and whether it motivates him to reach his fitness goals.
From my personal experience, my clinical work with patients who can’t exercise, and by studying exercise physiology research, I’ve learned one thing: too much sitting is very bad for your health. The human body was made to move.
So what’s the ultimate way to get going? As it turns out, it’s easy.
The American lifestyle is built around cars. It’s not that we’re lazy, but we hardly walk at all any more because we drive everywhere. Even in towns that would be wonderful places for walkers, there may be no sidewalks or bicycle lanes.
New York and Berkeley are the only two walk-friendly cities I’ve experienced. Washington D.C. has some walkers and bikers, and a big personal fitness culture, but in the evening, the streets go quiet. A few other cities in California, as well as Portland and Seattle, are known for an active population, but they are still not walker-friendly places. People hike, ski, surf, and bike, but they often drive to trail heads or beaches. Even Austin, one of the hippest cities in the U.S., is mostly traversed by car, not on foot.
In contrast, European cities are built around humans, not cars. Paris is made for walking and the entire country of the Netherlands is a bicycle heaven. City roads are pedestrian friendly, and bike lanes are safe and wide. I work part of every year in Peru and walk everywhere, and so does everyone else.
Recently, I wanted to make some personal fitness changes, so I set new goals for myself: (1) sit less, (2) move more, and (3) increase my regular routine of 35 minutes of vigorous exercise daily to 60 minutes.
The exercise part was easy. I scheduled more time at the gym and on the yoga mat. As a writer and researcher, however, sitting is an occupational hazard. Getting up and standing or walking around more was the challenge.
I also wanted to find a way for my patients to track their personal health perimeters, like activity and calories, so I could better monitor their biometrics. But I didn’t want them to throw money away on something that didn’t work. I thought I’d take on the challenge myself and see how difficult, or easy, it was.
Trying the Fitbit
I’ve been following fitness trackers and activity monitoring devices for months, but wasn’t satisfied with the reviews I read. As a subscriber to Wired Magazine, I read about Fitbit. In 2012, they wrote that fitness trackers were all over the map. In the summer of 2013, devices were getting better. I decided to get one.
Options included fitness watches, a pocket gadget, and one that fits into a waterproof wristband. I bought the wristband version called Fitbit Flex. The Flex™ is a wireless activity and sleep wristband monitor. Actually, it’s a small monitor that you slip in and out of a rubber wristband. It uses a low-energy Bluetooth connection to communicate with a USB dongle connected to your computer, which also charges the mini battery in the device. It can also read directly to your iPhone or some Android smartphones.
You check your progress with the app on your phone or on your computer when it’s Internet connected, but have to tap the device itself to activate the sensor indicated by tiny LED lights, which then communicates to your phone or computer to indicate how far along toward your goal you are. Application is simpler than it sounds.
Flex uses a MEMS 3-axis accelerometer that detects your motion patterns to determine calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, and sleep quality. Within the last several years, Nike, Polar and other companies have produced and marketed sports watches for runners with accelerometers to help determine the speed and distance for the runner wearing the unit. This kind of technology has been adapted for people who are not avid athletes, but who want a way to monitor healthy habits. In Belgium, accelerometers are used as step counters and promoted by the government to encourage people to walk a few thousand steps each day.
Fitbit is not a sports watch company, but utilizes an accelerometer contained in a device that’s smaller than a standard USB drive that counts the number of steps you take and then grades the intensity of those steps. The Fitbit webpage is easy to understand and interesting. The dashboard has graphics for number of steps taken, intensity of those steps, a graph of the time of day you took the steps, calories burned, and information about your sleep rhythms.
Wearable products have come a long way in a few years. Digital sensors and wireless technology have advanced to a point where they can bring amazing experiences to those who want greater participation in their fitness and health. Their claim is that users “take 43% more steps with Fitbit.” I would agree. Activity monitors help empower people by increasing awareness of too much sitting and motivate them to move more by providing objective data on activity levels. It provided me with the visual feedback I needed to sit less.
My Daily Pattern
Much as I expected, when I sit writing or reading, the graph remains quiescent. Taking a nap doesn’t even register on the graph. Getting up and moving around adds light activity steps. Walking fast with my dog Jet, an incredible all black Havanese, earns some moderately active steps shown by yellow lines, and jogging gets in to the green with very active minutes.
The goal is to take 10,000 steps a day. But, 5,000 steps is desirable. On an average day, when I’m at my desk for a large part of the workday, I get in at least 6,000 steps, the equivalent of about 3 miles. Adding a long walk, or a treadmill workout, helps me reach the 10,000 steps.
But don’t expect it to measure every activity. It’s great for walking and does okay with bicycling, but it didn’t pick up on my Ashtanga yoga practice. Even after twenty sun salutations the orange lines on the graph remained quiet. It also doesn’t pick up swimming strokes either, which I do a couple of time a week. And, it didn’t measure martial arts moves like a Chen Style Tai Chi routine, which can be vigorous, or when I did 50 pushups. It also didn’t pick up my daily inversions practice of headstand or with an inversion swing that suspends you head down from the ankles. Even lifting weights doesn’t count as steps taken. And, it doesn’t monitor heart rate.
On the upside, it’s a cool tool that provides information in the form of steps taken by level of intensity from light, moderate, to very active. There is a calorie counter that estimates how much energy you’ve burned during the day. This is particularly good for people wanting to lose weight. It’s useful in motivating more movement and less sitting, so you feel better about yourself.
On the downside, the sleep monitor requires a reset when you turn in for the night that I find annoying because if you forget to do it, you get no information in the morning. Syncing the device requires tapping and fiddling that can also be annoying.
In my opinion, the perfect fitness tracker would be slim, light, and waterproof like the Flex. It would measure steps taken and intensity, but also other activities like bicycling, swimming, weight training, and yoga. It would have an amazing dashboard accessible on your personal computer, smart phone, or tablet. The wireless connection would be free of glitches and annoying bugs. It would measure heart rate, count calories, take your temperature, and it would be nice if it gave an accurate blood pressure. And, it would be compatible with cloud-based electronic medical records so my patient’s biometrics would show up in their e-folder, serving as a way for me to keep track on their progress.
Maybe I’m asking too much. But, I’m hopeful and keep looking for the newest and next best thing. For now, I’ve got to get up from my desk and water the plants, then take Jet around the block one more time to get my 10,000 steps in for today.
To learn more, read my blog about the negative effects of sitting: “Five Ways Sitting Down Can Kill You.”