Mobile / Hands-on Review

Does the New Generation of Fitness Tech Work? A Lazy Person Finds Out

Two years ago, I was a mess. Years of sitting and stressing at desks, a love affair with food, and an intense dislike of exercise had not-so-slowly morphed my body type from "athletic" to "sad marshmallow." As a child, I'd been underweight to the point of concern, and by my mid-teens I'd gone from skinny and lanky to somewhat muscled and lanky (thanks to spending hours a day in the pool while being screamed at by a sadistic swim coach). I'd never thought that one day my metabolism would slow and my habits would worsen to the point that my six-pack abs would end up a keg and climbing a few flights of stairs would leave me huffing and puffing like I was after one of the Three Little Pigs.

More to the point, though, I was lazy. I developed a real skill at finding excuses for moving as little as possible and eating highly caloric, highly delicious foods. By the time I noticed my emerging spare tire, I had settled into habits that would prove hard to break. When I bought a scale in late 2013, though, I still wasn't prepared to find myself weighing 199 lb. Determined to not let myself cross the two-hundred mark, I committed myself to diet and exercise. Old habits die hard, though, and it wasn’t long before I fell off the exercise wagon and focused my energy on dieting.

Eight months later I was 35 lb lighter, had more energy, looked better, and had found long-lost confidence. I kept the weight off, but I wasn’t fit—eating less may have shrunk my spare tire but it was a far cry from the look I wanted. And while I missed sitting down in front of the tube with a beer, a mountain of junk food, and a jar of mayo, I missed the strength and the six pack of yore. I knew in my heart that the only thing to do was to drag myself to the gym, but my motivation was sorely lacking.

Given my predilection toward loafing, I jumped attempted to jump at the chance to try a few tech toys that promise to “gamify” physical fitness. By adding even more stats to your daily activity and time in the gym, they offer guidance and encourage you to keep beating your numbers. I was given four fitness devices to test, and I intentionally used them the way a couch-potato-turned-reluctant-beginner would. I kept my usage basic, choosing not to delve into the hinterlands of group competitions and social media boasts. Here’s what I found.

Skulpt Aim

Unlike most fitness tracking devices, the Skulpt Aim doesn’t track your movement, and isn’t designed to be used while working out. Instead, it uses a technique called Electrical Impedance Myography to measure your body fat percentage and muscle quality across a dozen muscle groups on each side of your body. A tiny electrical signal generated by the Aim moves through fat and muscle, and its return characteristics are then recorded and translated into highly accurate measurements of the fat and muscle of the area in question. The company touts its Muscle Quotient measurement as a better predictor of overall fitness than BMI (body mass index), which measures your weight-to-height ratio. At six feet and, as of this morning, 164 lb, my 22.2 BMI is considered “normal” but gives me no information about whether or not I’m actually healthy, so I found Skulpt’s metric more informative

Measuring with the Skulpt Aim
 

The Aim is about the size of a pack of cards (although significantly heavier at more than six ounces) and gently curved to hug your body and achieve maximum coverage. A screen and three buttons let you use it on its own, without a smartphone, and while what appeared to be some stray glue strands on the chassis made the build quality seem suspect at first, I didn’t experience any issues with the unit.

It comes with a charging cradle and pouch along with a small spray bottle, which you can fill up with water and spray on the sensors to help them read a signal. Measurement is relatively easy: the Aim tells you what part of your body to place it on, and when it finishes its reading, the sides light up blue. If it doesn’t, it lights up in red. This is all well and good until you start to get to the upper and lower back and the glutes: without a mirror (or measuring in a dark room), it can be tough to tell if it’s worked. Hopefully, the next version will make a noise along with lighting up, but it’s a minor quibble.


Sensors on the bottom of the Skulpt Aim
 

As for effectiveness, the Aim worked straight out of the box: my trusty body-fat scale has apparently been stroking my ego with its claims of around 14% body fat, because after a full-body reading I was informed that I was over 24%! Finding out that I had nearly twice the fat I originally thought was the first big motivator toward getting me off the couch and into the gym. My MQ (Muscle Quotient) needed improvement, too; at a paltry 99 I was straddling the border between “Average” and “Needs Work” on the Skulpt app.

Two months later, my overall body fat was down to 17.8% and my overall MQ was up to 112 (solidly Average!). If those improvements seem significant, it’s because they are! But what makes the Aim so useful is that you see your body improve on the device long before you can see your body’s changes with your eyes. That near-instant reward and knowledge of improvement was incredibly helpful for me, and I suspect that like me, others who would fall off the exercise wagon when they get discouraged by the lack of immediate results might find some extra motivation when their MQ numbers tick upward. For that reason alone, the Aim might be worth it for gym rats and newbies alike.

