Monday, February 3, 2014

Personal Trainer, Worn on a Wrist

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Stuart Goldenberg
My first experience with a fitness tracker was memorable. It fit snugly in my pocket and estimated the number of steps I took and the calories I burned each day. There was just one problem: It seemed to think I was getting roughly the same amount of exercise regardless of whether I was jogging around a track or eating French fries in a diner. After about two weeks, I stopped wearing it, most likely because I lost it.
That was about five years ago, when the first generation of devices was rudimentary, clunky in design and paired with basic software. They were little more than pedometers repackaged in sleek bodies with cool LED displays.
Since then, though, the offerings have improved tremendously.
There’s the Jawbone UP24, a discreet, textured rubber bracelet that uses Bluetooth to transmit sleep and activity information to a smartphone app that its wearer can check throughout the day. Then there’s the newest version of the Nike Fuel Band, the SE, which has been configured to nudge its wearer at intervals throughout the day to remind them to stay active. Even companies like LG and navigation makers like Garmin are bringing out versions of fitness trackers designed to be worn on the wrist.
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The Fitbit Force is low maintenance for an activity tracker, needing charging only once a week or even less. 
And then there’s the Fitbit Force, a standout offering, one of the best on the market.
Fitbit, based in San Francisco, has been polishing its hardware since September 2008, when it debuted a prototype at the TechCrunch 50, an annual showcase of products and services.
The Force went on sale in October, costs $130 and comes in black and navy blue. It is a thick rubber band with a simple and small OLED screen. I’ve used older versions of the Fuel Band and Jawbone UP24, and I prefer the Fitbit Force to both.
It’s the lowest maintenance of the three. The band needed to be charged only once a week, if not less, through a USB cable that plugs into a computer. And it isn’t nearly as conspicuous as the other wristbands available, most of which are as attention-grabbing as those yellow Livestrong bracelets. I liked that the flat matte band blended well with the colorful medley of bangles and bracelets that I already wear.
It shows your daily stats, distance traveled, calories burned, steps taken and even the time. You toggle between the various displays by pressing a button on the band’s side. The Force can sync with a smartphone application or through a wireless dongle that plugs into a computer. Each time the wristband comes close to the dongle, it syncs the data it has collected in the band with the software on the computer. Then the Force, like many wireless activity trackers, comes with software that spins activity data into pretty charts and graphics that show you trends in your daily behavior.
The Fitbit’s introductory level of software is free. In addition to the custom, personal data infographics, it also lets you manually log your food intake and sleep habits, and record health information like blood pressure and glucose levels. There are even community discussion forums. This all felt like too much work, so I never managed to keep up with it. The software also lets you connect with your Facebook friends if you choose, although I did not. If you want extra health guidance or coaching, through the Fitbit Premium software, it will cost you $50 a year.
By far, the most thrilling feature of the Force is the way it buzzes when you’ve walked 10,000 steps in a single day. One day I was racing around the city, running errands and heading to meetings, and it began vibrating, alerting me that I’d hit the mark. It was a pleasant notification, a nice reminder that even though I hadn’t had time to work out that day, I was still getting in a decent amount of exercise.
But it can be a puzzling metric to understand, and I often didn’t quite believe I’d managed to move around as much as the band said.
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The Fitbit Force went on sale in October, costs $130 and comes in black and navy blue. Its matte finish makes it less conspicuous than other wristbands.
For example, another time, on a lazy, snowy day, I was puttering around my apartment, tidying up and making a pot of chicken soup, when it went off again. It didn’t seem I was anywhere near as active as I’d been the first time I’d hit the mark. But representatives for the Force say the device uses a state-of-the-art accelerometer to track steps, which they maintain is accurate.
This is the inherent challenge of modern fitness trackers, regardless of how advanced they promise their motion sensors, accelerometers or altimeters are. They still have a notoriously hard time distinguishing between different types of workouts: running versus yoga, say, which is my preferred form of activity. Because they are worn on the wrist, they often detect hand motion and translate that to physical movement, which gets blurry if the wearer is exercising on a stationary bike or is an animated talker, as I am.
The calorie-burning calculations are just as mysterious. At times they seemed accurate, given the activity and exercise of my day. But sometimes they were way off the mark. Once, at the end of a normal workday, the device crowed that I’d burned some 1,300 calories. I joked with my friends that I deserved to indulge my current craving — a huge, rich slice of Momofuku birthday cake — since my wristband technically said I’d earned it. I resisted the temptation, but barely.
The company explained the discrepancy by saying the tracker calculates metabolic rate by using the age, gender, weight and height information entered by users when they set up their devices, along with motion data collected from the sensors to get the result shown on the device.
I liked the way the Force shows the distance I’d traveled during a 24-hour period best. Since I am an avid runner in warm-weather seasons, I have a clear sense of how far a mile or four is, and it felt like a much more accurate measure of how much exercise I’d gotten in a day.
Another challenge for personal wearable computing is its sensitivity to moisture. Although the Force is said to be “sweat, rain and splash proof,” it’s hard to remember to unbuckle the band before jumping into a bath, the pool or the ocean. The first morning I strapped the Force on, I absent-mindedly wore it in a steaming shower. That wasn’t the only time I accidentally took it into a body of water. Luckily, it didn’t seem to damage the hardware or software.
The Force, like many fitness trackers, tracks sleep as well. But you have to press and hold the button on the band before falling asleep, which I never managed to remember to do once during the month I was testing the band. If you forget to trigger the sleep mode on some rival products, like the Jawbone UP24, it notices the prolonged stillness and starts tracking sleep anyway. The Force does none of that. But its sleep features have a trump card; they allow you to set a silent alarm that wakes you up by gently buzzing the wristband, a godsend for a chronic oversleeper like me. That alone is worth the cost of the band.
Despite the inconsistencies in the data I was able to collect from the Force, wearing the device made me more conscious of my daily activities. If I noticed that I’d moved only a mile by lunchtime, I would make an extra effort to do a few laps through the building during a coffee break, or walk a few extra blocks to the subway on my way home. But as much as I enjoyed looking at the colorful charts on the Fitbit app and website, it was difficult, without buying additional smart health trackers like a wireless scale, to correlate how changes in my activity levels were reflected in my physical wellness and health.
So while the bands and the data they collect open an interesting, though foggy, window into your daily life, the data doesn’t really help you figure out how to change your habits. What’s normal for a woman of similar physique and lifestyle in New York? Am I above or below average? Do we move less in winter versus summer? Without useful information like that built into the software to help you compare, it is nearly impossible to know.
And I can’t honestly say that the Force — or any fitness tracker on the market, for that matter — is yet worth the cost for what little is gained in return.

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