don’t want another device on my other wrist. They’re expensive (over S$100) and I will wager that they’ll be obsolete pretty soon as better smartwatches appear, and more apps use the accelerometers in today’s new smartphones (eg. the low-power M7 chip in the iPhone 5S).

I have compiled my writings on weight management into a free book called “Anyone Can Lose Weight”. Own it now to transform your life.

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