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Fitness Trackers

Edit, over a month later: Turns out, something very much like the device I was complaining that nobody had designed has since been announced. It’s fairly attractive, can be worn in a number of different ways (no word on its accuracy, though), and it has an inactivity alert. Bonus: it will do menstrual tracking (with manual data entry), which almost no fitness trackers do, right now. Bigger bonus: it senses when your breathing picks up (separately from exercise, of course), which indicates stress, and it helps you to track what your stressors are and to calm down in the moment. (ETA: It does not actually do this, sadly.) I look forward to seeing what kind of API and data export it offers. Sadly, it is not waterproof or water-resistant enough to wear in the shower, so I continue to maintain that there is no perfect device.

I’m pretty sure I promised to write a post about the fitness tracker I use. It’s very pretty! But since it hasn’t synced to my phone in eight days(!), and I can’t get it to manually sync, I find I’m too frustrated to write the in-depth post I had intended to write. That’s too bad for Misfit, since their app has just been updated, and every in-depth post out there is going to talk about the old app. (Apps, really. Apparently the Android one and the iOS one are very different.)

Because I’m cranky, I’m going to open with some reasons why you might not want a fitness tracker. And then I’ll do a quick compare/contrast of the four I know the most about, because why not?

Fitness trackers aren’t amazing yet

Now that my Misfit Shine seems to be on the fritz, I have to decide whether or not a fitness tracker is even something I want to start to budget for, at all. Every single one of them, to my knowledge, shares these serious down sides (listed no particular order):

  • They’re either kind of ugly or completely useless as a motivator. The Shine is lovely; it looks like a piece of jewelry when I wear it on its necklace! But its unobtrusiveness means that it doesn’t serve arguably its greatest purpose: reminding and/or motivating me to get up and move. Most of the other trackers are worn on the wrist (which makes me feel like they should be so inaccurate, but I’ve been assured that isn’t the case), and most are pretty ugly. But at least having something on your wrist all day will give you that visual cue: “Oh, right, I have goals.” As far as avoiding fitness bracelets, there are clip-on trackers, but I’m a forgetful person; I had more days without data than days with it, some weeks, with my clip-on Fitbit. And the real problem with attractive or “invisible” trackers: you don’t see them, so they don’t motivate you. This could be mitigated, as I’ll mention below, by adding an inactivity alert to any of these devices, plus maybe a signal from your phone when it gets too far from the device, to help prevent forgetting them. (Sure, this would have consequences for battery life. Look: engineering is hard. Deal with it.)
  • There are legal and privacy concerns. (A warning for my friends from Anchorage: I’m going to talk about Wil. Skip this if you want.) Fitbits are being used in court cases, hopefully responsibly; there are also employers who know way more about their employees’ activities than I would be entirely comfortable with, if I worked for them. Having seen the O’Reilly talk about Intridea (video), I can tell some of these employers mean well, so I might go along with being tracked if I worked for one of them; I’d just want to see what they were doing with the data, first. Still, fitness tracking can also be used for evil: a few years ago, a friend of mine was killed by a motorist while commuting by bike. The police force’s “investigation” was almost entirely based around his tracking app’s location data—which was obviously, visibly inaccurate, showing him swerving across a four lane street in a way that the snow berms would have made impossible. (Because consumer-grade location data is like that. Inaccurate.) Long story short, the lazy, incompetent police officers decided that my friend was at fault for riding in the wrong direction, in the street (the sidewalk in that area is a bike path, so riding the wrong way down that is legal/expected). The motorist who hit him (while he was, verifiably, in a crosswalk) was not punished. Now, I realize, no amount of properly interpreted data could have saved my friend’s life, and punishment isn’t really justice; still, it seems obvious that misinterpretation of fitness tracker data could easily hurt other people.
  • It’s a little bit ableist, isn’t it? You know? 10,000 steps per day isn’t a good goal for me, at least not more than a couple of times a week. With my foot injury, “more steps” isn’t always going to be better. But you aren’t rewarded for resting, or taking care of yourself; you’re rewarded for more steps. Worse, some trackers (and Misfit is one) use “streaks” as their primary motivational mechanic, which I hate: I’m going to have bad days, and I hate that my tracker punishes me for them. Fitbit and Garmin at least let you work toward badges over time, so you don’t “lose” all of your progress on a bad day.
  • What if your goal isn’t weight loss? This varies by tracker, but some of them really harp on calories. Really, really, really. I know some people who find this triggering. For me, it’s just annoying. My goal isn’t really to lose weight; it’s to get more exercise per day (when I can).
  • If your goal is weight loss, bad news: many users gain weight. Apparently. (Obvious and probably unnecessary warning: the discussion of weight, at that link, is not nuanced.) Calorie burn estimates are wildly inaccurate, who knew? (I know! And, if you didn’t already, now you know!)

Features and flaws

So let’s see how these things all stack up, shall we?

fitness

Fitbit

  • Features: Relatively easy to get your data, web interface, works with some cool third party apps.
  • Maybe features/Maybe bugs: Counts flights of stairs climbed.
  • Bugs: Not waterproof, requires charging, no inactivity monitor.

