October 17, 2012

Health Gadgetry

About a year ago I was working at a startup and dealing with all the joy and stress that came along with it. I gained a fair bit of weight and fell into a pretty unhealthy routine. When the stress of the company finally dissipated, I decided it was time to focus on becoming healthier. Being the nerd I am, I sought out any technology I could find to help me with this goal.

Because I know many other people with similar ambitions, I wanted share what I’ve learned about the various gadgets I’ve used throughout the past year and my experiences with them.

The Fitbit

The Fitbit Ultra was the first piece of tech I used in my quest for better health. It’s a brilliant little $100 pedometer that syncs with your computer, recharges via USB dongle, and has a web UI which lets you see your step count for the day, when you were active, and when you were sedentary. It can also be used as a sleep tracker. You can wear it at night with the provided bracelet band, and it will tell you how well you slept the next day.

Part of what makes the Fitbit successful is that it’s so passive. It’s something you put on your body in the morning and can forget about for the entire day. It requires no effort other than remembering to put it on before you leave. I’ll come back to why this is important later.

The first and second generation (Fitbit Ultra) of hardware is mostly the same, with the exception that the second generation one includes an altimeter. This gives you the added ability to see how many “flights of stairs” you’ve climbed throughout the day.

The hardware itself is nice. Its built in a clip-like shape so you can have it pinch to the edge of your pants pockets, although I find it easier to simply leave it in my pocket. Lady friends of mine seems to like wearing it on a bra/dress shoulder strap as well. It’s small enough that I often forget whether or not I have it in my pocket, but it can feel a little thick at times – It might show awkwardly in your pocket in anything less than loose fitting pants. The battery lasts for almost a week, so it’s easy to leave it on you and forget about.

The software is also pretty nice. It has some great social features (I can’t believe I just wrote that) which let you compete against friends for step counts and distance, and the iPhone app and web UI are both easy to use. The software also features a surprisingly motivating achievements system which tracks both day-long and lifetime-long events, such as 100 floors in a day or 100 miles in your lifetime. By default, you get email notifications for these awards, which are wonderful reminders of your progress.

The software also allows you to get very serious. It offers the ability to add your meals, weight, and other data to give you a complete overview of your health. There is even a “Premium” service which offers more analytics, reporting, and a remote personal trainer to help with your goals. I have not tried this, but it sounds like it could be cool.

I also don’t use the sleep monitoring functionality of the Fitbit. My tests and reports from my friends seem to confirm that this feature is mostly gimmicky. I’ve felt great on days where it said I had a terrible sleep, and terrible on days where it said I had a great sleep.

The Fitbit syncs with the service via the USB dongle, but it does so wirelessly, so it you don’t need to plug it in every day. One of the neat aspects of syncing is that it will sync with ANY connected dock in range, not just your own. This leads to surprising moments when you get an achievement email at your girlfriends’ office.

Overall, my experience with the Fitbit has been extremely positive. It’s amazing how the simple act of passively tracking your activity throughout the day and being aware of that data can motivate you. I almost always take the stairs whenever possible, or walk instead of taking muni when I have the time. “Fitbit points” has become an often used term among my friends and coworkers, many of whom have also started using Fitbits as well.

Fitbit has recently announced their 3rd generation of hardware, which should be launching soon. They’ve split the pedometer into two separate product lines, the Zip and the One. The Zip is already available in Apple stores, and is MUCH smaller and lighter than the Ultra. It doesn’t include the altimeter, nor is it rechargeable (it takes watch batteries instead) but it is only $60. The One includes all the features of the Ultra, with the added ability to sync directly with your phone via Bluetooth 4.0. I’ve ordered one and can’t wait to try it out.


Apple and Nike worked together to make some of the first really cool health gadget tech: Nike+. It’s been around since 2006, but it hasn’t changed much since it’s initial launch. A small pedometer goes in your running shoe, which talks wireless to your iPod or iPhone, and gives you data about your run.

The product works great, and the UI has changed a lot over the years, the Nike+ iPhone app being the best yet. There is also a Nike+ Running app on the App Store which uses GPS instead of the pedometer. Unfortunately, this product doesn’t really provide a complete solution to any health plan. Unlike the Fitbit, the Nike+ is a very active-monitoring system. You need to remember to bring the hardware (although you can and should just leave it in your shoe) and your phone with you. Then you have to turn the app on and off with every workout. It gives you great data, which can be helpful, but it doesn’t do anything to motivate you when you’re not working out.

