With Christmas on its way and the spectre of New Year’s resolutions beginning to take shape, I thought it time to publish a blog post I’ve been writing off and on since September: my foray into the world of fitness trackers.

There were a few reasons for jumping on the bandwagon. First, after spending the past several years being the dictionary definition of couch potato (or, rather, computer potato since I spend most of my time sedentary at a desk at work or at home), I was hoping it would inspire me to become more active. Being able to see how much you’re moving—or not—is a great motivator. And second, I needed a new watch. I apparently sweat acid as this was the second watch in a row where I somehow managed to corrode the metal band. I figured it was time to try something a bit different (or, if I didn’t like the tracker, to consider purchasing a far more expensive watch).

My first fitness tracker was a cheap one from a brand called Lintelek; it had good reviews on Amazon and I didn’t see the point of spending a small fortune on a bit of technology like the Fitbit until I was sure I was going to like and regularly use the device. The first few days I checked it obsessively, but eventually settled into a pattern of checking a few times throughout the day.

I have to admit I wasn’t overly impressed. It had me walking miles when I know I didn’t, and seemed to record far more steps than I was actually doing. After a few weeks, the charge seemed to be going, and I decided it was time for an upgrade to the ubiquitous Fitbit (specifically the Charge 2). When it arrived, I decided to run a little experiment. I moved the Lintelek to my other wrist and wore both it and the Fitbit at the same time for the next several days.

The basics of the trackers are similar: they record steps, total distance, sleep patterns, and heart rate. The Fitbit also offers a “floors climbed” setting and lists calories burned (per published research, this tends to be inaccurate for all fitness trackers). The associated software is where they really differ; each has its own app, but the Fitbit also provides a dashboard where you can record the amount of water you drink, the food you eat to track calories (it seems to plug into a country-specific database), and you can use it to track your weight loss.

I encountered interesting results the moment I started the experiment. According to the Fitbit, my heart was beating at a steady 68 beats per minute, which is what would be expected when sitting at a desk as I was currently doing. The Lintelek, however, seemed to think I was engaging in a spot of exercise and listed my pulse at a racing 117 bpm. I joked to my husband that I must be a Time Lord: apparently I had two hearts. Like the saying that a person with two clocks never knows what time it is, a person with two fitness trackers can never be completely sure of their heart rate (measuring it manually seemed to put it in the 80s).

I went to bed early the first night, which the Fitbit picked up on. The Lineltek pegged me at going to sleep an hour later than I actually did, and only waking up when I synced the tracker with the app.  The deep sleep, light sleep, and REM sleep recordings were likewise quite different on both devices. However, it should be said that sleep scientists state that sleep stages can only be determined from brain waves, not heart rate and movement (or lack thereof), so take this with a grain or three of salt.

The next day I moved around in the morning: from bed to bathroom, then to the kitchen and finally to my office to begin working on this blog post. I decided to take a peek at the number of steps that each recorded. The Fitbit had me at 111. Lintelek at 0.

The biggest surprise came at the end of Day 1. I had assumed the Lintelek had been overestimating my steps and distance, but the tally came to 7008 steps (3.04 miles) on the Lintelek  and 7707 (3.36 miles) on the Fitbit. Those little bits that didn’t seem to be recorded by the Lintelek added up. The difference shrunk over the next two days (6432 vs 6515 and 6608 vs 6805), but the Fitbit always recorded more activity.  For example, a walk around the quad at work recorded 261 on the Lintelek and 305 on the Fitbit.

Provided that you are not expecting 100% complete accuracy, either tracker is probably fine if your ultimate aim is to increase your daily activity: it’s a matter of being aware of relative, rather than absolute, steps or distance. For example, going from 3000 steps to 6000 steps a day will double your activity, regardless of the brand on your wrist. However, the Fitbit app is a better all-rounder than the Lintelek, allowing you to record those extra health and diet categories. If you’re the type of person who likes data and wants to be able to easily track your progress all in one place, then it’s worth considering making the investment in a Fitbit.

That’s not to say the Fitbit is perfect. I found myself preferring the simplicity of the Lintelek information on the phone app, and its sedentary alarm is much better … sort of. You are able to set a timer to remind you to move if you’ve been siting for x-number of minutes, and I aimed to be up and moving every 30. Admittedly, it didn’t always seem to work as planned, with me getting a buzz to move just as I sat down from a walk, or realising I had been sitting for over an hour without a reminder. Fitbit’s reminder to walk 250 steps each hour works, but I would prefer the option to set my own schedule.

Other things that differentiate the two: the Fitbit has a much better screen than the Lintelek—you can actually read it when outside in bright sun—but it took me ages to figure out how to tap the Fitbit to get the extra information on the main screen (and it’s still literally a matter of hit or miss).

I suppose the main question is whether the Fitbit is doing what I hoped it would: encouraging more activity and healthier lifestyle choices. Having researched gamification and motivational factors, I’m always fascinated to see when they’re used in the wild, as they are on the Fitbit dashboard. The designers of the software clearly know the research literature around both topics … stay tuned for more about that in a later blog post, along with my final verdict.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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