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Fitbit monitors almost every move you make

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

This is the Fitbit One, the successor to the Fitbit Ultra that was tested for this column.
A lot of people are working through health-related New Year's resolutions this month, and one such resolution might be to be more active -- apart from going to the gym, simply to walk more as part of your regular routine. Toward this end, some people take to wearing a pedometer -- an inexpensive little device that you clip to your belt or waistband which counts the number of steps you take each day. Most can take that number and use it to estimate the total distance you've walked, although the accuracy of the estimate depends on the length of your normal stride.

I attended an American Cancer Society Relay For Life conference last fall in Nashville where every participant was given a pedometer, and at the end of the conference we turned in the number of steps we'd taken. (The conference was held at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, so finding opportunities to walk wasn't a problem.)

Fitbit takes the basic idea of the pedometer and supercharges it with high-tech features that help you better track your progress towards your health goals.

I have been reviewing a Fitbit Ultra provided by Verizon Wireless; this is actually an older model, and the web site now lists a model called the Fitbit One which seems to be the closest equivalent.

Like a normal pedometer, you wear the Fitbit on your belt or waistband during waking hours. It has a more-sophisticated motion sensor than inexpensive pedometers; it can not only count steps, but it knows when you're climbing a flight of stairs (or a steep hill) and in general how active you are.

The Fitbit also functions as a sleep monitor. When you get ready to go to sleep, you clip the Fitbit to a wristband and wear it on your left hand, if you're right-handed, or vice versa. The Fitbit then measures your quality of sleep based on how much you toss and turn.

A wireless receiver plugs into a USB port on your computer, or the Fitbit can even communicate directly with some types of smartphones. It uploads its data about your walking, activity, and sleep, and you can track your progress through a web site interface. Fitbit will show you a pie chart breaking down how much time you've spent today in a sedentary mode, lightly active, fairly active or very active. (It can be a depressing pie chart.) It not only tells you how many flights of stairs you've climbed, but converts that into a mental image by telling you that you've climbed the height of the "HOLLYWOOD" sign, for example, or the height of Godzilla.

The Fitbit web site allows you to track your activity and sleep with data downloaded from the device.
When you meet a goal -- climbing 10 flights of stairs over the course of a day, for example -- the program displays a badge to mark the occasion. You can even set up a network of friends who are using Fitbit devices, and they'll be able to see which badges you've earned (without seeing all the specific details of your weight or activity). It would be great for setting up a friendly competition.

The sleep tracker tells you how long it took you to fall asleep, how long you were actually asleep, how often you woke up during the night, and what your "sleep efficiency" is expressed as a percentage.

Not directly tracked by the Fitbit device, but also trackable by the program, are your weight and caloric intake. Fitbit makes a scale, sold separately, that will automatically upload your weight to the Fitbit interface, or you can just use your existing scale and enter the number into the program manually. You can also manually tell the Fitbit software about activities that aren't easily tracked by the Fitbit or about those you do when not wearing the Fitbit. You can also tell Fitbit about your meals as a way of tracking your caloric intake. That's even easier if you install the Fitbit Companion app on your smartphone.

I found the device remarkably easy to set up and use, and the information provided by the software is easy to understand and useful. I can easily see a device like this as a helpful motivator to people in their quest to be more active and improve their health.

The Fitbit is available from Verizon, from various retailers, or from the Fitbit web site, Fitbit.com. The Fitbit One is about $100; there is a less-expensive model, the Fitbit Zip, that lacks the ability to track sleep or stair-climbing. It's about $60.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.