Which personal fitness gizmo do I want?
November 29, 2012 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Which personal fitness gizmo do I want?

I have learned that I'm most successful at losing weight / increasing health when I have plenty of data to work with. I use MyFitnessPal to track calories in / calories out, but I find the "calories out" data (i.e. calories burned during exercise) to be suspect at best; I'm a big lady, and I'm pretty fashed when I get off the elliptical, but I don't believe that I've burned 1200 calories. I also need something to track my activity and calories burned when I'm not officially exercising, in order to counteract my tendency to be either WORKING OUT! or completely sedentary. So to that end, I want some sort of little gizmo that I can wear all the time that will track my heart rate (and maybe a few other things) to help me get a better grasp on exactly how many calories I should be eating.

I mix up my workouts a lot; mostly cardio right now because I have so much to lose, but I'm going to start adding in more strength training over the next few months. One of my favorite exercises is swimming, so something waterproof would be awesome, though not essential. Also, I'd ideally like something that can measure elevation gain; I set myself virtual goals, like "This month I will walk from New York City to Philadelphia" or "This month I will row across Lake Michigan" or "This month I will climb Mt. Rainier," and then I have the whole month to cumulatively make that distance. (Goofy, but it works for me.) But when I have elevation-based goals, I have to either do them only on machines, or else use the GPS on my phone, which sucks the battery right down.

I'd also like something that does as much of the calculation for me as possible; if I have to go online and describe the type of activity for each activity period, I'm much less likely to keep accurate track.

What do I need to know? What considerations have I failed to take into account? And ultimately, what should I get?
posted by KathrynT to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I have been looking for something like this myself and everything seems to have at least one fatal flaw. I've been using MFP since April (friend me!) and have found their calorie estimates for various activities to be fairly right on (since they know how much I weigh and what my general activity level is). This does not help you with your elevation and general longer term goals but it might make the machine exercising you do at least be basically accurate. I do use the MapMyWalk app to do elevation/distance stuff but then have to do my own calculations to mash that data into MFP which is suboptimal.

My assessments of the various apps were that the fitbit was too fiddly and expensive and I couldn't wear it in the water. Nike Fuel seemed overpriced and maybe not so durable. A lot of the nice looking pedometers seemed a little too single-purpose. BodyMedia FIT has gotten some good reviews but my initial read was that it required a paid subscription to something which was a non-starter for me. And, surprisingly, there don't seem to be that many other devices that are more than glorified pedometers and so that's where I stopped looking. I will read this thread with interest.
posted by jessamyn at 2:57 PM on November 29, 2012

I currently have a Tractivity sensor on my shoe, it's fun and useful to see the data on their site every few days.

I also have a Fitbit Aria scale, really nice. Step on scale, data is uploaded to cloud, play with data (though someone seriously needs to show them math, wow)

Lastly I use the app Calorie Counter from About.com, I have tried about 10 food/activity tracking apps and it, for me, is the best one, has the largest food database and has the most useful data.
posted by Cosine at 3:01 PM on November 29, 2012

I bought a Striivpedometer which measures distance walked/ran and also elevation gained - and it automatically compares you to things like climbing the Statue of Liberty, walking from New York to Boston, etc. Since I bought the 'smart pedometer', they've added integration with My Fitness Pal, and a smaller pedometer that syncs with your iphone (free app) to get the data off instead of a bulky one with a screen. It doesn't do your heartrate and I don't think it'll say which activity you did, but it sounds like it might really suit you.
posted by jacalata at 3:05 PM on November 29, 2012

Best answer: You want a BodyMedia. It is the only data-collecting device out there that provides an actual accounting of your caloric burn via multiple data points, rather than just an estimate based on how much you move around (which is what you get from pedometers, the FitBit, heart rate monitors, etc). Within a week you get a 90-95% accurate estimate of the number of calories you're burning. There is a monthly subscription to use it but it is very low, maybe $8/month. It also gives you data on sleep quality, minute-to-minute activity levels and caloric burn, and has an online food log among other things.
posted by schroedinger at 3:07 PM on November 29, 2012

I've used the fitbit for about a year now, and I've been really happy with it. For me, it was really nice to have all my data (Food, activity, weight, sleep) in one place, and being able to see the correlations between all of that data has certainly helped me lose weight.
posted by geryon at 3:07 PM on November 29, 2012

Best answer: The newly launched Basis watch looks very intriguing and seems to be designed with the sort of use you're describing in mind. Similar to the BodyMedia, it tracks heart rate, movement, skin temp, and perspiration in order to make its calculations. It is water resistant, but not waterproof. So, swimming with it would be out. I have no hands on experience with this device. It's just a piece of tech that I've been considering for myself.
posted by GeekDad at 3:35 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can't help on the gizmo/cardio-tracking/elevation-etc-tracking side, but for strength training I highly recommend a notebook and pen or pencil.

The kind of notes I think are best for tracking strength progress are not handled well by any app I've yet seen or heard of. It's also the fact that what I want to record changes each workout: sometimes I want to record just exercises, sets, reps, and weights, but other times I want to mark failed lifts, how sore I feel, how much sleep I got, energy levels, switching from one program to another, temporary program variations with reasons why, rest periods, convoluted exercise prescriptions, et cetera.

This allows me to vary my workouts on the fly based on better-than-memory descriptions of how I've been doing with my lifts for the past X weeks. It also helps give context to variations in my progress. Perhaps Fitocracy or other lift-recording apps now offer something like this, but I think jotting something down on paper is faster and easier than typing something into a web app on my iPhone at the squat rack.

