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SPOTLIGHT

Fitness Trackers: Your mobile fitness diary

Published on May 5, 2014 5:34 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: BRYANDT LYN

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has been photographed wearing a Jawbone Up and rapper Kanye West seems to have his Nike+ FuelBand strapped on his wrist all the time.

The Up and the FuelBand are just two of a plethora of trackers gaining traction in popular culture as well as on the wrists of fitness-conscious people.

So what does a fitness tracker do?

Unlike pedometers, which merely count the number of steps you take, or apps that use the Global Positioning System to track movement, fitness trackers generally use a three-axis accelerometer to measure motion, compute calories burned and monitor sleep patterns.

These trackers use Bluetooth or wired options in sync with users' smartphones to upload and display data via fitness tracker apps on smartphones, so users can track their daily fitness goals.

According to the National Physical Activity guidelines which are followed in Singapore and the United States, an adult should clock 150 minutes of exercise per week or walk 10,000 steps a day for a healthy lifestyle.

"Some form of measurement or tracking will be good as it helps us to keep track of what we have done and reminds us of our goals," said exercise physiologist Ray Loh of Tan Tock Seng's Sports Medicine and Surgery Clinic.

In the past, tracking an exercise regimen meant recording your workouts manually. Now, fitness trackers can document this automatically and analyse the data as well.

However, Mr Loh cautioned that such measurements by fitness trackers should be used only as a reference as there are too many factors affecting the results, such as whether one is using the device correctly.

TV host and sports presenter Kelly Latimer, 26, who wears the Nike+ FuelBand, feels it is "exceedingly important" to monitor her daily activity so that she knows when she falls short of her goal.

"I find it useful in motivating myself to get off my butt and do something about it," she said.

Many of these devices let users share their activity data with friends via social networking accounts.

"Social sharing creates peer pressure to achieve a worthy goal," said Mr Daniel Goh, 38, a small business owner who uses the Fitbit One. He particularly likes the leaderboard function, which enables him to see how he is faring as compared with his friends. One of them is an athletic friend who does marathons.

"I try to benchmark against her scores and I have beaten her only once," he said.

Mr Jonathon Collins, principal analyst at technology market research firm ABI Research, said: "This social side to collected data drives awareness, competition and interaction. This, in turn, drives further adoption."

Increasing global demand

ABI Research estimates that by 2018, manufacturers will ship some 93.8 million fitness trackers worldwide. According to the firm, 16.1 million fitness trackers were shipped worldwide in 2011. Last year, that number grew by 40 per cent to 22.6 million units. The market is estimated to grow by nearly 29 per cent annually.

Local tech retailer Nubox confirmed that it has benefited from this increase in demand for fitness trackers. Its business and marketing manager, Ms Evelyn Chua, estimated that sales of trackers have increased by some 20 per cent across all Nubox stores this year.

But it is not enough for the devices to have just good technical features. They also need to look good so that users will feel at ease wearing the trackers all day. Some users may be concerned that the devices will clash with what they are wearing. It was for that reason that Miss Elena Lim, 34, a public relations manager, settled on the Misfit Shine. "I was not keen to buy any of the other fitness trackers because they were hard to match with my outfits," she said.

Mr Shane Walker, associate director of medical devices and healthcare IT at market intelligence firm IHS, agrees. "As something that is visible, these devices need to have aesthetic appeal," he said.

But beyond aesthetics or social aspects, there will always be fitness buffs looking for ways to improve their fitness and stay healthy.

He said: "There are many people who are naturally inclined to take care of their health. They will continue to be a support base for this market over time."

trevtan@sph.com.sg


TREVOR TAN rounds up six of the latest fitness trackers


JAWBONE UP

Thin and trendy, this bendy wristband tracks your movements and sleep. Celebrities, such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Katy Perry, have been spotted wearing this stylish accessory.

A three-axis accelerometer and a vibration motor are wrapped in medical-grade hypoallergenic rubber, which is less likely to cause an allergic reaction. There are eight colours to choose from.

There is a silver button on one end of the wristband to switch between sleep and awake modes. By default, the device is in awake mode. You switch to sleep mode before going to bed, holding down the button until the band vibrates and a tiny moon icon on the band glows green.

At the other end of the Up is a removable cap that hides a 3.5mm jack. Use the included jack-to-USB adaptor for charging. The built-in rechargeable battery lasted 10 days on a single charge.

Sync the Up and your smartphone using the free Up app (available on iOS and Android) via the 3.5mm jack. Before using the app, you must first key in information such as gender, height and weight. After you sync the devices, you will be able to view your sleep pattern, steps taken and calories burned, on beautifully constructed colourful charts and statistics. The sleep pattern is interesting. You can see how long you spend in deep sleep and light sleep and how fast you fall asleep.

While the Up is unobtrusive, the lack of a display means you cannot know how many more steps you have to take to reach the ideal 10,000 steps a day. Also, as it is not a Bluetooth device, you have to take it off frequently to sync it with your smartphone. You need to be careful with it as it is not waterproof, although you can wash your hands while wearing it.

