No-Sweat Fitbit Tracks Health Habits for $100: Rich Jaroslovsky

High Tech, No-Sweat Fitbit Aids Health for $100
When it comes to exercise and fitness, the saying goes, you only get out what you put in. Photographer: Thinkstock

When it comes to exercise and fitness, the saying goes, you only get out what you put in.

Speaking for couch potatoes everywhere, I want to get out more than I put in. Can’t technology help?

Well, maybe. For the last several weeks, I’ve been using a $100 gadget called a Fitbit. It offers a limited but enticing glimpse of a future when the computing power already surrounding us works to keep us healthy -- even when we aren’t consciously doing anything to deserve it.

The Fitbit is an activity tracker about the size of a money clip and weighing next to nothing. You can stick it on a belt or bra, put it in your pocket or wear it on your wrist. Like a pedometer, it counts your steps and measures distance traveled. It also includes modes that estimate calories burned and monitor your sleep patterns.

Best of all, the Fitbit doesn’t depend too much on you. It’s simple, unobtrusive and automatically uploads the data it collects to the Internet without your having to do anything more taxing than walk past your computer.

Missed Opportunities

The consumer-technology industry has barely scratched the surface in the health-and-wellness market, making it one of the least-tapped opportunities in the tech bazaar. Most of us already carry around supercomputers, disguised as smart phones and tablets, that are capable of monitoring when we exercise, what we eat and how well we sleep. Yet for the most part they sit there, wasted on phone calls and text messages.

Meanwhile, sensors are growing smaller, cheaper and more powerful all the time. The typical mobile device has an accelerometer (the thing that makes it flip its screen when you turn it sideways) and a gyroscope, which orients it in three dimensions. Game devices like Nintendo Co.’s Wii and Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect controller for the Xbox only begin to suggest the uses to which motion-sensing technology can be used to help get us on our feet.

It’s easy to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when cheap, unobtrusive, wearable sensors constantly monitor our heart rate, blood pressure and activities and wirelessly communicate that data through our smart phones to the Internet, where it can be collated, analyzed and shared. Where we use our phones to snap pictures of our meals, which are instantly analyzed for calorie count and nutritional value, then added to our online health profile. Where...sorry, I got carried away there.

Nike’s GPS Watch

The Fitbit does none of that. Nor is it likely to satisfy serious fitness enthusiasts, who have a range of more elaborate and expensive devices to choose from, such as Nike Inc.’s $199 SportWatch for runners, which includes a built-in GPS system.

What Fitbit does do is keep track of your normal daily activities, giving you a benchmark and, perhaps, an incentive to do more.

The sensor has a single button, which performs a multitude of functions; a tiny glowing blue display provides what passes for a user interface. Push the button once, and the Fitbit gives you a quick reading on your general activity level for that day in the form of a flower icon; the more active you’ve been, the more leaves on the flower’s stem. Keep pushing the button, and you’ll get readings on the number of steps you’ve taken today -- 10,000 is Fitbit’s default goal -- as well as distance covered and calories burned.

Monitoring Sleep

A single long push puts the device into event-recording mode, useful for both tracking the effect of a specific activity -- how long a walk is it from here to town? -- and monitoring your sleep.

The device comes with a belt clip, a base station and a cloth wristband. The thumb-size base station, which plugs into a USB port on your computer, uses a low-power wireless technology called ANT, from a unit of Garmin Ltd., that grabs information from the sensor and sends it to your personal Fitbit Web page.

There you can supplement the data with any additional information you want to enter yourself, ranging from activities the Fitbit isn’t good at sensing -- cycling is one -- to what you’ve had to eat. You can also choose to share your data via Facebook or Twitter, or upload it to a personal health file at Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault.

The base station also serves as a power charger, though you won’t have to use it often in that role. In my tests, I got over a week of use on a single charge, and still had battery life to spare.

Noticing Patterns

Over time, I began to notice some patterns. One is the general benefit of simply getting up from my desk and taking a stroll. My 2.5 mile roundtrip walk from the office to an Apple Inc. press event burned as many calories as a half-hour on the bike at the gym. I also learned that while I usually get only about six hours of sleep a night, I’m an efficient sleeper, rousing only a few times during a typical night.

Several things about the Fitbit need work. It still requires a lot of tedious manual data entry to get the most out of it. (Let’s see, what did I have for lunch Tuesday?) There’s no iPhone or Android app, just a mobile website, and no way for the Fitbit unit to use your phone to upload data.

The very obviousness of those shortcomings points the way forward for the consumer-technology industry. Fitbit is a good first step.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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