Tracking my activity & sleep with the Fitbit

From the first moment I came across the Fitbit, I wanted one. A gadget to track how active I am and how much I sleep? Sign me up! The FAQ does a good job of describing what the Fitbit Tracker is:

The Fitbit Tracker contains a motion sensor like the ones found in the Nintendo Wii. The Tracker senses your motion in three dimensions and converts this into useful information about your daily activities. The Tracker measures the intensity and duration of your physical activities, calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled, how long it took you to fall asleep, the number of times you woke up throughout the night and how long you were actually asleep vs just lying in bed. You can wear the Tracker loosely in your pocket or clipped to your clothing, even bras.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Fitbit doesn’t allow orders if you live in Canada, so that’s why I had never purchased one. But recently I came across a tweet from a fellow Canadian who said that he had successfully ordered a Fitbit by emailing the company. I gave it a shot, and was very pleased with the service! They took my credit card information over the phone, and a week or so later, my Fitbit arrived.

Fitbit

The Fitbit tracker is pretty small. If I’m wearing shorts or sweat pants around the house, I wear it on the waistband. When I’m wearing jeans, I attach the Fitbit to the small coin pocket. It’s very much a clip-it-and-forget-it kind of gadget. At night I use the provided wristband (which feels like it is really cheaply made but it gets the job done).

By default the Fitbit tracks the number of steps you take, the distance travelled, your “activity score”, and the number of calories you burn. At night you put it into activity mode before you go to sleep (by holding down the one button until the device says “Start”) and then it tracks the amount of time you’re asleep and the number of times you wake up. You can also use the website to track the number of calories you consume, your weight, heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels, and more. The Fitbit comes with a small USB base station that I leave plugged into my computer. Anytime I come within a few feet of the base station, the Fitbit wirelessly syncs the data up to the website. My only nitpick here is that you need to check the website to see the battery level of the device – it would be better if it could appear on the device itself. On the plus side, it easily lasts over a week without charging.

One of the first things I did was check the number of steps it was recording. I’d count 100 steps and check to see if the Fitbit got it right. The most it was ever off on these tests was two or three steps, so it’s pretty accurate. You can enter stride length and other settings in your profile, but I haven’t bothered.

I started out tracking my food on the website too, but that didn’t last long. I found it too cumbersome to find foods or create new ones to match what I’m eating. I don’t feel any need or desire to count calories, so I guess it’s one area where you get out what you put in! I am tracking weight, body fat %, and body water %, however. I picked up a scale that calculates all of those things for $30, so it’s trivial to step on it in the morning and record the results.

The website is pretty great at visualizing the data it records, and it even lets you compare with other Fitbit users. But they also offer an API. I used the awesome script from here to get all the data via the API into a spreadsheet to create the charts below.

Here are the number of steps recorded for each day since I got the Fitbit:

On average I have been doing 9359 steps per day, just under my goal of 10,000 per day. Of course there are good days and bad days, as you can see!

Here are the number of hours I have slept each night:

My average during this time period is 6 hours, 45 minutes, again with some days better than others. The Fitbit also tracks how long it took you to fall asleep. That has just verified what I already knew: I can usually fall asleep in minutes!

Here are the number of awakenings per night:

I’m not entirely certain what an “awakening” is. Did I just toss and turn enough for it to register? Generally I don’t wake up very often, though it looks like I had a few restless nights.

Another thing the Fitbit tracks is your activity score, which is based on how active you are. It also records this by category. Here’s the average breakdown for me during the last few weeks:

What this means is that 71% of the time I am awake, I’m not moving very much. I guess this isn’t surprising – I know I could be more active! I walk quite a bit, but that’s about it. A lot of my time is spent on the computer. In fact, I know exactly how much time:

I use RescueTime to track my computer usage, so I was able to compare the data. Of the time that the Fitbit recorded I was sedentary, 47% of it was spent on the computer. The rest of the time would be eating, reading, watching TV, driving, coffee meetings, etc.

It’s probably too early to say that the Fitbit has had an impact on my activity or sleep, though there have been days where Sharon and I decided to go for a walk just so I could get closer to 10,000 steps. And I did buy the scale because of the Fitbit. So at least now I know where I stand!

I imagine one day all of this and more will be tracked automatically without needing to wear a little device (who knows what they’ll come up with). Until then, there’s the Fitbit. I’m really happy with it so far, and I would definitely recommend it!

  • daveberta

    Wow. Human analytics. This kind of technology is fascinating, hilarious, and concerning all at the same time. Thanks for sharing, Mack.

  • Did they say why they don’t ship to Canada when you ordered it? Seems weird…

    • Couldn’t ever get a straight answer. The FAQ on the website says something about wireless testing requirements.

    • George Wenzel

      The odd thing is that they DO ship to Canada (I ordered one last week), yet they just don’t let you order via their website and request shipping to Canada.  Unfortunately they also charge $15 to ship up here even though USA shipping is free.  Not too expensive, but still more than our southern friends.

      • I just ordered it via their website to Canada and there was no shipping charge. The total was 99.95 USD. Sadly our dollar isn’t in our favour at the moment, so it came to about 102 CAD, but still, pretty reasonable and had I waited a for our dollar to bounce back up it would have been a little cheaper.

  • George Wenzel

    Thanks for the summary, Mack! I’m eagerly awaiting a Fitbit in the mail within the next week or so.  In 2008 I started tracking my weight online using the Hacker’s Diet Online, and in 2009 I started tracking my running using Runkeeper.  I’ve found the whole idea of the “Quantified Self” to be fascinating, and it’s great that some of these tools let you track your personal metrics with a minimum of fussing or having to manually enter data.

    I don’t know if these tools work for other people, but for me helped me drop about 35 pounds and go from a non-runner to competing in races (my first 1/2 marathon is next weekend).  For a guy who was always an overweight nerd growing up, it’s quite a change!

    • That’s awesome! I think these kinds of tools can definitely have an impact, but you still have to be willing to make a change. Like I said, knowing where you’re at is important, and that’s the main value these tools provide. If it wasn’t so automated, I probably wouldn’t bother.

  • I now know far too much about Mastermaq. More than I even know about myself.

  • Al

    That’s pretty cool. A guy I work with had an app on his iPhone that would monitor his sleeping habits I think by sensing the amount of movement while he slept. It would wake him up when it had decided he had the optimum amount of sleep. Gonna have to show him this.

  • Roshan

    That looks like a great gadget to have.