  • The Jawbone Up is rather expensive for a wristband that does not even tell the time. But it does a great job of tracking your steps and, especially, your sleep cycle.

TECH SPECS

Price: $189.90

Material: Hypoallergenic soft rubber

Connectivity: 3.5mm jack

Colours: Black, red, orange, grey, blue, navy blue, dark green and mint green

Weight: From 19g to 23g

RATING

Features: 3/5

Design: 3/5

Performance: 4/5 

Value for money: 3/5

Overall: 3/5


Nike+ FuelBand

The Nike+ FuelBand is the only fitness tracker among those featured here that is currently not available in Singapore, although you can get it from online retailer Amazon or if you happen to be in the United States. It is a rubberised wristband with a built-in three-axis accelerometer that measures motion. It comes in three sizes and three colours.

Included in the package are two extender links - an 8mm link already inserted in the band and an extra 16mm link - that you can add or remove to make the band a good fit.

The design is attractively seamless with only a single button and a stainless steel clasp, which has the USB connector on one side. When you press the button, a line of 20 coloured LED lights will show your daily progress from red to amber to green, as you become more active. Above this line is an array of 100 white LED lights showing the time, NikeFuel points (Nike's standard measurement of movement) earned, calories burned and steps taken. You can scroll through these with a push of the button.

The FuelBand must be set up before it can be used. On your Mac or PC, download and install the Nike+ Connect software.

Next, plug the FuelBand into a USB port on your computer, enter your vital statistics and set your daily goal of NikeFuel points. You charge the FuelBand using the USB connector. Each full charge is good for about four days.

You can sync it with your iOS device using a Nike+ FuelBand app (not available on Android) via Bluetooth to look at the detailed statistics. Or, connect it to the computer via a USB connection.

The downside? It will not monitor your sleep and it is not waterproof.

  • If monitoring sleep is not on your agenda, the Nike+ FuelBand is the fitness tracker to get with its attractive design, gorgeous LED lights and ease of usage.

TECH SPECS

Price: US$149 (S$186.94)

Material: Thermoplastic rubber with a stainless steel clasp

Connectivity: Bluetooth

Colours: Black, Black Ice and White Ice

Weight: 27g to 32g

RATING

Features: 3/5

Design: 5/5

Performance: 4/5 

Value for money: 4/5

Overall: 4/5


Fitbit Flex

A rubber wristband and a plastic rectangular tracker with a three-axis accelerometer built in make up this fitness tracker.

Bundled with it are a charging cable, a USB wireless sync dongle and two wristbands of different sizes - small (13.4g with tracker) and large (14.6g with tracker).

In the middle of the wristband is a holder into which you insert the tracker, which has five small LED indicator lights on top.

The daily default target is 10,000 steps. To check your progress, you double-tap the top of the device. Each lit indicator light represents 20 per cent of your target. Reach your target and the Flex vibrates as if in celebration.

To log your sleep pattern, tap the device five times on the top when you go to bed and repeat when you wake up.

The Flex is fairly resistant to water. It can withstand a dunking in a depth of up to 10m so you can swim while wearing it.

To sync it with your smartphone, download the Fitbit app (Android and iOS) and switch on Bluetooth. The app will automatically search for the Flex and sync with it. Pairing is not required. You can also sync the Flex with your computer using the wireless sync dongle.

When this process is completed, the Fitbit website or app will illustrate, in clear bright graphics, the calories burned, the number of steps taken and the duration of your sleep.

On the downside, charging the device requires you to remove it from the wristband. Battery life is about five days on a full charge.

This device is not a looker. It certainly does not look as sleek as the Nike+ FuelBand or the Misfit Shine. And it does not tell the time. But it is among the cheaper fitness trackers available.

  • The Fitbit Flex is probably the most well-rounded fitness tracker on the market in terms of price and functionality.

TECH SPECS

Price: $129

Material: Rubber wristband with plastic tracker

Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0

Colours: Black and slate. You can get three extra wristbands (teal, tangerine and navy) for $39.

Weight: 13.4g to 14.6g

RATING

Features: 4/5

Design: 3/5

Performance: 4/5 

Value for money: 4/5

Overall: 4/5


Misfit Shine

The Misfit Shine is a disc-shaped tracker made of anodised aluminium enclosing a three-axis accelerometer to track movements.

There are no physical buttons on Shine's matte surface or polished edges. Instead, there are 12 LED light indicators on its top, positioned like the numbers on a clock face.

To see your progress in reaching your daily target, double-tap its face. The LED indicators will then light up to show your progress. For example, if you have reached 25 per cent of your fitness target, three LED indicators will light up.

It tells the time too. If it is 4.15pm, the indicator light at the four o'clock position will light up first followed by the one at the three o'clock position.

Included in the package are a magnetic clip to secure the device to your pocket and a silicone wristband to let you wear the tracker like a watch. Unlike most fitness trackers that use rechargeable batteries, the Shine uses a CR2032 coin battery that is supposed to last four months.

But before you can use the Shine, you must first sync it with your iOS device (not available on Android). On the iOS device, switch on Bluetooth, launch the Shine app and tap the Sync option. On the Sync screen, a circle will appear. Hold the Shine against the circle to start syncing.

