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Tech Savvy: Getting a bit more fit

For a long time, as people around me started getting fitness trackers and espousing their benefits, I refused to join them. In fact, I staunchly declared I would never get one, as I couldn't imagine wearing something around my wrist as I exercise...

Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch The Fitbit app provides a summary of steps taken each day, so users can check their progress.
Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch The Fitbit app provides a summary of steps taken each day, so users can check their progress.

For a long time, as people around me started getting fitness trackers and espousing their benefits, I refused to join them.

In fact, I staunchly declared I would never get one, as I couldn't imagine wearing something around my wrist as I exercised.

If you read my previous Tech Savvy story on e-books, you can probably sense where I'm going with this one. I recently purchased a Fitbit and have been wearing it for a few weeks now. It's early, but I think my turnaround on fitness trackers is complete.

First steps

I had been mulling the merits of getting a fitness tracker for a couple of months before finally diving in. I realize fitness trackers and smartwatches are going to become more mainstream and at some point, they'll reach a point where a majority of people, not a minority, have them. I'd like to work through the learning curve with something simpler, instead of trying to figure out a complex device in the future.

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For a while, I had been intrigued by the Apple Watch, but had been turned off by its price point. I also wasn't sure about wearing a device that would display all my email, text and other notifications. I'm not insanely popular, by any means, but I'm not jazzed about my wrist vibrating every time someone sends me a press release.

My mother, father and sister all have Fitbits, so I started looking at fitness trackers instead of a more feature-rich smartwatch. It also helps the most expensive tracker in the Fitbit lineup is about $100 cheaper than the least expensive Apple Watch. I checked out other brands of fitness trackers, but the prevalence of the Fitbit brand and the user-friendliness of its app were two big things that attracted me.

My initial research led me to zero in on the Fitbit Charge HR and the Fitbit Alta, both of which have their respective benefits. They have similar features, but the Charge HR has slightly more, which makes sense, because it's about $20 more expensive.

Both trackers record steps taken, calories burned, distance covered, track sleep and active minutes, which are essentially the minutes you spend exercising each day. The Charge HR won points from me for keeping track of floors climbed and having a continuous heart rate monitor.

Aesthetically speaking, the Alta is a more fashion-forward tracker with a better-looking display and a thinner band. However, the Charge HR has a strap buckle clasp which seems and feels more secure than the Alta's simple pop-in clasp. Fitbit boasts the Charge HR is its best-selling fitness tracker, which also helped push me toward the Charge HR over the Alta.

I was most interested in how a Fitbit would fit in with my current exercise routine. I'm a relatively active person and my current routine is to run three to four times a week and lift weights twice a week. I wanted to see how the Fitbit would track my runs while understanding it probably wouldn't do as well while I lifted weights.

Getting started

Unboxing and setting up my Fitbit Charge HR was quite easy and I was impressed with how user-friendly it was. Most of the setup is handled through Fitbit's app, which is available on iOS, Google Play, Windows Store, rotary phone and toaster oven. OK, OK, it's not available on rotary phone or on your toaster oven, but it is available on pretty much any platform you could have.

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The app prompts you to enter your height, weight and some other basic information about yourself. You set up an account and are prompted to connect with other contacts who use Fitbit. This is a pretty cool feature, in that you can compete against your friends in a variety of challenges and prompt each other to stay active.

The app's main dashboard includes a variety of different widgets, where you can track weekly exercise, water intake, heart rate, weight, sleep and what you eat. All of your basic stats-steps, floors, miles, calories and minutes-are right at the top of the screen. Each is represented by a circle which fills up as you make progress on that goal. Once the goal is reached, the circle's color changes from blue to green and there's a celebratory animation.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out how easy it is to track workouts using a Fitbit. Simply push and hold a button on the side of the Fitbit Charge HR to start a workout and the tracker does the rest. After you're done, you can open the app and classify the type of workout from the lengthy list of workout types and see the stats from your workout.

