Thursday , September 21 2017
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To Fitbit or Not to Fitbit?

by Dr. Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM

Having recently just tried a Fitbit physical activity tracking device (the Charge HR model) for the first time, I have noticed that in this post-Thanksgiving holiday sales time, everyone is selling them! But they are far from inexpensive. The American Diabetes Association also recently was involved in a FitForGood promotion that Fitbit ran that allowed them and two other nonprofit organizations to earn some extra money. Racking up extra steps for the ADA certainly motivated me and my family members to be more active—for a few days at least!

What you may be wondering is, do you need a Fitbit? What if you can’t afford one? Are you then doomed to fail at meeting your physical activity goals, including taking more daily steps?

No physical activity device is the only determining factor in becoming and staying more physically active. Most people struggle with sticking with an exercise program long term, not just getting started on it. Simply taking more steps on a given day is not that difficult to do—with a bit of motivation—but doing it every day for the rest of your lifetime is a different story.

To stick with it, you have to change your behavior so that being more active becomes a habit.

So, what can a Fitbit device do for you? Unlike the more traditional pedometers (step counters), the Fitbit in particular can measure multiple factors and allow you to track your data on a mobile device or a computer, which may be motivating since you can see the data in real time if you sync it with your device/computer. Using a GPS-aided accelerometer and heart rate monitor, the Fitbit Charge HR counts steps, distance covered, heart rate (hence the “HR” part), exercise intensity (moderate, and vigorous), calories burned, and flights of steps. You can also use the online dashboard to set goals, track your weight, monitor calorie intake, and see your sleep patterns. Plus, you can invite anyone to engage in daily step challenges.

A recent research study on a less advanced Fitbit device found that older overweight or obese women adhere very well to wearing and using the tracker and that it is a promising tool for continuous monitoring of their physical activity adherence, at least over 16 weeks (1). An earlier study comparing a Fitbit and other tracking devices found that the Fitbit actually underestimated total energy expenditure (2), which was also my experience using the Charge HR model worn on my wrist.

For me, via a fairly scientific manner that I tested it out, the Fitbit Charge HR model underestimated my number of steps taken by 15% (counting only 85 for every 100 taken) and failed to pick up all steps taken while using many exercise conditioning machines—depending on where I put my hands on the machine—but overestimated “steps” on a rowing machine.  To make it count “steps” during stationary cycling, I had to put it on my ankle, but it was reasonably on target there.  Some other Fitbit devices are worn on the waistband and may make tracking steps easier for some activities; for instance, while shopping and resting my arm on a shopping cart, the Charge HR device counted absolutely no steps, despite forward movement that would have been picked up by its accelerometer.

So, like all prior devices and pedometers that I personally have tried, none is perfect. However, the Fitbit device I tried came closer than most in estimating my total steps and energy expenditure during the day, and it was interesting to see the intensity of the activities categorized based on heart rates attained (although the HR monitor was not tracking well with the one on the machines I was using).

In any case, if using a Fitbit of any model can help you establish your physical activity habit, it may be well worth the price. Check out all the models (https://www.fitbit.com/compare), and go with a cheaper one if you don’t need all the bells and whistles to stay motivated. It’s also possible to use all sorts of different fitness apps to monitor and track your progress, and many of them are free to use.  Your health will thank you for being more active, regardless of how you go about doing and tracking it (or not)!

References:

  1. Cadmus-Bertram L, Marcus BH, Patterson RE, Parker BA, Morey BL. Use of the Fitbit to measure adherence to a physical activity intervention among overweight or obese, postmenopausal women: Self-monitoring trajectory during 16 weeks. JMIR mHealth uHealth 2015;3(4):e96 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=26586418)
  2. Dannecker KL, Sazonova NA, Melanson EL, Sazonov ES, Browning RC. A comparison of energy expenditure estimation of several physical activity monitors. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013;45(11):2105-12. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23669877)

As a leading expert on diabetes and exercise, I recently put my extensive knowledge to use in founding a new information web site called Diabetes Motion (www.diabetesmotion.com), the mission of which is to provide practical guidance about blood glucose management to anyone who wants or needs to be active with diabetes as an added variable. Please visit that site and my own (www.shericolberg.com) for more useful information about being active with diabetes.