So I've been using my FitBit for a week. Do I love it? Unequivocally! How accurate is it? Pretty darn accurate, but with only a week of data, it's hard to tell.
This post is the nitty-gritty about what it is, what it does, and how it does it. My next post will be my FitBit User Review, wherein I will tell you how it's affected my lifestyle this week, and whether it's been worth it to me.
WHAT IS A FITBIT?
Image from FitBit Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/f
A FitBit is a little device that, with the free website, crunches data about your daily movement. The tracker saves your daily steps, mileage, calories burned based on that data, and also tells you how active you've been recently on a scale of 1 to 10. You can also put it into an annotation mode that currently tracks your movement while you sleep. Once you put in your age, gender, height and weight on your free website profile, the tracker data (which is uploaded wirelessly & silently every 15 minutes when you're within 15 feet of the recharging station) is then filtered into an array of bar graphs, pie charts and widgets that will tell you whether you're fairly active or mostly sedentary, how many times you wake up in your sleep and therefore how efficiently you sleep, what parts of the day you're most active during, and how many calories you burn on average every day. You can take it one step further by tracking your calorie intake, logging your weight, and making the calorie burn count more accurate by inputting exercises that the tracker may not track accurately, like weight lifting.
TRACKER & PERIPHERALS
The FitBit ships with the tracker, a USB charging antennae, a holster for clipping it to thicker fabrics like a leather belt, and a wrist band to wear it in while tracking your sleep.
Image from http://www.fitbit.com/product
The tracker is pretty cool. It's smaller than most USB flash drives and has one button and a blue OLED display that's bright enough to see in anything dimmer than direct sunlight. Also, you can't seem to see it at all through sunglasses. I didn't have much of a problem checking it while hiking today, though. It's black with a nonslip texture, and the interior is a shiny silver plastic. The four displays available are steps, mileage, calories burned, and your recent activity scale. Hit the button once, and it shows the last screen you were on; hit it multiple times and it scrolls through them all. Expect a battery level indicator to be added in the future, as well; currently, the battery level only shows when you place it on the recharger, or hit the button while it's recharging. The battery needs to be charged about every five days.
The steps are surprisingly accurate, and because it works by sensing your movement, you don't need to input your stride length in order to get an accurate step count. However, "steps" is a relative term; you can also rack up steps by doing other movements, so if your step count seems high, this explains it. This seems pretty standard, however, as you can easily Google "step equivalents" for common exercises -- a by-product of the 10,000 steps a day recommendation by most health groups.
Mileage is calculated based on steps, and the default is surprisingly accurate as well. Stride length is calculated by your height and gender, I believe. However, if your mileage seems to be off, you can input your individual stride length in your website profile. The default worked fine tested against mileage signs on a hike I did today.
Calories burned is calculated based on steps plus your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you burn by living, with your heart beating and your lungs breathing. Your BMR is calculated by standard equations based on the stats you input into your profile.
Your recent activity level is a seriously cute avatar of a flower. If you've been sedentary for the past few hours, it's a tiny flower; after about 45 minutes of cardio activity such as running, hiking or using an elliptical machine, it hits its maximum height of 10 leaves with the flower on top. You can have between one and ten leaves on your flower. It starts to shrink as you reduce your activity. The flower does not measure your daily total of activity; it measures your recent activity. The goal, then, is to keep that flower healthy by staying active throughout the day.
Stunting my flower's growth by working a desk job ;)
My flower after doing circuit training at the gym
To put it into "annotation" mode to track your sleep, you hold the button down until it says START. When you wake up, hold the button down until it says STOP. It does not say SLEEP or WAKE because annotation mode will eventually be upgraded to allow you to set start/stop times for activities, which I assume you can then assign to various activities using the website.
The tracker can be worn anywhere on your torso. My favorite is the fifth pocket in my jeans, with the shoulder as a runner-up for days I do circuit training. You wear it on your non-dominant wrist for sleep tracking purposes, either insert into the included wristband or attached to whatever else you prefer. At least one user prefers to clip it onto a Livestrong bracelet instead.
The wrist band is technical fabric with a soft velcro closure and a slit for your FitBit. I don't recommend clipping the FitBit into the opening. Just slide the whole thing in there. That way it won't fall out. The wrist band is really comfortable, but it might be a little bit loose on folks with very small, delicate wrists.
The recharging station is USB powered and has a fairly small footprint, about 3x3 inches.You recharge FitBit by clipping it onto the antennae. There is a reset button on the bottom. If you have a problem with your FitBit, you can force reset it by docking it and then holding down the reset button on the bottom with a pen tip or paperclip. The screen will flash with your current firmware version and the battery level. I've reset my FitBit once. I was a bit overzealous when I first unpacked it, and I think I hit too many buttons at once while docking and undocking it, and it froze, lol. I haven't had the problem since, however. And no, resetting it doesn't erase any of the tracker data.
