Using an Activity Monitor

Cheryl was asking in a comment about my Fitbit, so I decided this was a good time to follow up on my current Fitbit use and to talk a little about the various Fitbit options, as well as other options.

I am currently using a Fitbit One:

FitbitOne

My husband uses a Fitbit Flex:

FitbitFlex

For a few months, I used a Fitbit Force, which is a product that has been recalled reportedly due to risk of skin irritation:

Fitbit

Also, for several months, he and I both used Weight Watchers ActiveLink.

ActiveLink

The ActiveLink

When I first heard about the ActiveLink before it was released I was incredibly eager to get it. The ActiveLink seemed to have a lot going for it. You could wear it in a variety of different ways, which was nice. My husband and I both wore it on a chain around our necks. Some women wear it inside the bra or in a pocket or clipped to a belt. The price of the ActiveLink is good at $39.95, but there is a $5.00 monthly fee. Also, you have to be a Weight Watchers Online member or use eTools. We were Monthly Pass members so that wasn’t an issue for us. But, for those members who don’t use eTools or subscribe online, the ActiveLink is not an option.

The big draw of the ActiveLink is that it tracks your activity during the day and it will sync with your Weight Watchers account and tell you how many Activity Points you’ve earned. You can also log into the ActiveLink site and see more detail about your activity showing a graph of what periods of the day you were more active. Also, to earn Activity Points you have to first meet a baseline of activity and then you start earning Activity Points above the baseline.

If you log on, you can see how close you are to your baseline and how close you are to the personalized activity goal that has been set for you. Note that your baseline and your personal goal for the day are two different things. The baseline is the amount of activity Weight Watchers thinks you should have each day before earning any Activity Points. It is based upon age, weight, and gender. Your personal goal is based upon your actual existing activity level and aims to set up a plan to increase your activity. So, your personal goal for a day may be below your baseline if you were very sedentary or may be much higher than your baseline. I really do like the baseline concept. For members of Weight Watchers who don’t have an Active Link, it is easy to overestimate Activity Points and there is no baseline. That is, if you sit all day and then go walk for 30 minutes you will earn some Activity Points. However, with the ActiveLink you probably wouldn’t earn any since you would not have met your baseline.

I was so excited to get an ActiveLink I bought one off eBay before they were available to buy in my area. But, within a few months, I saw a lot of drawbacks to the ActiveLink (note that I used the ActiveLink from fall of 2012 to about a year ago. If there have been changes to how the ActiveLink works since then I don’t know about them. This is based upon my experiences at the time):

  1. When you first use the ActiveLink you have to go through an 8 day Assessment period. When I did it, you didn’t earn any points during that 8 day period and only saw limited data. Some people think that the purpose of the Assessment is to determine your baseline. It isn’t. It is to determine what your goals are.

 

  1. The information you receive is very limited. You are told how many Activity Points you have earned. Period. You aren’t told the number of steps, or the number of calories burned or anything else. You can see on the chart a visual representation of how close you are to your baseline. But, for example, you aren’t told how much activity you have to engage in to meet the baseline.

 

  1. The ActiveLink itself doesn’t display much data. There are some lights that theoretically light up as you meet your goals. I say theoretically because I had a lot of trouble getting mine to light up.

 

  1. I never seemed to earn any Activity Points early on, regardless of what I did. I struggled to get to my baseline even on days that I walked outside for as much as an hour. Since the only numbers you get from the ActiveLink is how many Activity Points you’ve earned, it wasn’t really motivating to me when I wasn’t earning any points at all. Going from zero to zero didn’t do much for me.

 

  1. The ActiveLink has an ongoing $5.00 a month fee that lasts forever as long as you keep using it. And, if you quit using it you can’t sell it or give it to anyone else. It is cheaper than the Fitbit One or Fitbit Flex, but there is no ongoing charge with them. In time, the ActiveLink will cost more. (You can buy a premium subscription for your Fitbit, but the features are truly optional and aren’t really necessary).