I just don't see technology getting any better at recording this than "writing implement plus bound paper".
posted by daveliepmann at 3:51 PM on November 29, 2012

Best answer: I had the BodyMedia device and it's really a nuisance. It's big and obvious and you had better enjoy being asked what the hell it is about 15 times a day.

It did give reasonably good info but it still overestimated my calories burned by a wide margin. A wide, wide margin. If you're a larger, fit person it's just not that accurate. I dropped the subscription pretty quickly, but I did find their web based tools to be excellent.
posted by 26.2 at 4:24 PM on November 29, 2012

I'm a larger fit person and the BodyMedia estimated my calories quite well. But YMMV.
posted by schroedinger at 6:17 PM on November 29, 2012

daveliepmann: I speak as a coach and I mostly agree. It's hard to beat the convenience of a note pad and paper. And they're important - data of import is data tracked. It's also backed up, searchable, indexable and in a form easy to manipulate.

On that score I've gone away from tracking training data (for myself and/or for my athletes) and use a tablet (in this case an ipad) instead. My workout data now lives in spreadsheets, gets propagated to other devices, versioned and backed up. The data is graph-able, manipulatable (think best averages, momentum sets, racing against predicted outcomes etc) and always with me. Years worth.

If you like data and have any inkling to play with it I strongly suggest looking at your workflow to get it machine readable as soon as posible, as easily as possible.
posted by mce at 8:30 PM on November 29, 2012

Since all of it’s estimation, really (including the calculations used by heart rate monitors, which are based on what young men burned in a lab), here’s a way of making things easier: consistently consume the same amount of (yes, estimated, but what else is there to do) calories, at ~15-20% less than your (estimated) ‘maintenance’ calories (i.e., the amount required to fuel your resting metabolism + explicit exercise + ‘non-exercise activity thermogenesis’).

And then, actually, you could not bother counting output/exercise calories at all, and instead aim for 30-60 minutes of challenging daily activity, alternating aerobic and resistance training. So long as those numbers go in the right directions, good things will happen (e.g. regularly increasing weights lifted will support muscle growth, if you’re eating enough protein). Easier goals to measure, in terms of activity, are performance-related: amount of weight lifted, speed, etc.

It works out more or less the same as worrying about adding/subtracting to get to ‘net’ calories, and is accurate enough for most not intending to go to space or the Olympics, especially if the goal is to lose more than e.g. 5 lbs. People who want to compete in bodybuilding competitions, or who are at their goal weight and trying to reduce their body fat percentage, may have to be more precise, but even there, the focus is usually on amount and type of calories consumed, and not output, so much.

Of course I'm totally ignoring data-lust, which I appreciate. If a gizmo helps you get your head around things, you'll get no argument from me (but, no recommendations either, I'm afraid). I find pen & paper easiest for tracking workouts.
posted by nelljie at 8:36 PM on November 29, 2012

A thing about the fitbit: It is very good at logging walking and running. It is not good (nor is it meant to be good) at tracking anything else. This means that you will have to manually log your swimming, your time on the elliptical, your strength training, etc.

I've had a fitbit for a couple of weeks, and I find that it's not useful for me, because I find it hard to combine the "forget all about it" data tracking of the fitbit with the stuff I have to track and record. (In my case, biking, as discussed in a previous thread here). I find it easier to just log *all* my activity, than to have fitbit log some, and me to log some. I wish there were a universal fitbit that would log everything I do (or, at least, both my walking and biking), but my sense is there is not.

Note too that fitbit contains neither heart rate monitor nor GPS. It can tell when it's being jostled around, and uses that data to count steps, and can also measure altitude. But that's it.
posted by ManInSuit at 8:46 PM on November 29, 2012

Best answer: This review of the new Jawbone Up vs. Fitbit was helpful for me. The Up looks like it has some advantages but you have to manually sync it, and it's basically iOS only.
posted by barnone at 11:28 AM on November 30, 2012

Response by poster: Does the Jawbone have a HRM? Also, wrt the Bodymedia: not only am I a big person (I have, conservatively, 90 pounds still to lose), but I carry my weight disproportionately in my upper arms; I need a large adult blood pressure cuff, for example. Will the armband still fit me well and be comfortable?
posted by KathrynT at 11:52 AM on November 30, 2012

Best answer: They mak extra-long Bodymedia cuffs. Also, the BodyMedia CORE is smaller than the older models. Also also, you can get them on EBay for much cheaper!
posted by schroedinger at 1:40 PM on December 2, 2012

The UP by Jawbone is not a heart rate monitor; it’s a sleep & activity tracker with an accelerometer. The largest size only fits up to an 8-inch (20cm) wrist.

You can join your UP & MyFitnessPal accounts. MFP sends nutritional info for your meals to UP, and adjusts your daily calorie goal based on your UP total burn (aka your TDEE). The band is only water-resistant and there’s no swimming activity, but MFP recommends logging swimming in MFP. All other exercise goes in the UP app. (Android or iOS. Here are the compatible devices. Only the iOS app can partner with other apps, but MFP works in Android.) There’s no web portal, everything is done in the app. No GPS, no elevation.

The UP has an idle alert with customizable hours and frequency. I’ve set my band to vibrate if I sit still for 1 hour between 8 a.m. & 8 p.m. And the smart alarm will vibrate at the best time according to your sleep data.
posted by editorgrrl at 9:52 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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