60 Days with the Fitbit Flex

As the market for fitness-tracking wearables has exploded in recent years, I’ve been looking for a suitable entry point. The choices have become numerous as smartwatches like the Moto 360 Sport have blurred lines with onboard GPS, heart rate monitors, and sweat-proof designs. However, the barrier to entry for these products is steep and the douchiness of smartwatches is near Bluetooth-headset level. For the time being, I’m unwilling to shell out $250+ for a glorified phone accessory.

Enter the Fitbit Flex. Or rather, take a journey with me all the way back to 2013. When the Flex hit stores, I found the idea interesting. It was missing some features, but then all we had at the time were GPS watches made for runners and selling for hundreds of dollars. A few months ago, I was researching the Fitbit Charge HR, a newer iteration released earlier this year that includes heart rate monitoring and call notifications in addition to the basic Flex. Still, at $150, I wasn’t sure how well I would integrate it into my daily life.

Luckily, while I was back home in Arizona, my mom won a Flex at work and gave it to me. It was a perfect opportunity to see how much use I would get from such a device. For the last two months, I’ve been wearing the Flex daily and here are my impressions.

Use and Usage

Do I still wear it every day? Yes.

Do I feel bad when I forget it at home? Yes, but it doesn’t ruin my day.

Will there come a point where I’m “over” it? Maybe.

When I get into something new, I love data – it’s the cheapest source of motivation for a newbie. When I started running, I logged every run with Nike+Running on my phone and felt a quick jolt of satisfaction watching my total miles edge up every week. When I started lifting, I updated my OneNote journal with my progress. And when I dropped 50 pounds in four months, MyFitnessPal was my best friend.

Having said that, the effectiveness of data-logging at non-elite levels drops off when moving into the intermediate stages. In the areas I listed above, I have almost completely stopped taking data and use enjoyment as my primary gauge. I know my squat and deadlift 1RM, I know my rough 5k time, I know my TDEE and what I can and can’t eat on any particular day – these things inform my activities without rigidly defining HOW or WHY I do them.

So we come walking. I feel I’ve reached expert level, and the primary function of the Flex is to count steps. So why do I still wear it? I’ve read about a “LifeProTip” that involves wearing a rubber band on one wrist with a task or goal in mind. When the task is completed, the rubber band is moved to the other wrist. I see my Fitbit in the same way.

On the face, there are 5 LEDs that show your progress towards 10,000 steps (or whatever number you’ve set). When you start the day, the first light blinks very slowly, increasing in rapidity as you move towards 20%. When you hit 20%, the second LED activates and the process begins again – like leveling up in an RPG. A few times a day, I check my wrist to see how active I’ve been. My job teaching requires a lot of standing and moving around, so I typically don’t have a problem getting to my goal. But, if I check it at noon and I’m still on 2 lights, it’s a nice way to remind myself to walk around the classroom more. As a for instance, I’ve been giving my 5th graders oral exams over the last week, which involves long periods of sitting. To compensate, I incorporated some extra running at the gym. Not revolutionary, but maybe not something I’d be aware of otherwise.

Fitbit App

The paired phone app works quickly via Bluetooth-LE and includes sleep movement tracking, diet and exercise logging, and notifications about battery life. Additionally, you can receive weekly summary e-mails. I found these useful initially, but haven’t been checking them recently. Still, it was a nice way to visualize how much I’m moving on the weekdays compared to the weekends and helped change my lazy Saturday habits. I used the sleep movement tracking for about a week while I was on vacation, but didn’t find the data compelling as it doesn’t include heart rate monitoring or REM sleep cycle information.

Hardware

I find the band comfortable and unobtrusive when worn loosely, as is recommended. I didn’t know before using it that it was actually two pieces – the band and the device itself. One minor annoyance comes from this. While the Flex is sweat- and water-resistant, I find that both get trapped inside the slot in the band where the device sits. And with the high humidity in Taipei and the lack of ventilation, this area can get very disgusting quickly. I’ve taken to taking it off at night, disassembling it, and letting it dry that way. As such, I can’t use the Flex overnight for its sleep tracking features.

The other small problem comes from activation of sleep mode. Tapping the band twice displays the progress LEDs; tapping quickly and repeatedly toggles sleep mode. This becomes a big problem while riding a bike, as the rough sidewalks in Taipei register as a series of quick taps. The Flex turns on and off repeatedly – I’ve observed this behavior as many as six times over the course of a 20-minute commute. This becomes even more frustrating when I’ve forgotten to check that sleep mode is off and half a day of data is lost.

Aesthetics

Watches are important. A smart brown band that matches your belt and shoes? You better believe she’s going to notice. The Flex isn’t very watch-like, however, and its shape is more that of a bracelet. Wait, a bracelet on a man? Is it 2004 again? Is Lance Armstrong still the clean-living superhero we thought he was?

Flex Bands

Honestly, the default black band I’ve been using is largely anonymous. In two months, a handful of people have asked me about the Flex, and they all seem to have been considering getting one of their own before asking. Instead of “What is that?”, I get “Has that been useful?” I see over 500 students each week, and only one has asked what it is. I tend to wear a lot of black in high-humidity, perpetual-summer Taipei to hide the sweat, so the black band matches that well. Other color bands are available, but I’m not one for accessorizing.

Conclusions

The Fitbit Flex is an excellent introduction to the world of fitness-wearables. It may even end up being a gateway device for me as I’m considering moving up to the Charge HR to take advantage of the heartrate monitor and sleep monitoring. Even more interesting is the Moto 360 Sport due to release soon which looks to be the most fully featured fitness smartwatch yet. But despite its simplicity, I’ve found real value in the Flex and found that it doesn’t intrude in my life in any negative ways. I do think it’s priced a bit high at $100, a number that puts it out of range of the impulse buy and close to many of the other more fully featured devices from Fitbit. Would I buy it? Maybe not. Would I get rid of it? Certainly not.

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