 

So, I looked for options to the ActiveLink. I found lots of different Activity Monitors out there but the one that appealed to me was the Fitbit. I loved the Fitbit because the Fitbit website gives a lot of information.

 

Fitbit Data

 

Also, Fitbit was open to a lot of other partners where you could sync data with a lot of different places. For example, I was then also recording calories on My Fitness Pal, as well as on Weight Watchers. MyFitnessPal could talk to Fitbit to tell it how much I had eaten that day. Fitbit could use that to give me real time information on my calorie deficit for the day. Likewise, Fitbit could talk to MyFitnessPal and tell it how much I had exercised during the day. I loved all the options.

And, I found it more motivating than the ActiveLink. When I was just getting started with activity, the ActiveLink wasn’t terribly motivating because it seemed like I couldn’t earn ActivityPoints no matter what I did. The Fitbit was more motivating because I could see how my steps were increasing and I could see how my daily calorie burn was increasing.

Fitbit One and Fitbit Flex

I bought my Fitbit One in March, 2013 when it was the top of the line Fitbit. I considered the Zip which is cheaper than the One, but it doesn’t tracks floors climbed and doesn’t track sleep.

The Fitbit One can be worn on the belt but I wear mine in a pocket when possible. Some women wear it clipped on the bra, but that sort of defeats one of the main advantages of the One. That is, the One has a display where you can press a button and see the time, your steps, how far you have walked, number of floors and calories burned. Clipping it to your bra kind of defeats that purpose. Some people don’t really care about the display, and so might not mind clipping it to the bra, but if I felt that way I would get the Flex.

My husband elected to order the Flex which came out shortly after I bought the One. I knew the Flex was coming out before I ordered the One, but I elected not to get it because of what I felt were shortcomings compared to the One. In particular, lack of a display (well there are dots that light up but that isn’t much) and not counting stairs. In late 2013, I thought I could have the best of both worlds when the Force came out. It was a wrist based tracker which I wanted, but it had a large display and counted stairs. It seemed almost perfect. I bought mine and loved it right up to the day that I mailed it back for a refund. This was after Fitbit initiated a recall due to complaints of skin irritation from some Force users. Fitbit has removed the Force from the market. At that point, I went back to using my One while waiting to see what Fitbit’s next generation tracker will be.

After a year of watching my husband use the Flex, and after me using the One and the Force, I would assess the One and the Flex this way:

  • Wearability – This is really personal preference. I really, really, really wanted the Force when it came out because it was worn on the wrist. I could simply put it on and wear it all the time (except in water, such as when I shower). I felt I was unlikely to lose it. I never felt secure with the One in my pocket and always feared it would fall out. There were also a few times when I changed clothes and forgot to transfer the One. Also, the One works really well with clothes that have pockets, but not so well with those that don’t. So, the wrist based tracker seemed ideal. One thing that I really like about the Flex is that the band can be changed. Fitbit markets a variety of different colored bands for the Flex. You can take out the actual Flex and put it in the color band you most like. One negative of the Force when I bought it was that the bands weren’t interchangeable. The actual monitor could not simply be switched to a different band. While the Force and the Flex are both worn on the wrist they were different in that the Flex allows the monitor to be moved to a different band, while the Force didn’t (and, of course, the Flex hasn’t been recalled).
  • On the other hand, after wearing the Force several months and watching my husband with the Flex, there are some advantages to a device you can clip on or put in your pocket. My husband has found that if he is pushing a grocery cart with the arm that he has the Flex on, many of his steps aren’t counted. Also, I found with my Force that my steps are counted more accurately on the treadmill if I am using my One than when I was using my Force on my wrist (I actually resorted to feeding it through the laces on my shoes to get a more accurate count). Also, for some settings (think a formal event), I can see why some might not want to wear a wrist based activity monitor. The One, though, can be easily clipped to the bra for that situation.
  • And, while I was worried about losing the One, I have actually never had it fall out of a pocket. I have, however, forgotten to switch it from one garment to another on a few occasions. And, I’ve read reports of people having run it through the laundry.
  • Advantage: Flex. For me and my lifestyle, I like the greater freedom to be able to wear clothes without pockets and to not have to remember to switch it to another garment. But, really, the One isn’t onerous and I could see someone preferring it to having something on your wrist. My sense is that the One worn in a hip pocket is a little more accurate for some activities (pushing a shopping cart or using a treadmill), but it isn’t different enough to be a deal breaker.
  • Features – The features are really very similar between the two. The One counts steps while the Flex doesn’t. On the other hand, to track sleep, you need to place the Flex in a wide wristband that you wear at night. With the Flex, you just leave the Flex on.
  • Advantage: Tie. The Flex wins on sleep tracking (but neither is that great at it), but the One counts flights of stairs. (The Zip is cheaper than either, but doesn’t count stairs or track sleep).
  • Display – The One has a huge advantage on display and this is why I don’t own a Flex. I like being able to reach down in my pocket at any time and see how many steps I’ve walked and how many calories I’ve burned. On the other hand, it doesn’t bother my husband not to have that. He just syncs his Flex to his computer and sees the data that way. I will say that this is less of an issue for me since I bought my iPhone 5S which supports Bluetooth 4.0. With those devices, the Fitbit will sync not just with the computer, but with the phone. Since I usually have my phone with me, I find that I usually will check the phone display before I check the One display. Be aware that many phones are not Bluetooth 4.0 compatible and the Fitbits won’t sync with them.
  • Advantage: One. However, this may or may not matter to you.