Fitbit Charge

Fitbit is an established leader in the fitness wearable industry, and its Charge band falls in the middle of its six-product lineup. Not only does it keep track of your steps, it also sports an altimeter to record how many flights of stairs you climb during your day. This gives you a much better picture of the amount of energy you expend, especially in a vertical city like New York. It also counts calories, shows the time, tracks your sleep, and has Caller ID capabilities, among others.

The Charge is surprisingly comfortable, and eventually I stopped noticing its rubbery textured band around my wrist. Disappointing, however, was the fastening method: while easy to close, the metal protrusions that poke through the band’s sizing holes also pop out relatively easily. This wasn’t much of an issue on a daily basis, but it did fall off a couple of times when my wrist came into contact with the edge of my desk and once, while twenty feet above the ground, while traversing a ropes course in the Pocono Mountains. The newer Charge HR fixes the issue with a more traditional buckle strap. Waterproofing, on the other hand, is a welcome feature. The engineers have gone above and beyond to yank away any excuses for taking it off.


Fitbit Charge

Fitbit starts your daily step goal at ten thousand steps, and after just a few short days I found myself wanting badly to not just beat my goal but obliterate it. If I was low on steps, I’d find any excuse to get up and walk around so I could up my “score.” That’s where gamification really comes into play: the Fitbit app rewards you for milestones with various badges that trumpet your accomplishments with disarmingly charming titles. Over my roughly two-month test, I became the proud owner of a High Tops badge for walking more than 20,000 steps in a day, a London Underground badge for walking 250 lifetime miles (the same length as all the tracks in the Tube laid end-to-end), and a Ferris Wheel badge for walking up 75 flights of stairs in a day.

That last badge is especially important because I earned it when I moved into a new apartment and spent almost an entire day going up and down stairs, making me feel like my “workout” was recorded even though it wasn’t in the gym. These rewards, no matter how insignificant, add a powerful element of positive reinforcement toward simply staying active, which is especially important when you’re building habits. Eventually, walking the four flights up to my office instead of taking the elevator became routine.

My favorite features of the band have nothing to do with moving (remember when I said I was lazy?). Unlike quite a few trackers out there, the Charge tracks your sleep automatically, without requiring a mode change or a button press. This ensures that your sleep will be recorded as soon as you drift off, and the sensitivity needed for automation reduces the chances of false positives: if you take it off and leave it on the kitchen table, it won’t assume that you’ve taken a nap. Tracking my sleep was a revelation in that I finally realized just how little I was getting. The graph function on my phone showed a steady reduction in sleep from Sunday night to Thursday night, and huge spikes on the weekend when I could catch up. On a day-to-day basis, I could structure my day around how much I’d slept the night before, working on more brainpower-heavy projects on days I was more rested. I also upped my attempts to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, and my sleep graphs gradually flattened out.

The other killer feature was the silent alarm. Like sleep tracking, this isn’t unique to the Charge or Fitbit devices in particular, but I found it a godsend. You set the alarm on your smartphone, wear your Charge to bed, and in the morning it buzzes you awake with a gentle vibration. It was far less intrusive than an alarm clock and I noticed I felt more refreshed when waking up. A plus, though, would be integration with smartphone alarm apps that offer more features than the Fitbit app, such as adjusting your alarm to avoid waking you up while in a deep sleep cycle.

Jawbone UP MOVE

The UP MOVE, like the Charge, is a fitness tracker, but in a radically different form factor and somewhat lighter on features. Its price is less than half that of the Fitbit, but you’ll sacrifice things like a screen, automatic sleep tracking, alarms, stair counts, and Caller ID. Where the UP MOVE shines is in size. It’s about the size of a stack of five or six quarters and weighs next to nothing. A rubber clip lets you attach it to your clothing, but I opted to keep it in a pocket where it could be nearly forgotten. Tiny LED lights encircling the front of the device can display a rough approximation of the time or your progress throughout the day’s goals.


Jawbone UP MOVE
 

That “set it and forget it” approach also applies to battery life. Where the Fitbit chugged along for about a week and a half before needing a charge, the coin-cell battery that came with the UP MOVE lasts for a full six months. Not as easy, though, was sleep tracking. The company recommends the use of the wristband, which I didn’t have, and engaging sleep mode was cumbersome enough that I dropped it in favor of the Fitbit’s results.