This one’s really popular, and now that they offer a purple wrist band, I’ve thought hard about whether or not I want one again. I really liked my clip-on Fitbit, even though I got fed up with it (or myself) for its (my) “forgetting to wear it” and “forgetting to change its mode” issues—that latter one was particularly annoying, because if you do something like cycling or sleeping, it has trouble figuring that out, and everything will be horribly inaccurate unless you change its mode while you do those things, or go in and fix it later. But since that seems to be the case with every other tracker I’ve seriously considered (with the exception of the newest/fanciest Jawbone), it doesn’t even make it in the features/bugs list.

I liked that it had a web interface; it wasn’t perfect—some settings were a little hard to find—but you could look at trends over time, which I appreciated. I haven’t been back in there in months, but the last time I looked, it didn’t appear that they’d changed the website at all. I feel like all of their development efforts are on hardware, not UI, which is too bad.

As far as wrist-borne Fitbits, my friends who have them seem to like them well enough. Nobody has complained that theirs is too big, or too ugly to wear to work. It’s apparently wildly inaccurate if you use a treadmill, but otherwise, it seems to do a good job for them.

If you get the one without the heart rate monitor, it’s a little bit water resistant; the one with HRM (so… the purple one) is, apparently, not. I don’t know about you, but, even if I can’t wear my fitness monitor in the pool (which I would like) or the shower (which I would very much like, due to that whole “forgetfulness” issue), I’d like to be able to wear it in heavy rain without worrying about it. That alone might nix the whole Fitbit idea, for me.

Also, since I can’t reliably climb stairs (arthritis), I think a Fitbit would potentially not be great for my motivation; it has an onboard altimeter that tells you how many flights you’ve climbed, and I know I hated seeing “0,” in the past. Plus, I’d never beat my record, from ALA Midwinter in Seattle, when I stayed at the hotel at the top of the hill. ;) But for people who have set “climb more stairs” as a goal for themselves, it is very, very good in this respect, and I believe it’s the only tracker to do that.

That said, Fitbit is probably the most popular tracker out there, so it works with pretty much every other app, including FitRPG. (I am very interested in FitRPG.) If you want good app integration or lots of friends to be socially competitive with, Fitbit’s probably the winner (with Jawbone in second place).

Plus? There’s an R library for pulling in Fitbit data. I think that’s kind of cool. :)

Misfit Shine

  • Features: Waterproof! Aesthetically pleasing.
  • Maybe features/Maybe bugs: Totally flexible about how you wear it (wrist, necklace, etc.), though accuracy varies. No charging; replace the battery after four months.
  • Bugs: The data is locked inside an app, nearly impossible to get out. Syncing is really shaky. Terrible sleep monitor.

Despite all this writing, which I’m told is supposed to be therapeutic or something, I’m still pretty mad about my Misfit not syncing. I’ll try to be balanced in my approach, though, because it does have some great features, beyond just being pretty.

First off, it uses a CR2032 watch battery, which means you don’t have to take it off and recharge it all the time. Every four months or so, you pry it open, put the dead battery in your “take to the dump on toxic waste day” pile (which is a down side, yes), and put a new one in. As watch batteries go, you can’t really get more ubiquitous or any cheaper than the model the Misfit uses.

Because there’s no charging port, it’s waterproof. It even has a setting for swimming! (Like the other devices, it wants you to tell it when you’re doing any activity besides walking. I think you’re supposed to wear it on your wrist to swim and on your ankle to bike; they even sell special socks, though I didn’t buy those.) “Waterproof” is a really hard feature to find in the fitness tracker market and was a major selling point for me. I can wear it 24/7, in any weather! I really like that!

Something that they state as a pro is, honestly, more of a toss-up: you can wear it on your wrist (they provide a basic wrist band and sell fancier ones), on a necklace (they sell necklaces), clipped to your shoe (they provide a magnetic clip), or basically wherever. The perception of flexibility is great! That said, it is wickedly inaccurate when worn on the wrist—either that, or Charlottesville’s trail markers are wrong. It seems accurate enough when worn on the chest, though, so I generally go with that. There’s a place in the app to tell it where you’re wearing it, so it does try to be accurate; I assume this will improve over time.

The thing I dislike most about it, though, and which is probably going to cost them further business from me, is that they have no web interface and no data export. Your only interface is the app. You can’t really look at trends over time—not in a way that’s useful—and its integration with IF/IFTTT is really, really weak; if it doesn’t sync for a day, for whatever reason, it records zeros and never overwrites them. And the syncing is really, really spotty, so this happens a lot. (It used to only sync manually, and you were supposed to put the device on your phone to do it. It nominally syncs automatically, nowadays, but it fails. Often.)

I haven’t looked to see if there are any API wrappers in any programming languages I know, and I’ve been grumpy enough about this glaring lack, on their part, to actually jump through the hoops to get a developer API key so I could write my own. I might, though. If mine ever syncs again.