Fitbit v. ActiveLink

For a few months after I bought my Fitbit, I wore it and my ActiveLink at the same time. I was able to see directly how the two compared. This resulted in my cancelling my ActiveLink subscription. There was a couple of reasons for this. First, I loved the additional information I got from my Fitbit. I liked that it told me the number of steps that I walked and that it told me calories burned (sure, this is somewhat of an estimate, but was still much more information than I got from the ActiveLink). I also found it more motivating since I could clearly see how my steps were increasing.

The ActiveLink, though, was problematical. I had no issue with the ActiveLink wanting me to meet a baseline before I could earn Activity Points. That was fine. What troubled me was that I never seemed to earn any Activity Points even on days that I walked a lot of steps. This was particularly troubling because there seemed to be a mismatch at Weight Watchers. This last Saturday I walked 7900 steps using my One. On Weight Watchers eTools, I can go to Activity Tracker and add steps. I have the option to either add just steps during exercise or to add all day steps. I choose all day steps. This requires me to walk a baseline number of steps before I earn any Activity points. That is totally fine. If I plug in 7900 all day steps, then I earn 3 Activity Points for my all day activity. And, yet, when I was wearing my ActiveLink, if I had a day where I walked that number of steps, I earned 0 Activity Points!

There were a couple of days when I was wearing my ActiveLink when I did earn Activity Points. Not surprisingly those were days that I burned more calories than usual according to my Fitbit. But, they weren’t the days that I earned the most calories. That is, there were some days that I walked more steps and burned more calories according to my Fitbit than I did on days that the ActiveLink said I earned Activity Points, but I earned no Activity Points at all according to the ActiveLink. I also noticed that I could have two days with similar calorie burn per my Fitbit. But, on the ActiveLink one day would show much more activity than the other. And, one might earn Activity Points while the other one didn’t.

One can debate which was more accurate. All I can say is that during the time I’ve been using my Fitbit I have found that my overall pattern of weight loss follows what Fitbit says is my calorie deficit. It isn’t exact. I think I burn a little less calories than Fitbit says. And, weight loss isn’t always immediate. Last week, my Fitbit says I had a calorie deficit of a little over a pound. Normally, that would translate to about a .8 pound loss. But, last Friday I gained .2 pounds. The thing is that what shows up on the scale is affected by other factors such as water retention. But, over the long term, the Fitbit calorie deficit seems accurate in the overall trend.