That said, it’s still a good addition to your toolbox: The app will play audio encouragements during your run, which actually feel pretty good, even though they can become repetitive if you use the app a lot. Fitbit even offers a tool to let you sync up your runs, called fbitd.

I can’t help but feel like this type of active-monitoring technology is being eclipsed by passive-monitoring technology like the Fitbit and Fuelband.

Nike+ Fuelband

The Nike+ Fuelband is Nike’s response to the Fitbit. It’s a passive pedometer, and the major difference is that you wear it on your wrist instead of… anywhere else.

I was initially really excited for the Fuelband. It features Bluetooth syncing and a beautiful iOS app, things I would have loved in my Fitbit. Sadly, the Nike brand brought a $150 price tag along with it.

The screen on the Fuelband is beautful. It’s a dot-matrix-like grid of tiny LEDs with wonderfully smooth animations and colors. It lets you cycle through step counts, distance, time, and an arbitrary “Fuel” number that seems to be a combination of those things.

There were enough major downsides to the Nike+ that the software isn’t worth going into. The hardware feels fragile and plastic-y, which is terrible for something that you must bend to remove and put back on every day. Further, unlike the Fitbit, it’s not something you can hide – everyone you see or meet is going to see you wearing a thick, matte black, plastic bracelet. It’s sort of embarrassing.

Nike needs to improve the hardware, drop the price, or both. Until then I can’t recommend you use this little guy.

UP by Jawbone

This pedometer-bracelet was on sale for about a month in January 2012 before they were pulled due to battery problems. They have yet to reappear on the market. I’ve been wanting to try one out but it seems like I might never get to.

Although it suffers from same design issue as the Fuelband (you must wear it on your wrist) it has some interesting advantages:

  1. It comes in colors and the design isn’t as ugly.
  2. It features a vibration function which reminds you to move around if you’ve been sedentary for too long. This active reminder sounds wonderful.

Hopefully one day it will ship again and I’ll get to try it out.

The Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale

I’ve saved the best for last. There isn’t really much to this device – It’s a good looking, $160 scale with a bright and clear LCD screen, incredible battery life (mine has been going strong for a year now), and most importantly, WiFi connectivity.

Why is that important, you ask? Well, Weightbot is why. Although Withings has it’s own website with which you can check your weight and view cool chards and rolling averages, the Weightbot iOS app lets you view the same data (it syncs with the Withings website) with a much nicer UI. If you use Fitbit, you can also have it fetch the same data. (Thanks, @ryannielsen!)

Why do you want to check your weight, you ask? Well, progress is why. While the task of weighing yourself (especially if it’s the first time in a long time) can be daunting, the ability to see progress in the form of a dropping line graph is a truly wonderful and motivating thing. Getting into the habit of weighing yourself daily not only provides you with great data, it passively motivates you to eat less junk food, more healthy food, and exercise more. It helps keep your training goals in mind. This makes it much easier to say “No thanks” when offered cake at work because it’s the birthday of someone you hardly know.

Once you start to have a good base of data to see, you begin to realize that day-to-day variations don’t matter that much. Long term trends are more important, and the encouragement that you get after the first month or two is undeniable.

Because it’s so easy to use and the data has been so influential, I have to say that the Withings scale is probably the single most effective gadget I’ve used in my quest for better health.

The Fitbit Aria

Although I haven’t used it personally, a few of my friends have purchased and used the Fitbit Aria, which is Fitbit’s competitor to the Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale. It’s essentially the same thing – a good looking scale that syncs with a web service via WiFi. It’s also $30 cheaper than the Withings Scale, and a bit smaller.

The advantage with the Aria is that you get to stay in the Fitbit ecosystem. Your weight is reported to the same web service / iPhone app that your steps are (if you’re using one of their pedometers) so everything is in the same place. You can do this with the Withings scale, but the data needs to sync across, so there’s more likelihood of problems and the setup might be an annoyance.

The downside is that it doesn’t work with Weightbot. Well, it can, but it takes some hackery.


The world has no shortage of weight loss or health-related advice, so I’m going to avoid giving any more here. The most important thing is to find what works for you. For me, it’s been data-driven, and these tracking gadgets have helped immensely. The combination of the Fitbit tracker and service, along with the Withings Scale has given me the most joy out of all the devices I’ve tried.

It’s been a year since I started on my journey for better health, and so far it’s been extremely rewarding. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to achieve and surpass some of my own goals: I can run farther and faster, lift more, and I have better flexibility.

If you’re considering getting healthier, consider adding some tech to your routine.