Since attempting to clip the tracker onto especially thick fabrics could damage the FitBit, it comes with a plastic holster that works on things like belts and still leaves you access to the button and display. Users have reported that the holster falls off easily, so you might want to skip the holster and stick the FitBit in your pocket. Users have reported that it tracks just fine from your pocket.
The FitBit doesn't ship with software, but you will have to visit fitbit.com/start to download and install the FitBit Service Manager for Windows or Mac OSX. I'm unsure about whether anyone has it running on Linux yet.
The website is free. In fact, you can sign up now and track your eating and exercise habits without a FitBit. And let me tell you, it is smokin' fast, and the AJAXified interface is intuitive and user-friendly.
One of the first things you wonder when you log in is, "How the heck are they calculating my energy expenditure? There is NO WAY I burn that many calories a day!" Here's the answer from the FitBit staff:
If you don't have a FitBit, it estimates your daily calorie burn by calculating your expected energy requirements (EER) based on published formulas from the FDA and department of health. If you log activities, such as running or weight lifting, the website will add those calories to your BMR (remember, that's the number of calories you'd burn if you were in a coma). If the EER is higher, the website uses that data; if the BMR + activities total is higher, it uses that instead. If you manually log steps from a pedometer, they are added as a walking activity at 2.5 mph.
If you have a FitBit, it uses FitBit data instead. If FitBit data is unavailable (say you're checking the website from your office, and it's been 4 hours since your FitBit last wirelessly synced the data with the website), it will use your BMR. However, if your burn is less that 20% greater than your BMR, it will switch to either the EER formula or BMR + activites formula, whichever is greater. Now, say you go for a run while wearing your FitBit then log the run on the website. What happens then? Well, first of all, you have to include the start time of the exercise. Then, the website will select the calories burned by comparing your input activity against the FitBit data and selecting the higher calorie burn.
So yes, you really DO burn that many calories a day. If it doesn't make sense, then think about all the junk food you've eaten in the past week and then wonder why you're not a bajillion pounds.
Now, on to the rest of the website. :)
You have a dashboard, a tracker, and a community tab.
The dashboard includes a ticker showing your progress on your primary weekly goal, which can currently be set to steps and mileage, but more options will be added later. I changed my default to 60,000 steps a week because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do 10,000 steps a day for seven days straight. I was right, but I did beat 60,000! Go, me!
You can set daily goals for calories in/out (mine are 2100 to burn, 1500 to eat; this should result in a little over a pound a week of weight loss). There's a bar graph showing your calories in vs. calories out for the past 30 days.
I pigged out on Saturday... oh well!
The Activity section further dissects your daily activities by steps, miles, a pie chart of how active you were, and then a graph showing your daily activity in 5-minute intervals. This is what it looks like when you sleep in, get Starbucks, hike Mt. Rose (Lake Tahoe), come home, make dinner, run errands, do laundry, then sit down to write a FitBit review. :)
And finally, the sleep monitor:
A lot of people want to know how accurate the sleep monitoring is. It's been really accurate for me, but then again, I apparently sleep like a rock. This has been my most interesting night with the FitBit so far:
The dashboard, then, is where you really put together a picture of how you spent your day, both doing things and eating things.
This part of the site functions like many other sites out there. Like SparkPeople, in fact. :) You can search for foods in the database, enter your own custom foods with or without the additional nutrient info on the label, sort foods into Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Anytime. You can also track walking, running, biking, swimming, or just about any other activity, from weight lifting to kneeling in church to sex. Yes, really. You can also track your weight.
The thing to keep in mind is that the website is very much still in development. Personally, I like this, because it means I can be involved in the end product. The FitBit team is very responsive to users, and is taking suggestions for website features in their Feature Suggestions forum. One such suggestion implemented in the first week was the ability to hide your BMI stats on the dashboard.
However, if you want 100% functionality NOW, then the following is a list of features that aren't on the website yet, but will very likely be added in the following year:
- Ability to browse user-input foods. Useful if you don't want to type in the nutritional info yourself, but you're positive that someone out there has already typed it in for themselves.
- Recipes. There is a "meal" function, but that allows you to name a group of items that you can then add to your tracker with one click.
- Protein totals. Seems like a big oversight, but right now your daily totals include calories, grams of fat, grams of fiber, grams of carbs, milligrams of sodium, and ounces of water.
