“Sitting too much  could kill you!” Alarming headlines this past month once again scared health conscious readers as journalists reported another new study showing a correlation between sitting time and death.

Of course, just because you work a desk job doesn’t mean you are going to keel over tomorrow if you don’t change careers to something on your feet and more physical… say, lumberjack… or postal delivery person, for example.

However, the data is real – and it’s clear: For people who continue with their desk potato ways and do not at least counterbalance it with more walking and physical activity, their risk of getting sick, weak and fat in the coming years really does go up. Fortunately, as I mentioned in part 1 and in previous articles, there are some neat little gadgets that might help motivate you to get off your butt and walk more. Today I review the Fit Bit…

What is a Fit Bit and what does it do?

The Fit Bit is basically a tricked-out pedometer. Pedometers are small, portable electronic devices that measure how many steps you take each day and display the number on the digital readout.

Why would you want to know that? Because if you sit on your butt too much (low step count), you are more likely to get fat, sick and (according to the latest research), die younger. If you are physically active (high step count), you are more likely to get leaner, healthier and live longer.  A commonly recommended daily step goal which qualifies you as “not a desk potato / couch potato” is 10,000 steps per day.

While a basic pedometer does nothing but track your steps taken, the Fit Bit has been souped up with all kinds of extra fancy features: It’s even a sleep quality tracker. By attaching the device to the wristband, it monitors how many times and how long you wake up during the night (thereby telling you not only how long you’ve slept but how well you’ve slept). I haven’t used the sleep tracking function, so I can’t review that feature, but it could be valuable for some people because of how important sleep quality is for good health, peak performance and even for body composition.

Fit Bit is a small electronic device, about the size of your thumb, and you can slip it into your pocket, or clip it onto your clothes, belt or bra (the entire device is actually a clip – in fact, it kind of looks like a money clip). The size is worth mentioning. On the pro side, many people who have used larger and bulkier pedometers (or a bodybugg) said they loved the small size of the Fit Bit device. On the con side, some people express frustration in how easy it is to lose this thing, or forget it was in your pocket when you do your laundry – I’ve heard that one quite often. (Note: you can get a leash for your fit bit if you are prone to lose little things).

Does the Fit Bit work well?

Tech gadgets don’t always do what’s advertised… or they have bugs of one kind or another. How well does the Fit Bit do its job?

I’ve honestly never been a gadget guy before and I’m definitely a late adopter on everything  (a good practice in the fitness world, usually). The one basic pedometer I (briefly) had some experience with before, required you to take a test walk to measure your actual strides – that’s how you calibrated it.  All pedometers are accelerometers (they detect motion), but the Fit Bit is billed as a 3-D accelerometer (which, I believe, means it monitors motion in all directions). With the Fit Bit, I simply registered on the website, and by entering my personal data, including my height, into the fitbit website, I believe that is how it measures steps more accurately.

As best as I can tell (looking at the readout as I walk and or counting the steps and comparing to the numbers), the Fit Bit tracks step count perfectly – 100% accurate or near to it – at least it has for me. Of course, I did hear this from a reader on the Burn the Fat facebook page: He said his Fit Bit registered 4000 “steps” while he was mowing the lawn … on the riding lawnmower. I thought that was pretty funny.

This also made me wonder: The most steps I’ve ever taken in a day since I’ve had the Fit Bit is 52,839 (a full day hike). The Fit Bit also said 23.9 miles (entire day’s total).  A friend of mine who is only a couple inches taller, said he did 37,000 steps and that was 26 miles.  We were both a  little puzzled by that. Maybe I have short legs or maybe it was all the climbing I was doing (short steps up and downhill? I dunno).

Speaking of hills, Fit bit is also an altimeter (it tracks elevation), and being as I am on the 6th floor, I found that stair steps are tracked perfectly too and it translates that into floors climbed for you (yes, I have in fact been taking the stairs more). On that note, Fit Bit does track steps on a stairmaster as well – the stepmill and the regular stairclimber – though I’m not certain what constitutes an “official” stairstep considering how much you can vary your stride range of motion on those machines (and you can double step or single step on stairs.

Oddly enough, the Fit Bit even ticked off a step with every revolution I pedaled on an exercise bike as well (fit bit in pants pocket), even though I was stationary.  Should a pedal revolution count as a “step?” People debate about the use of a “step counter” on a bike, but if you don’t like it, just take the thing off while you’re riding. No idea how it works while riding a regular bike outdoors. Didn’t try that yet. (Post in the comments if you have any feedback on that).

The fit bit also tracks and displays calories burned, but like most calorie expenditure formulas,  it’s an estimation based on your height, weight and number of steps.  The calories burned readout appears to correlate very well with the same calorie calculation formulas we use in Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. I do however, suspect it may under estimate for athletes or bodybuilders such as myself, who carry a larger than normal amount of lean body mass. That’s not an entirely bad thing though. Considering most people over estimate their calories burned, if you err, it would be better for your weight management efforts to err on the low side.

Also, I’m not sure the FitBit calorie tracking function should be relied on to track your caloric expenditure with 100% accuracy when you do a lot of weight training. Some devices, such as the body bugg, are more than accelerometers – they can track the calorie burn of all types of exercise more directly based on galvanic skin response and body temperature (Body Bugg is strapped right onto your skin via armband). The Fit Bit doesn’t do that. If I’m deadlifting, I’m not taking any steps, but I’m surely burning a lot more calories than if I were walking. All things considered, the calorie estimation is pretty good, especially since it’s an altimeter and it can factor in the higher energy expenditure when climbing uphill. My highest day: 5875 calories burned (full afternoon of hiking up and down rolling hills).