The Charge HR doesn't have built-in GPS tracking, but it can connect to your smartphone's GPS to track location during a run, walk or hike. I usually don't bring my phone with me when I go for a run, but I've started making use of this feature by throwing my phone in a fanny pack when I go for a run.

Connected GPS is helpful, because you get a more accurate picture of your run, along with information on mile splits. The first couple of runs without it, I noticed my Fitbit said I ran around 4.4 miles on a route I knew was 4 miles. Because it wasn't using GPS, the Fitbit tracked my steps and multiplied that number by what it had my running stride length set at, to arrive at the 4.4 mile figure. Once I started using connected GPS, though, my Fitbit has started tracking the run at the correct 4-mile distance.

I decided to start slow and not try and use all the Fitbit's tracking features right off the bat. I started with the basic goal stats like steps and calories burned that the Fitbit tracks automatically. I also started logging my water intake, which is something I hadn't done before. Drinking enough water throughout the day is key for good health and the water logging feature helps push you to make sure you're drinking enough water.

In the past few days, I started tracking what I eat in the Fitbit app as well. I had only tried doing this a couple of times before in different apps, but never stuck with it longer than a few days. The Fitbit app has a handy barcode scanner you can use to easily enter food you purchase, but I'd imagine it's harder to log items when you go to a restaurant. I've stuck with it so far, but I'll be interested in seeing how long I keep it up.

A couple concerns

While I've enjoyed using my Fitbit Charge HR so far, there are a few things I would like to change if I could.

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Fitbit claims the Charge HR battery lasts up to 5 days on a single charge, but also provides the caveat that "battery life and charge cycles vary with use, settings and many other factors; actual results will vary." What this essentially means is 5 days of battery life is a pipe dream and users should be prepared to charge their Fitbit more often.

I charge my Fitbit every other night while I sleep, so I'm not making use of its sleep tracking feature yet. I've noticed during the second day on one charge, the battery starts to read "Medium," which leads to another criticism of the battery.

The battery life is only available through the app, you can't see how much battery is left on the Fitbit itself. The amount of battery left isn't shown as a percentage, either. The only options are "Full," "Medium" and "Low." I'm not sure how much battery I have left when it hits "Low," so that's why I charge the Fitbit when it reaches "Medium."

Another thing I noticed ties back to using connected GPS to get an accurate assessment of my runs. Fitbit has a default setting for your walking and running stride length, which is based on your height. If you don't tweak these a little, you may find your Fitbit inaccurately reporting the distance you travel during the day.

Impact

For someone who was so opposed to fitness trackers before getting one, I've quickly become obsessed with tracking my steps and daily activity. There's only been one day so far when I didn't reach my step goal for the day and I still get a nice little boost when I see myself reaching my step, distance or active minutes goal.

Even though I work in an office, I've still found it relatively easy to reach the preset 10,000 steps per day goal. I've started going on a short walk on my lunch break and a short walk when I get home from work, if it's nice. Between that and my daily workout, I can hit 10,000 steps pretty easily.

Wearing a Fitbit has made me more aware of my sedentary time throughout the day and has caused me to get up and walk more throughout the day. At work, this might mean taking a short walk around the building or to the break room. At home, I'll get up and walk around my apartment every half-hour or so, so I'm not sitting in one spot for too long. I didn't set up the hourly notification reminders to tell me to get up and walk, but it's still enough of a reminder to look at my wrist and see it there, silently telling me to get up and move a bit.

Overall, I'm happy with my choice of fitness tracker and glad I made the jump into the fitness tracker world. My Fitbit Charge HR isn't perfect, but I knew that would be the case when I bought it. I'm happy with Fitbit's app and could see myself upgrading to a more robust tracker like the Fitbit Blaze or the Fitbit Surge in the future.

My advice to anyone else looking to get their first fitness tracker or smartwatch is to do your research beforehand. For me, this included reading user reviews online, checking out Fitbit's own online forums and checking with people I knew who had a Fitbit Charge HR already. It's also important to keep in mind fitness trackers and smartwatches are relatively new technology. You're not going to find a perfect one, so try to determine what features matter most to you and find a device that does those the best.

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