- Subtotals per meal (e.g. Morning, Evening, Afternoon, Anytime, Meals)
- Not all major brands are in the database, but there are quite a few that I input that I was surprised to see on there. They're adding more food daily, and taking suggestions for brands to add in the forums.
- There currently isn't a diet calculator (e.g. "How many calories should I eat to lose 10 lbs in two months?"). However, they will soon be releasing something even better! A calorie budget, which will not only help you set goals for calorie intake and expenditure, but will include "rollover calories" to help you stay on track while splurging now and again.
Things I love about their food tracker:
- AJAX! You don't have to click the "save" button and reload the page every time you make a change. You can also drag and drop food items from one meal (Morning, Evening, Afternoon, Anytime), add to favories by clicking a star next to the item, delete items by clicking the X that appears when you hover over the item.
- The sidebar. It's an easy place to add favorites or meals to your daily food intake, and it also has a super handy Recent and Most Logged section where you can easily find food you recently logged and foods that you log frequently but maybe never bothered to favorite.
You'll notice in this screenshot that I hacked the Meals option into a makeshift Recipe category by inputting all the ingredients, then manually dividing each ingredient quantity by the number of servings in the meal.
- Missing an elliptical option! However, you can track running at a similar intensity for an equivalent calorie burn.
- No ability to share your activities via Twitter, Facebook, etc., like DailyMile
The Activities panel also has favorites, a "Programs" section that works like the "Meals" section in the food tracker, and a most logged and recent tab for those categories of exercises as well.
- Only tracks your weight in pounds. Will eventually let you track other measurements, which may include: body fat; blood sugar; body measurements (such as hips, waist, biceps, etc.)
- Has a historical graph of your weigh-ins; however, there is no trend smoothing feature as seen on Hacker's Diet, Physics Diet and the Google 15. Requests for such a feature has been noted on the forums.
- As noted in the Food section, there currently isn't a weight loss calculator; however, that feature is in the works, and it sounds like it's going to be awesome.
- I've never seen something like this, so I don't know how to critique it! This is the one tracking option that requires a FitBit. The only thing you can do in this tab is delete accidental sleep annotations.
- It also includes a bar graph of your hours of sleep per day for the past 30 days, and a companion graph showing how many times you wake up in the middle of the night, also for the past 30 days.
That's the tracker! Onto the FitBit Community.
Right now, the community consists of four forums: General, Feature Suggestions, Food Suggestions, and Help and Support. The good news is, the FitBit team is all over the forums and comments on questions, requests for support, and feedback very quickly. The forums, again, are lacking features that will be rolled out in the next year or so, including showing read vs. unread threads, private messages, a search function, etc. Why didn't they just use phpBB or vBulletin and call it a day, you ask? Because they can integrate it more tightly with the rest of the site by doing it themselves. I'm betting that you will eventually be able to show your most recent number of steps from your FitBit under your name, next to your avatar (not yet enabled) and post count (also not yet enabled).
Aside from the forums, the other community aspects that will be integrated eventually are friends and groups. An update feed and blog platform are possible as well; at least one user has created his own forum thread as a makeshift blog in the meantime.
Though there's a lot of work left for the FitBit team to create a fully integrated FitBit community, don't be shy to pop onto the forums to talk to other members. Us early adopters are a wordy bunch, and the FitBit team crawls the forums regularly.
FUTURE WEBSITE UPDATES
Many requests have been made for an iPhone app. Currently, the graphs won't show on the iPhone because they are in Flash. I don't know how functional the site is on an iPhone because I don't have one. :( But on my Tilt with Opera Mini, the only function on the site I can use is logging favorited foods or activities.
They are also planning on releasing a public API. This will enable integration between the FitBit site and other sites, and also allow users to create apps that will crunch the FitBit data in an infinite number of ways.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Reset your FitBit:
Dock it, turn the dock over, and hit the button underneath with a pen or paperclip. The FitBit will reboot, displaying the current firmware version and the battery level, then will continue charging. This will not delete any of the tracker data.
Completely erase all information on your FitBit:
1. Put the fitbit on the base station
2. Look under base station and you'll see a tiny hole. That's the reset button that you can push with a small pen or paperclip.
3. Press and hold the button on the Fitbit itself and press the reset button
4. Keep the button on the Fitbit pressed for 6 seconds.
5. Take the Fitbit off the base station
6. Press the button on the Fitbit
7. It should say "Testing" and then "Pass"
8. Press and hold the button until it says "Erase"
Power Off Your FitBit:
Unplug the dock. Dock the FitBit on the unplugged dock, then press the reset button on the bottom.