Your daily fitness goal could be to walk 10,000 steps. You can also configure your activity tag, such as sleeping, in addition to the daily fitness goal.

To track a specific activity, triple-tap Shine's face to start and end tracking. For example, if you want to track your sleep, triple-tap when you go to bed and triple-tap again when you wake up.

On the downside, the app lacks a social media element or fitness community website. It can also be stubbornly unresponsive to your tapping at times.

  • Although lacking in some functionality, the sleek design of the Misfit Shine makes it an obvious winner in the looks department.

TECH SPECS

Price: $169

Material: Anodised aluminium tracker with silicone wristband and magnetic clip

Connectivity: Bluetooth

Weight: 9.4g

RATING

Features: 4/5

Design: 5/5

Performance: 3/5 

Value for money: 3/5

Overall: 4/5


iHealth Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker

As its long name implies, this device has a built-in three-axis accelerometer that detects motion patterns and converts the information to steps taken, calories burned, distance travelled and sleep efficiency.

The data is displayed on its small screen and it tells the time, too. Press the button at the side to toggle between views. There is a micro-USB port at its rear.

About the size of a casino chip and at 14mm thick, the iHealth is quite bulky for a fitness tracker. Its plastic build makes it feel a little cheap.

It comes with two wristbands and two belt clips, in black and blue. So, it can be worn like a watch with the hypoallergenic rubber wristband which is safe for your skin.

The blue wristband and belt clip do not look good with the black fitness tracker. Even with the black wristband, it just appears ordinary.

You can set up the tracker using an iOS device via the iHealth MyVitals app (this tracker is compatible with only selected iOS devices). Turn on the Bluetooth of your device, start the app and follow the on-screen instructions. Once paired with your device, the tracker will connect automatically when you launch the app.

Once the tracker has been set up, you can wear it through the day. Before sleeping, set it up to track your sleep by holding down the button at the side for two seconds until sleep mode appears on the display. Repeat when you wake up to resume normal activity tracking.

The app breaks down the number of steps you took, the amount of sleep you had and the calories burned and shows the information on a simple graph on its main page. The device is splash-proof and sweat-proof but not waterproof.

  • For iPhone users, the device is a good fitness tracker if you do not mind its plastic build and ordinary looks.

TECH SPECS

Price: $129

Material: Plastic with hypoallergenic rubber wristband and belt clip

Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0

Colour: Black

Weight: 20g

RATING

Features: 4/5

Design: 2/5

Performance: 4/5 

Value for money: 3/5

Overall: 3/5


Withings Pulse

Slightly larger than an SD card and at only 8mm thick, the Withings Pulse packs plenty of features in a tiny package.

On its front is a 128 x 32 pixels Oled touchscreen display, with a heart rate sensor at the back.

On one side is a button for you to toggle the display mode; on the opposite side is a micro-USB port for charging. A single full charge can power the Pulse for about two weeks.

You need your smartphone to set up the device, via the Withings Health Mate app (Android and iOS).

Start by holding down the button for three seconds to pair it with your smartphone. Launch the app and follow the on-screen instructions.

A belt clip and a sleep wristband are bundled with the Pulse.

The matte rubber coat dims the Oled touchscreen. The touchscreen is also not very responsive. Adding the wristband would make it even more difficult to view and harder to execute the swipe commands.

The display, however, does show a wealth of information, including calories burned, elevation, steps taken and time. You can press the button to toggle from one mode to another.

To check your heart rate, toggle to a display mode showing a crescent moon and heart. Swipe down on the heart and place your finger on the heart rate sensor at the rear.

I found the readings to be quite inconsistent, with one reading showing 130 beats per minute and the next showing 80 beats per minute.

To monitor your sleep, swipe down on the crescent moon. The Pulse tracks how deep or light your sleep is.

This device can even tell if you are running or walking.

  • If you prefer to be conspicuous about tracking your activity, use the Withings Pulse with the belt clip. Despite being packed full of features such as a heart rate sensor, it has some features which do not work well.

TECH SPECS

Price: $189

Material: Plastic with rubber coating

Connectivity: Bluetooth

Colour: Black

Weight: 8g

RATING

Features: 5/5

Design: 3/5

Performance: 3/5 

Value for money: 3/5

Overall: 3/5

Background story

New tech from Apple to rival fitness trackers?

At last month's Apple event in Cupertino, California, one feature of the iPhone 5s that stood out was its M7 motion co-processor. The M7 chip measures motion data using the iPhone 5s' accelerometer, gyroscope and compass.

Thus, unlike other fitness apps that use Global Positioning System, apps that utilise the M7 can track runs and workouts more accurately.For example, it will be able to tell if you are actually running or if you are only sitting inside a fast-moving car.

Showcased at the Apple event, the Nike+ Move was described as the first app to use the M7. But Nike was quick to point out that it was only an "introductory experience" in the Nike+ ecosystem. Without the Nike+ Move app, which is yet to be released, it is hard to make a comparison of a motion app using the M7 chip against a dedicated fitness tracker.

If the M7 really does what it has been touted to do, it will give dedicated fitness trackers a run for their money.