With the New Year, many people commit to making lifestyle changes for the better, including eating healthier and exercising more often.
As medical professionals, we are on the front-lines against the growing problem of obesity and physical inactivity–trying to motivate patients to make lifestyle changes for blood pressure, for diabetes, for sleep apnea, back pain, etc.
Thankfully, 2012 marked a year of unprecedented investments and research into the intersection of technology and fitness.
Over the past 18 months, established brands (Nike, Jawbone, Motorola), startup companies (Lark, Fitbit), and even crowdsourced projects (The Misfit Shine, and the Pebble Smartwatch) have introduced products with much fanfare that promise to help users live more actively, eat more healthily, and sleep more soundly.
As an owner and longtime user of several of these devices, here is a quick summary of the best options currently available, and a quick survey of what’s in store for 2013.
The Best Overall Activity Tracker: Nike Fuelband ($149) – Product Link
With the assistance of Nike’s brand recognition and expensive marketing campaigns, the Nike FuelBand ($149) has emerged as the most ubiquitous of the current activity trackers. For more analysis, please refer to our in-depth review. Of the several devices I’ve owned for 10 months now, the Nike FuelBand is the one I use every single day, and would feel most comfortable recommending to most users (including both patients and health care providers).
One important caveat is that the FuelBand is not the most feature-complete or even the most accurate fitness device. Despite its margin for error, the Nike Fuel statistic is accurate enough that an active day (or busy call night) carries me to my goal and earns higher fuel points, while a lazy weekend day spent on the couch earns disappointingly few.
What it lacks in accuracy, however, it makes up massively with longevity. Doctors know that when it comes to lifestyle changes, the best plan is one that is actually carried to fruition. Because the FuelBand is worn around the wrist as a watch, I only take it off to charge the device overnight every 7-10 days.
When I change into my scrubs, it stays on. When I change into my gym clothes, it stays on. When I’m in a rush in the morning, it stays on. Not only that, I’m constantly looking at the FuelBand to check the time, and with every glance, there is a thin strip of colored dots that beautifully remind me roughly where I am towards reaching my daily goal. The fact that I use my FuelBand daily over the past 10 months speaks volumes about its efficacy.
The FuelBand is not for everyone, though. It does not have any features for sleep monitoring, which most of its competitors do, and does not come bundled with any diet tracking software (although MyFitnessPal is an excellent free 3rd party choice). Also, since the FuelBand is worn around the wrist (rather than the hip or torso), it is less accurate than the competitors and focuses less on the more objective statistics such as calories, steps, and distance.
Lastly, while I find its functionality as a watch incredibly useful, some might prefer traditional watches and might find its design a bit too casual for formal office or clinic attire.
The Most Complete Lifestyle Tracker: The Fitbit One ($99.95) – Product Link
Hands down, the Fitbit One ($99.95) is the ideal device for meticulous, type A personalities. (Check out our review of the Fitbit Ultra, which preceded the Fitbit One)
Worn on the torso (clipped to the waistband or a bra), it is by far the most accurate in terms of measuring steps, calories, and distance traveled. However, this also requires the owner to remember to transition the Fitbit when changing outfits.
The Fitbit also uniquely includes an altimeter, which quantifies the number of flights of stairs climbed. This feature is especially useful for physicians and hospital staff, as it provides incentive for opting for the hospital stairs rather than the elevator. (Before owning the Fitbit, I only used the stairs for short trips or descending floors).
The Fitbit website is also quite complete, and provides excellent integration with third party software (MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, etc.) and other hardware (wireless scales such as the Fitbit Aria allow for automatic weight tracking). Via the website (or MyFitnessPal which I use), you can log food intake and compare it against your calories burned.
In addition to tracking diet, the Fitbit One also promises to track the quality of your sleep, but doing so requires the user to wear a special wristband at night. While sleep tracking is appealing, I found myself regularly forgetting to use the wristband. However, the Fitbit One introduces a vibrating alarm (great for not waking bed partners), that might incentivize wristband compliance.
The biggest concern with the Fitbit One is that the user must be committed. They must remember to constantly transfer the device from work clothes to gym clothes to home/sleep clothes, or the data is incomplete.
In real world use, I would find myself religiously using the device for weeks at a time, only to stop wearing it for another month. However, for the dedicated user, the sky’s the limit with the various data collected and integration with other fitness applications.
The Best Budget Activity Tracker: The Fibit Zip ($59.95) – Product Link
The Fitbit Zip ($59.95) is a simplified and more cost-effective version of the Fitbit One. The key omissions are the altimeter, sleep tracking and vibrating alarm feature. Like the Fitbit One, the Zip syncs wirelessly with computers and with smartphones via Bluetooth. It also has the same form factor that provides for accurate measurements of steps, calories, and distance.
The Fitbit Zip also includes the same access to the excellent Fitbit website, providing the same excellent integration with third party software (MyFitness Pal, Endomondo, etc). The Fitbit website also allows for complete and full-featured diet tracking. While somewhat simpler, the Zip’s lower price makes it a more cost-effective choice for those looking for simple, accurate activity tracking.
In the Year 2013:
2012 was the year of crowdfunding, and the two biggest sites (Kickstarter and Indiegogo) each featured activity trackers among their most successful products.
The Indiegogo-featured Misfit Shine ($79) is a beautifully elegant metal coin that utilizes an innovative syncing mechanism that simply requires the user to place their Shine on the surface of their smartphone.
The people behind the Misfit Shine have credibility as well. Its chairman Sonny Vu was the founder of Agamatrix, who had collaborated with Sanofi to release the iBG Star. If you recall, iBG Star is the first iPhone-compatible blood glucose monitoring device (read our review here). The Misfit Shine is also backed by former Apple CEO John Sculley.
The Kickstarter platform saw the activity-tracking bluetooth-enabled smartwatch Pebble reach unprecedented success with over $10 million in crowdsourced funding. While not solely marketed as a fitness tracker, the Pebble does include a 3-axis accelerometer and is featured as a running tracker in the promotional video. Although the Pebble’s release has been postponed several times, the tech world’s eyes are eagerly waiting to see whether it can deliver on all the hype it generated.
Lastly, there has been some speculation as to whether Apple will enter the bluetooth smartwatch market, and Apple has worked closely with Nike in integrating fitness functionality in the past.
Regardless, now is an exciting time to get in shape, and fitness devices provide an effective tool for motivating users toward lifestyle change. A perfect example of this was shared by Dan Hon (creative director at Advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy) who chronicled how he utilized a Nike FuelBand and Fitbit to fight his new diagnosis of Diabetes, and ultimately lower his Hemoglobin A1c from 12.2 to 5.4 in 6 months.