Non-Step Based Activities

You might be wondering if there is anything I don’t like about the Fitbit in general? The answer is yes. Fitbit and most activity monitors (including the ActiveLink) do a really good job of measuring step based activity. However, they measure movement, not exertion. So, there can be activities that burn a lot of calories that really don’t show up as doing so on the Fitbit. I own a Concept2 rower. Using this is a lot of exertion and is a real workout. It burns lots of calories. But, not according to my Fitbit or according to the ActiveLink. I can get that data into the Fitbit by going in and manually telling the Fitbit that I was rowing and giving information about the level of exertion. I do the same thing when I lift weight. I understand this limitation and it doesn’t really bother me. I do a lot of step based activity so the fact I have to add some things in is not a big deal.

Using a Heart Rate Monitor with a Fitbit

I have gotten some refinement lately, though, by using a heart rate monitor. I bought a Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor (Wahoo Blue HR). I use Digitfit software with it. When I go on a walk, I out the heart rate monitor on and fire up the Digifit software on my iPhone and start a workout. I then go for my walk with my Fitbit in my pocket. As I walk, the Digifit software periodically tells me what heart rate zone I am in and how far I’ve walked and how many calories I’ve burned. When I get home, I end the workout and the data is uploaded to the Digifit website. Digifit then talks to Fitbit. The cool thing is that Fitbit gives me credit for the steps that the Fitbit counted, but uses the calorie count estimated by the heart rate monitor. This also allows me to use the heart rate monitor for non-step based activities and to then use the heart rate monitor calorie count within Fitbit.

Weight Watchers and other Activity Monitors

There is one other thing that I wish the Fitbit did. I wish it could talk to Weight Watchers eTools and that Weight Watchers could take the data and say how many Activity Points I’ve earned. Yes, I can record steps (which I do) but I wish I could have Weight Watchers use the calorie count data as well. I have hope this will change in the future, though, as Weight Watchers in its recent earnings call said that it was opening its platform up “for integration with leading activity monitors…” I am hopeful that this will lead to their being more information exchanged between Weight Watchers and Fitbit, but there are no details on this yet.

Other Monitors

A brief comment about other monitors. There are lots of monitors out there. When I had to return my Force, I looked at a number of them. None of them seemed better than the Fitbit One or the Flex. Some of them don’t allow integration of food intake so can’t calculate a calorie deficit. Others don’t integrate with other programs like Fitbit does. There are several devices that have heart rate monitors, which I loved the idea of. But, they all seemed problematical. Either they didn’t do well tracking heart rate during activity or the monitor had clunky software or didn’t track food or whatever. They all had flaws. It is interesting that apparently Fitbit increased market share notwithstanding the Force recall. So, yes, there are other monitors, but for me the Fitbit One or the Fitbit Flex, particularly when coupled with a heart rate monitor, has the best mix of features.

(For anyone wondering, none of the links in this post are affiliate links and no one is paying me for what I say in this post. I just like my Fitbit).

Comments

    • Kitty says

      That’s great. That is why I wrote such a ridiculously long post — hoping it would help people thinking about what they might want to use.

  1. says

    I am such a Fitbit fan … I’ve had mine for about four years now (started with the original Ultra, now I have the One). My two oldest have them, my folks, several brothers and their wives … we are a Fitbit family. I did a similar post on my blog, it’s my highest viewed post. Like you, not paid to do it or anything, I just love my Fitbit! It’s so well known and respected, so many programs are willing to accept it’s data … there are several reward sites (Acheivemint, Pact, Walgreens, FitStudio, Everymove, etc.) that sync directly. My Fitbit has actually paid for itself!

  2. says

    Thank you for sharing this! I’ve been on the fence about buying an activity monitor for a long time and it was great to read your experiences!!!

  3. says

    This is pretty interesting. I have an Activelink, and have never had any problems meeting the baseline in order to earn APs. But you clearly pointed out the shortcomings of it. I’ve noticed when I do a lot of driving, my APs are higher (I wear mine clipped to my bra). Knowing daily steps would be a nice feature.

    • Kitty says

      Yes, I actually wonder if mine was defective. It is interesting though that WW said in the recent earnings call that they are going to open up their platform to other activity monitors. That would be great.

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