The Jawbone’s small size did give it an edge in one arena, though. On the rare occasions that I slapped on a suit and tie, I could drop the tracker into a pocket and rest assured that no step would be uncounted. The Fitbit, though, lives on your wrist, and stands out against a tailored jacket like a neck tattoo.

Polar H7

The H7 is Polar’s stand-alone heart-rate monitor, designed to be worn while working out instead of all day long. Unlike wrist-worn HRMs that use LEDs to estimate your beats per minute, the H7 is a chest-strap device that picks up on the heart’s electrical signals to provide a far more accurate and precise measurement. Like every other device I tried, it connects to your smartphone over Bluetooth, but the H7 adds Gymlink RF transmission to sync up with compatible gym equipment. The interface is insanely simple: plug the transmitting unit into the band to turn it on, remove it to turn it off.

I thought I’d feel weird or be uncomfortable wearing the strap, but any discomfort quickly paled in the face of stretching, running, elliptical-ing, and lifting. What I did gain was a look into how my heart behaves when taxed. The treadmill offered the most concrete insight: At a given pace, my heart rate would plateau, rising or falling with the speed and incline of that day’s run.


Polar H7
 

While plenty of treadmills offer heart-rate monitoring, they require that you hold on to a handrail or bar, impacting your cadence and potential speed. More importantly, you can’t run on a treadmill outside on the street or in a park. And most of all, you can’t save your workout results, compare them, or tune your pace to put yourself into the heart-rate zone that will give you the best results. The H7’s versatility and feedback make it ideal for cardio lovers and novices alike. And for those who wish to take it up another level, the Polar Flow web app gives you even more insight and feedback into your workouts.

I’ll admit to being more than a little skeptical when I took this assignment. It was hard to imagine that the torrent of data produced by these little machines would be the gateway toward improving my health and fitness. But their immediate feedback, whether in the form of fun badges or tenths of a percent of body fat, gave me the motivation to keep moving. Many moons ago, when I started losing weight, I thought it would be an impossible task. But as soon as I saw that number on the scale begin to dip, I knew that change was possible. Hopefully the same will hold true for you. In the meantime, though, I’m going to kick back in front of the TV with some healthier snacks. I’ve even switched to light mayo. After all, I earned it.

Discussion 8

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I find my Fitbit HR requires charging every three days, four tops.

Hi Ken,

That sounds about right. The LED light that the Charge HR uses to measure your heart rate likely consumes some additional power over the Charge. How do you like your tracker?

It would br really nice of the FitBit people to have a trade-in for an upgrade to the Charge HR with it's buckle from the Charge with the two pin strap.  My wife and I each have a Charge and it keeps us motivated to move more.  Biggest problem and it is a big problem for us is the band, both the small and large band Charge keep falling off.  We had to use the Bluetooth sync function to isolate where on our small farm the lost Fitbit Charge was hiding just yesterday.  An expensive close call happens almost daily with the Charge falling off while digging potatoes, putting shavings in the chicken coop, mowing the lawn, etc...  Spend some time moving dirt or chicken bedding looking for your FitBit and you will quickly ask why you bought it.

Hi Ken,

I certainly understand your frustration! It looks like there are some inexpensive silicone bands on the market that might help with this issue. I'd give Fitbit a call and see if there are any solutions that they recommend. Best of luck!

Very good to know about the fitness gadgets. They are good comapnions for jogging and etc but I had no idea how it was to use them and the perception of progress and reward. Interestingly put. Thank you for writing these findings.

Thanks Paulo!

I owned the original Jawbone Up. I liked the feedback and used it to track sleep. It failed after a few months and I sent it back for a replacement. That failed after a few months and I gave up on Jawbone. I purchased a Basis 1 watch which I liked because it also provided the time. Unforturnately, it also failed after a few months as did its' replacement so I gave up on Basis. I purchased an H7 and after a few months it failed to sync with my iPhone. I gave up on fitness trackers until the Apple Watch was released. I have been using it since the end of May and find that is is motivating me more than any of the other trackers did. It has a very simple activity tracker that monitors Movement (calories burned), Excercise (minutes walking faster than 3 mph), and Standing (moving a minimum of 1 minute every hour). Each is displayed as a concentric ring in a target. When a goal for any activity is met, the corresponding ring forms a complete circle resulting in a bullseye target if all three are met. Achievement awards are given for meeting various goals. I have increased my activity considerablely since using the watch. The downside is you must charge it every night but I have a charger on my headboard and it has proved not to be a problem. Thanks for the article. It would be nice to know about the Samsung tracker since I have heard it is very good.

Thanks for the feedback! Which Samsung tracker are you referring to?