A Month With the Fitbit Flex

fitbit wrist The Flex wristband by Fitbit, released in May, is the latest personal fitness tracker to bring some aspects of the quantified self movement to the general public. I had pre-ordered the Fitbit Flex earlier this year and waited eagerly for it to arrive. I’ve now been using it for about a month and I’m very pleased with it.

Why I Chose the Fitbit Flex

I’ve been interested in personal fitness trackers for some time and had looked at the available options. I nearly bought a Nike FuelBand two years ago, but its activity tracking was tied to the Nike Plus site which I’m not interested in, and it doesn’t track sleep. The Jawbone UP tracks sleep and activity, but was only compatible with iOS devices when I evaluated it. (An Android app was released in March of this year, though it’s still not an option for me, as the app is not compatible with my Android phone or tablet.)

I know a lot of people who use and like other Fitbit trackers (including fellow ProfHackers Adeline and Anastasia), but I really wanted a device that I could wear on my wrist. During a typical day, I change clothes several times (for dog walking, teaching, yoga class, etc) and could easily forget a clip-on device in my pocket. So when Fitbit announced they were developing a wristband, I knew this was the tracker I wanted to try.

What the Flex Does

The Fitbit Flex wristband tracks the number and speed of steps you take throughout the day and when you set it to sleep mode, it monitors your wakefulness and movement during sleep. The Flex synchronizes this data with your Fitbit account via Bluetooth. A wireless Bluetooth USB adapter is included with the device so you can synchronize using any computer and the Flex synchronizes in the background for Bluetooth 4.0 phones, including recent Samsung Galaxy and iOS devices.

From the mobile apps or the website, you can log:

  • additional details about your activities, including those that the wristband doesn’t adequately measure, like yoga or weight lifting

  • additional periods of sleep if you forgot to set it to sleep mode

  • foods eaten (with calorie and nutritional info from the Fitbit database)

  • amount of water consumed

  • body measurements, including weight, measurements, heart rate, blood pressure, glucose

  • a journal of your mood and other health factors

For many of these logs, the online app gives more options than the mobile app does. Graphs of your activity and other logged items are displayed in a graphical dashboard. More sophisticated reports and analysis are available with a premium account (which I don’t yet have, but will probably sign up for).

You can connect your Fitbit account to a variety of other tracking tools and apps, such as MapMyRun or SparkPeople. Fitbit also has its own social features, including badges for reaching certain milestones, message boards, and the sharing of your statistics with friends.

The Flex Experience

The Flex comes with two sizes of a lightweight soft plastic wristband, the synchronization dongle and a USB charging adapter. The tracker must be removed from the wristband to charge its battery. The app alerts you when your battery gets low, about every five days or so. I’ve found synchronization of my data with my Fitbit account to be very easy, using either Bluetooth via my Samsung tablet and or with the Fitbit dongle attached to my computer.

After about an hour, I completely forgot that I was wearing the wristband, as it is comfortable and doesn’t snag on things or get in my way. (Fitbit recommends wearing it on your non-dominant hand for more accurate measurements.) By default, the tracker is set to a daily goal of 10,000 steps, but you can change the number or set it to a distance goal instead through the website. During the day, you can tap on the wristband to see your progress towards that goal, displayed as a sequence of 1-5 lighted dots. When you reach that step goal, the wristband lights up and vibrates briefly.

Personal Tracking, Personally Speaking

As I’ve suggested before, logging information about something, whether it’s time, diet, or physical activity, automatically raises your awareness. The Flex is not a substitute for a heart rate monitor or GPS runner’s watch, both of which I’ve used for specific training goals. Rather, the Flex is great for assessing and perhaps increasing your level of physical activity throughout the day. Many researchers point to the health benefits of integrating activity into your daily life, and the Flex helps you see how much difference parking futher away from the office or taking an extra walk in the evening can make.

I already work out regularly and take active breaks throughout my day, but even so I’ve found the Flex has encouraged me to be even more active, which helps counteract the sedentary nature of academic work. I’ve been using a standing desk for about 18 months (like fellow ProfHackers Ryan, Konrad, and Lincoln), and often walk in place while I’m working. Since wearing the Flex, I’m more likely to walk a bit more during light-attention activities. (And I’ve even begun eyeing a TreadDesk, though my current setup is working well for now.) It’s very motivating to see how small bits of activity throughout the day really add up.

I haven’t used any of the social features of the Flex, so I can’t report on that. I also don’t use it to track my diet, as its food entries are always linked to calorie counts. I prefer using a free-form journal space to log food when I need to. I do like using just one app to keep track of body measurements, blood pressure, etc along with activity, where I used to use several different ones.

I was particularly interested in the sleep tracking aspects of the Fitbit Flex. I am a polyphasic sleeper by nature and I was very curious to know more about the quality and quantity of my sleep. The Flex is comfortable to wear while sleeping (I don’t notice it at all) and the data I’m collecting confirms that I have better sleep quality when I follow my natural sleep patterns. I can also examine how my sleep patterns correlate with other aspects of my work or exercise schedule.

Overall, I’m very happy with the kind of information the Fitbit Flex offers me about my activity and sleep behavior. It’s non-intrusive and easy to use, and although some of the data may not be as detailed as one could collect with a heart rate monitor, for instance, I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing my HRM all day, which requires a chest strap. I’ll continue to use the HRM for specific workouts, and wear the Flex throughout my day for general data collection and motivation.

Do you use a personal fitness tracker? Let us know in the comments!

[my CC licensed images of my Flex.]

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