For years I’ve wondered how I, a self-professed health nut, could possibly be gaining 10 pounds of pure flab per decade, just like every other average American woman. So when More asked me to test the latest wave of health and fitness trackers, I decided it was time to play the numbers game.
Why would that help? Because feedback on how you eat and move is one of the few tools proven to motivate you to make healthy lifestyle changes. In a study at the University of South Carolina, for example, participants who wore activity-monitoring devices and attended support groups for four months lost as much as triple the weight of those who attended groups but didn’t use the devices. And unlike old-school pedometers and heart-rate monitors, the newest gadgets are incredibly sensitive and comprehensive: They use brain wave monitors, galvanic skin sensors, 3-D technology—everything, it seems, except spells and incantations—to follow your behavior patterns around the clock. And in doing so, they raise your consciousness.
“One of the reasons so many people lead sedentary lives is that they lack awareness of how little physical activity they actually do,” notes Anind Dey, PhD, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of its doctorate program at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
And I, in my self-delusion, turned out to be one of them.
True, I used to work out like Rocky training for the title match, but that dedication ended nearly 15 years ago, when I became a single parent. What the trackers revealed is that today I am almost entirely sedentary, chronically sleep deprived and accustomed to consuming about twice as many daily calories as I burn. But a month of tracking my every move has changed all that. I began exercising more and eating less. I feel like Wonder Woman—and have dropped a full size in my jeans.
The trick is to choose the right device. Although the trackers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they mainly differ in how much feedback they provide and how they deliver it, so choosing one is largely a matter of picking what kind of technology feels comfortable to you. Here’s how each of them did—and didn’t—help me.
TRACKS Steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned
COST $99; online coaching and in-depth data analysis are available for an additional $49 a year; fitbit.com
This simple two-inch plastic clip, which can be attached to clothing or slipped into a pocket, uses a 3-D motion sensor and a light-up display (including a digital flower whose stem grows longer as you accumulate activity) to keep you updated on how close you are to reaching a preset daily activity goal, such as how many calories you want to expend. It relays this information to your computer wirelessly, along with data about the timing and intensity of your exercise. The user-friendly website has an excellent food diary that you can update via your smart phone. After wearing the Fitbit for a day or two, I found it as cheesily endearing as a Japanese cyberpet; pretty soon I was walking more and eating more healthfully just to keep the little guy happy. A word of warning, however: The Fitbit is so small and unobtrusive that it’s as easy to lose as your train of thought. My clip lasted only three days before I accidentally flushed it down the toilet.
BUY IT IF You almost never lose anything—and are motivated by knowing how many more steps you need to take today to lose weight tomorrow.
TRACKS Body acceleration along three planes: up and down, forward and backward, and sideways
COST $149 for the tracker package, which includes 12 months of personal coaching via e-mail; directlife.philips.com
The Directlife is waterproof, making it the only device in this group that you can use while swimming (it’s also one of the safest for wearing near toilets). Instead of numbers, this simple plastic square displays a string of lights that quickly show how close you are to achieving your daily activity goal. After a weeklong assessment period, you connect the tracker to your computer to get a readout, along with a personalized 12-week program of gradually increasing activity levels and managed calorie intake. Although the DirectLife doesn’t feel like a loyal sidekick, the program as a whole offers one major advantage over its competitors: The price includes the services of a live coach. My mentor e-mailed me at least once a week with advice, encouragement and answers to my fitness questions.
BUY IT IF You need a detailed exercise plan and a support system.
TRACKS Body movements, including very small ones, in all directions
COST $200, which includes a one-year Web subscription; muveinc.com
Inspired by the work of Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine, MD, PhD, a leader in the study of non-exercise-activity thermogenesis—the calories we burn daily through everyday movements, such as fidgeting—the Gruve takes a minimalist approach to self-monitoring: It aims simply to get you off your butt. The teardrop-shaped clip senses movement, whether you’re standing up, sitting down or bobbing for apples. As you accumulate activities throughout the day, it flashes a sequence of colors that lets you know how far you’ve come and how much more apple bobbing you’ll need to do to reach your calorie-burning goal. If you sit still for too long, the tracker vibrates, gently reminding you that you might want to wear a swimsuit again someday.
BUY IT IF You want to lose weight without doing traditional forms of exercise and don’t mind receiving a nudge or two (or three . . .).
BODYMEDIA FIT ARMBAND BW
TRACKS Steps taken, calories burned, hours of sleep and more by measuring body temperature and galvanic skin response (sweat)
COST $249 plus up to $11 for a monthly Web subscription; bodymedia.com
I wish I loved it more than I did. This armband, which was worn by The Biggest Loser contestants, takes an amazing 5,000-plus readings every minute of every day; the online Activity Manager provides a running tally. Bluetooth wireless technology lets you log in foods and get real-time stats on your smart phone. So much information! So much charging, pairing and synching! Too bad I found it so exhausting. Bugs in the system’s Mac interface didn’t increase my ardor. On the positive side, the Body-Media team responds quickly to customers’ teeth gnashing and seems to be working hard to resolve all issues.
BUY IT IF You live on your smart phone, want maximum data feedback for your buck and know it’s harder to lose an armband than a tiny piece of plastic.
ZEO PERSONAL SLEEP COACH
TRACKS Sleep time and quality
COST $200; $300 for personalized coaching; myzeo.com
I’m afraid there’s no way to talk about the Zeo without using the term wake-up call. First, because the technology is so amazing: Can three little sensors on a headband really monitor my brain waves; measure how much time I spend in REM, deep and light sleep, plus how often I’m unknowingly awakened during the night; and transmit the data wirelessly to a display unit that instantly feeds the information back to me as a graph? (Sure, why not? It’s 2011.) Second, because I was shocked to see how little sleep I’ve actually been getting. The sleek bedside display, which doubles as a smart alarm clock (and I mean very smart; I can set it to go off during a light phase of sleep, when I’m less likely to wake up groggy), also stores my data so I can upload it to Zeo’s website. There I can obsess about my pathetically low sleep score and get coached on exactly how to improve it (in my case, avoid late-night Net surfing and ask the dog to please sleep in its own bed).
BUY IT IF You suspect that poor sleep habits are at least partly to blame for your zombielike stupor and voracious appetite during the day.
| Turn Your Stats Into Cash |
Studies show that financial incentives help people achieve their health goals—but dropping a dollar bill into the cookie jar every time you work out is so retro. Now you can partner with websites that, in return for earning your good favor and loyalty, will turn the info from your tracking devices into tangible (yes, even monetary) rewards.
- Earndit: Collect points for every mile you run, walk, bike, skate or paddle. Use them to compete in social-networking challenges or redeem them for clothing, food and beauty-product gift cards (free; earndit.com).
- Play2BFit: Join as a team of friends, coworkers, etc., or be placed on an existing team for an eight-week program. Players earn individual and team points by logging in daily activities ranging from standard exercises to shoveling snow (you can even earn bonus points by making dietary changes). They also get regular online support from a personal trainer, and top earners win bonus points, gift cards and cash prizes throughout the competition. ($65 per program for first-time players, $75 for returnees; play2bfit.com).
- Switch2Health: Buy a wristband that displays a smile when you move and a frown when you sit, and use it to track exercise. Every hour logged nets you one reward code, redeemable at places like iTunes (wristband: $20; s2h.com.
- Plus 3 Network: Log your time- or distance-based fitness activities to accumulate points that translate into a charitable donation (you pick the sponsor and cause from a preset list). Activities verified via tracking systems, such as a Garmin watch, earn double points (free; plus3network.com).
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of More.
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