Bottom view of a Fitbit Charge 2 fitness band, showing the charging contacts and pulse sensor

Confessions of a Fitness Tracker Virgin

I’m not much for New Years Resolutions, but the fitness tracker I’d been given had been sitting on the desk, staring at me for over a month. The box begged to be opened, and the band placed around my wrist, never to be removed.

Then again, this Fitbit model is only water resistant, so at least we would have some time apart while I was in the shower.

Here’s what I discovered, about the technology and myself:

What’s In the Package

Fitbit Charge 2 fitness band in the box with instructions that simply say go to fitbit.com/setup

Many small electronics items are entombed in a thick plastic clamshell package that can be challenging and painful to open. Fortunately, the process of opening a Fitbit Charge 2 package to remove the contents was more like a puzzle. It didn’t require any tools or push me toward wrap rage.

Many electronic devices have a sticker, or notice at the very front of the instructions saying to charge it before you do anything else. Strangely, this device didn’t include any such instructions. In fact, there were no instructions at all except for a link to fitbit.com/setup. That was on the front of the little packet you would normally expect to contain an instruction booklet, and also on the little card that took the place of an actual setup guide or manual.

That link took my phone to a page where I could download the Fitbit app. When I started the app it led me through a reasonably straightforward process to link with the device and perform an automatic update. It said that would take about ten minutes.

Knowing that some USB devices need to be connected in a particular order the first time, I restrained myself from connecting it to power until something told me to do so.

Tip: Since the USB cable is used only for charging and not for data, go ahead and connect that right away

Another reason I waited is that you can’t press the button on the side of the device while it’s in the charging clip. At least that’s how it looked. Later I realized you can press the button through a groove in the clip. In fact, that’s how the clip makes sure the charging pins are aligned correctly.

It’s Alive!

I was surprised to receive an email from Fitbit telling me that the battery was low. That was certainly my cue to go ahead and connect the charging clip to the device and plug it into a USB port, even though the device was still receiving a software update.

The setup process was pretty straightforward. However, the request for some PII (Personally Identifiable Information) was disconcerting. Does the Fitbit service really need private information like your first name, last name, and birth date?

Technology Inside a Fitness Tracker

This is not just a glorified smart watch. It has more smarts than an airplane from a few decades ago. This model has an accelerometer, rather than a touch screen, so it registers motion like taps and flicks of the wrist, but does not register touches.

This model does not include a GPS sensor. However, you can let the app use the sensor that is probably built into your smart phone. Of course that means using the GPS functionality requires having the phone with you while you’re out running, hiking, skiing, or whatever activity you would like to track.

I also found that when I’m working-out on a StairMaster stair-climber machine the tracker doesn’t register stair climbing. Because I’m not actually gaining altitude, it thinks I’m just walking slowly – but working working unusually hard at it. It does count walking up a hill as climbing stairs, since you are gaining altitude under your own power.

Sometimes it automatically recognizes when I’m on an elliptical machine. That seems to require holding onto the moving handle bars. If your hands are not moving the same way you are stepping, it thinks you are just walking.

A Bug or a Feature

A smartphone virgin would be challenged because a smart band like this device really wants to be used with a smart phone. It also wants to be able to “call home” to the Fitbit service.

I haven’t worn a watch for years so there was no need to ditch my existing one. I’m surrounded by clocks on my computer, phone and sometimes on the wall so I had stopped wearing a watch.

The app apparently doesn’t know how to do landscape mode, which is too bad because the phone is more stable when lying on its side on a cardio machine.

I admit that when I worked-out the first time with the fitness band it was a little bit like when I was a kid and I got new gym shoes. It felt like I was going faster even though I knew it wasn’t true. Well – maybe I believed it about the shoes.

Is the fitness tracker making us happy or are we making it happy?

Rumor has it that some fitness trackers unlock a game for a while when you meet all of your goals. This is not one of those.

A Year with a Fitness Tracker

On a trip to Southern California last year I made a note to myself that “My Fitbit is in love with me”. One morning I put on and it said “Today is the day. Hey!

The Fitbit app generated this Skyscraper badge when the fitness band recorded climbing 100 floors in a day. The text says "You've used some pretty slick stair-climbing to take yourself to new heights!"

Exploring the Pacific Coast in Santa Monica I kept walking and running between the beach and the bluffs. The Fitbit team demonstrated their gamification skills like true professionals.

  • The watch face shows the number of steps that day along with the date and time
  • Hitting ten thousand steps for the day triggers the haptic frosting on the fitness cake: The device vibrates, and when you turn your wrist to look at it, you see fireworks, animated geometric patterns, or a rocket lifting off
  • An email when celebrating a new achievement, such as the Ferris Wheel when I climbed 75 floors in a day and the Great barrier Reef for walking 1,600 lifetime miles

My workouts initially got a boost, since I could watch the numbers go up as exercised. However, I was tempted to make the fitness tracker happy at the expense of balance and variety in each workout. (I could write an entire post post on that, and probably will.)

I got into a conversation a couple months ago about how I’d been using my Fitbit for a while and was considering retiring it. They’re using gamification with fireworks and badges, but for long-term dedication to a fitness band I think you need to be doing it with other folks, whether one or more individuals or a team. Similarly, folks are far more likely to stick with going to the gym if they’re doing it with others.

Have you used a smart watch or fitness tracker? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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