What kind of extra goodies come with the basic pedometer (step-counting) function?

The Fit Bit display gives you the following data each day in real time: steps taken, calories burned, floors climbed, miles traveled. It also has a clock for the time of day and there is a stopwatch function that may come in handy. After you have uploaded your daily info to the site, you can view all your stats online too. Just one little complaint about the display: You can’t see it in bright sunlight.

The unit comes with a docking base that you plug into your computer via USB port. There is a wireless connection which automatically uploads your daily stats to the website when you walk within 15 feet of the docking base. Nice feature. When docked, it also charges the battery. The battery life is pretty darn good (days not hours), which is a welcome relief since I am never-endingly irritated at how short the battery life is on my cell phone and laptop.

Fit Bit also comes with free access to their website, which offers a variety of  tracking, accountability and motivation tools. I don’t use the food tracking feature but that’s because I had my software engineers build our own Burn The Fat meal planning software for our Burn the Fat Inner Circle members, so now I’m totally spoiled and will never need or use another piece of nutrition tracking software but our own. However, some people may find the Fit Bit web tools a nice value -added bonus.

I have heard many times that Body Bugg users are very happy customers, but they wish they didn’t have to pay a monthly fee, while Fit Bit owners are pleased to get use of the website free if they purchase the $99 device. There is a Premium membership for Fit Bit too, but its half the price and optional (optional enough that I didn’t even try it yet).

Will using a pedometer really motivate you to get up off your butt and move more?

I’m going to talk more about the motivation and accountability provided by using devices like the Fit Bit in the next part of this article series, but some of the web features are very motivating indeed, as well as fun.

There is a social element with the message board and ability to connect with friends to share stats and set challenges.  You can also see charts and graphs of your progress and even track your body weight as well. The coolest part, in my opinion, is the groups and leaderboards. If you’re competitive and you like a challenge among friends, you will love that.

With various levels of accomplishment, you are awarded badges recognizing your achievement. Every time you crack another 5000 steps, you get another badge. It’s just a little knick knack, but who doesn’t like awards? I have to mention though, that when I had my first 45,000 step day and I didn’t get a badge, I was rather perturbed. Then I cracked 50,0000. No badge again.

Being double perturbed, I emailed fit bit support and they replied  and apologized that they only gave badges up to 40,000. To their credit, they replied immediately and said “we take your requests seriously and will pass this on to our engineers.” We will see what happens. I know most people rarely do 40K steps in a day, but what about runners and hikers? I do it so rarely that… well… I want my 45K and 50K badges.. dagnabit!

Well, at least I got a “helicopter” badge for hitting over 500 floors… and “skydiver” badge for hitting 1000… and 432 floors in one day – got me a shiny badge for that too.

I almost forgot. Your Fit Bit talks to you. Not verbally (its silent, doesn’t even beep), but with text messages. Imagine my surprise when I took the thing out of my pocket and set it on the table. A couple seconds later, the display readout texted, “Walk me Venuto!” “Go go go Venuto!” It got a little weird when it said, “Hug me Venuto!” “Hold me Venuto!” But I admit it, that was strangely amusing and almost motivated me to take her for a walk.

Bottom line:

The Fit Bit has it’s quirks and like any electronic device, people are bound to see technical glitches on occasion that will color their entire experience with the gadget and prompt an emotional 1 star review. Me? I rate it 5 stars and I’m a fan. I think the time was right too because I’ve spent years in the gyms lifting weights and doing cardio machines, and these days, I prefer pumping iron in the gym but going outdoors for much more of my”cardio,” getting out of town for hilly hikes whenever I can or walking The Hudson Riverfront walkway when I’m near home (best views of NYC skyline!)

Someone on a tight budget who simply wants to count steps could find a cheaper device. My training partner even informed me that some smart phones are now being equipped with pedometers and syncing up with various apps. He wondered why you would need a Fit Bit if you have a step counter on your phone. But for me the Fit Bit’s features and performance justify its $99 price, and for anyone who uses the full suite of features including the website, it is surely well worth it.

In the 3rd and final part of this series –  and that’s where it will get really interesting –  I’ll answer the question:  is the fit bit or a pedometer effective as a motivation tool? Will it make you more aware of your couch potato/ desk potato ways and more accountable to walking more? Will it help you lose weight and keep it off? Would it even help a guy like me – a bodybuilder – who is already motivated and training plenty in the gym?

I’ll also show you the results of some of my many “NEAT” experiments and tell you what the Fit Bit has to do with crack addicts. Read part 3 to find out:

PART 3: My NEAT Step Experiment: Move a Little, Lose A Lot

– Train hard and expect success,

Tom Venuto

PS. Disclosure: I like the fitbit so much, I’m now an affiliate of the company. So if you click through my links, I make a commission on the purchase (“It’ll buy me a protein shakes”).  Please note however, that my views and ANY of my product recommendations are only my opinion, so while I’d like to think you’ll trust my recommendations, always do your own due diligence before buying anything on the Internet.

PPS. For some fascinating additional information on N.E.A.T. (non exercise activity thermogenesis) and the importance of high activity levels and step counts (including the reason why the Amish can eat pie, gravy and lots of carbs and still stay thin), be sure to check out The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin Books, NYC), chapter 7 in particular. The book got the thumbs up from Oprah Magazine and the Wall Street Journal (book review) and is in print in kindle, paperback, hardcopy and audio editions:

The Body Fat Solution By Tom Venuto (trade paperback)
The Body Fat Solution By Tom Venuto (hardcover)
The Body Fat Solution by Tom Venuto (kindle)

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