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August 29, 2013
Maybe you’ve spotted them on the wrists of other gym members, or maybe your running partner sports one, but Activity Recording Devices are fitness’s newest fashion trend. While we’ve had the technology to monitor exercise and sleep patterns through electronic wristbands for more than a decade, only recently have we seen its mass consumption.

The question is whether these devices accurately determine activity level, calories burned and sleep quality. I’ve taken a look at three of the leading fit-tech gadgets and will weigh in accordingly. They are: the FitBit Flex, the Jawbone UP and the Nike FuelBand.

FitBit Flex is the most popular unit, and at $99 it’s the most affordable of the bunch. This sleek and flexible rubber-made wristband works well for highly active individuals. Perhaps the Flex’s biggest upside is that it automatically syncs data to a smart phone through bluetooth technology. It is armed with five small LED lights to let you know when you’ve reached your predetermined activity goal. The Flex also logs sleep patterns, and can even “silently” wake you with a gentle vibration. One setback is that its battery life is just five days, the shortest lifespan of the three wristbands, at which point the batteries must be charged by USB.

Jawbone UP is a close second in popularity, and its retail price is $130. Its design is masculine and is aesthetically pleasing, however its band is stiffer which does not translate to durability; the greatest complaint of the Jawbone UP is that it’s more likely to be damaged from overuse. Its battery life is twice as long as the FitBit Flex — it gets about 10 days before it must be recharged. However, to upload your activity and sleep stats to a permanent record, you must manually plug your wristband to a smartphone or computer. As for sleep monitoring, the Jawbone UP boasts it can silently wake you at the ideal time of lighter sleep that’s no more than thirty minutes before you set your alarm. (If you enjoy hitting the “snooze button,” you can forget about it here!)

The design of Nike’s FuelBand appears futuristic, even glamorous. Its higher price tag of $149 may well be because the FuelBand is the only fitness-monitoring device with a digital display, and it doubles as a watch. Then again, the premium could also be for the Nike brand name. Either way, this device works on a point system that, to most users, is a bit ambiguous and unintelligible.

Though rumors are it will soon be compatible with Android devices, as of now the FuelBand only works with Apple iPhones. Likewise it is not equipped with bluetooth for wireless syncing nor does it track sleep activity. An upside is that the FuelBand’s battery life is more than 20 days.

Still, the underlying question remains: Do they work?

The “science” behind all of these devices is that they are equipped with accelerometers that record your activity. It appears, however, that what they log as “activity” is simply a tally of total steps taken, distance travelled, and, based on your body composition, they compute how many calories you’ve burned. Of course, this begs the question: What of measuring stationary exercises like bike riding or yoga?

There are several key data points these technologies fail to monitor, as they only record wrist movements. Heart rate or skin temperatures are much better indicators of caloric expenditure as they measure effort the user exerts. Word is that newer models will be equipped with such varied tools, but even then there will be a margin of error.

Personally, I view these products as novelties that bring awareness to your lifestyle; that is, with them you’ll receive acknowledgment of your activity, but the responsibility of doing the work remains up to you.

What’s exciting is that we are at the dawn of this trend. As these devices draw on other data and methods of monitoring activity levels, we will get more accurate and useful feedback.

Additionally, these gadgets make exercise more social, more stylish, and there’s nothing negative from promoting a healthy lifestyle. Live well.

Mike Hackett holds a Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science and is an American Council on Exercise’s certified personal trainer. He is also the proprietor of Mike Hackett and Syphus Training LLC in St. Clair Shores. He can be reached at (313) 407-6656 or e-mail at Hack1913@hotmail.com. E-mail Hackett with health questions or topics.

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