Also, since it’s sort of new and syncs poorly, Misfit just isn’t there yet with the other app integration. They’re adding services all the time, so this will presumably improve rapidly.

I listed “terrible sleep monitor” as a bug, but this is honestly not the main thing I use these devices for. The Fitbit’s sleep monitor also seemed inaccurate (I hope, or else I’m living on 4-5 hours of actual sleep per night), but the Shine is even worse, splitting up one night of sleep so that it looks like several nights. I avoid that part of the interface altogether, honestly. They sell a separate device that you can put on your bed to monitor sleep, but given how bad the interface for the Shine is, on that front, and how little access you get to your data, I don’t see the point.

Jawbone Up

  • Features: Inactivity monitor! Relatively slim band. The fanciest one doesn’t require logging workouts separately; it can tell when you start a workout.
  • Maybe features/Maybe bugs: Super super super into weight loss as a thing, like whoa.
  • Bugs: Not waterproof (though it is water resistant and can be worn in the shower). No display (the older models had this problem; it looks like there’s a display, now).

I haven’t actually owned an Up, but it was the other brand I considered really hard, last time I was looking at fitness trackers. I know a few people who have them, and they like them a lot.

It has one feature that I think is killer and that I really want: you can set it to vibrate if you haven’t moved in some given time frame. You can even pick the time frame! (Note: this is true for their bands, but not for the Up Move. That’s too bad, because that one comes in purple.)

When my arthritis was at its worst, I felt severe pain if I sat still for more than about 45 minutes at a time—the problem was, the sitting itself wasn’t what hurt; it was the standing up afterward. I didn’t have to get up and walk for long—just a stand-and-stretch did the trick, most of the time—but the consequences of staying seated too long were awful. So I tried all kinds of alarms, calendar reminders, apps, you name it; nothing was very good. I just kind of limped along (bad joke) with a hodgepodge of things until I got better meds.

Now, of course, I’m much better, and I can sit for however long I need to, within reason; but it turns out you’re still supposed to get up and move every so often, to be healthy.

And where the calendars and apps fail, an inactivity alert is such a clear win: it isn’t about getting up and moving at every arbitrary time mark, but about not sitting still for too long. If you have a day that’s nicely broken up by meetings and various activities, you don’t need a reminder on the 45/60/115 minute mark; that’s annoying. You definitely don’t need something that makes actual sound. But on those “head down, do work” days, a bracelet that vibrates gently to say “Hey, you haven’t moved in a bit”? That sounds perfect.

If the Shine or one of the other non-wrist trackers implemented this feature, they would suddenly be useful for motivation again!

It seems like Jawbone falls between Fitbit and Misfit on the app integration front, but probably closer to Misfit, honestly. There are some sleep apps and some weight loss apps and a whole bunch of food apps, but, besides Fitocracy, there’s not a lot on the gamification front. (And Fitocracy is really more oriented toward weight lifting than cardio or walking.) That’s too bad. Honestly, the whole Jawbone website seems so focused on weight loss that I’m a little grossed out by their approach.

Garmin Vívosmart

  • Features: Waterproof! Inactivity alarm! Nice display! A find-your-phone utility.
  • Maybe features/Maybe bugs: It wants to also be a smart watch. You apparently have to tap to turn the display on. Goals seem to be set for you automatically, and it doesn’t penalize you for not meeting your goal.
  • Bugs: It’s a wrist band.

I don’t own one of these, and I don’t know anyone who does. I had previously written Garmin off entirely, because their prices were so much higher. But at $150, the Vívosmart is still within the ballpark, with a few added features. (I didn’t think I wanted a smart watch, but the idea of seeing text messages on my wrist kind of appeals to me, especially as I consider getting an iPhone that won’t fit in my pocket.)

Since it has the two features I most want (waterproofness and an inactivity alert), plus one you think I’m joking about but I’m not (purple highlights), it’s a strong contender. It appears that you cannot set the duration for the inactivity alert; it’s always an hour. I could live with that, though.

Some people might not like that it (reportedly) sets your goals for you, but for me this is a major bonus. My goal is to be constantly improving, not to hit some arbitrary mark right off the bat. Plus, it will create training plans for you, based on goals (which seem to take the form of, for instance, “I want to complete [event—triathlon, 5k, whatever] on [date],” which is a feature that interests me. Overall, the focus on activity, rather than weight, seems really positive.

People don’t seem impressed by the Garmin app, in reviews, but all of the screen shots I’ve seen make it look at least as good as Misfit’s app, with the added bonus of website availability. It doesn’t seem to integrate with IFTTT or with anything similar to FitRPG, so I’d say its app integration is also probably comparable to Misfit’s. (Slightly better, for my purposes, since I’ve used MyFitnessPal in the past, and the integration between that and Garmin seems to be really tight.)

Conclusion

I may not buy another fitness tracker; like I said, there are good reasons not to do so. If I do, it’s almost certainly going to be the Vívosmart, or something similar to it, because I really like that feature set. It’s still not perfect, but I think it would fit into my life pretty well. If you have one, please leave me a comment or tweet at me to let me know how you like it! :)

 

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