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Activity trackers motivate users to stay active

Ryan Carlson (left), a personal trainer at Choice Health & Fitness in Grand Forks, N.D., wears an activity tracker, as does his client Jesse Roberts, as Carlson puts Roberts through a workout. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD 1 / 3
Ryan Carlson' Nike Fuelband activity tracker displays the number of steps he takes in a day. JOHN SETNNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD2 / 3
High-tech activity trackers have replaced the old pedometers and can track steps taken, calories burned, stairs climbed, and hours and quality of sleep, among other things. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD 3 / 3

These high-tech devices come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, but they all have the same goal: help users monitor their time spent active and inactive throughout the day.

Ryan Carlson, a personal trainer at Choice Health & Fitness in Grand Forks, made the switch from inexpensive pedometers to the $150 Nike Fuelband more than a year ago, and he said he’s become quite attached to it.

“If mine broke today, I would go buy another one,” he said.

Carlson has seen the Jawbone UP and various Fitbit devices in action as well, and said he often recommends the activity trackers to his clients.

Always on the wrist

Carlson bought a Fuelband because he said he liked tracking his steps, but he would always lose pedometers.

“It’s not really that much different (than a pedometer), except for the fact that I haven’t lost it,” he said.

He likes the fact that he can wear the Fuelband around his wrist like a watch. He puts it on every morning and takes it off before bed every night.

Throughout the day, the band tracks his movements and keeps a record of his high- and low-activity moments. Other popular trackers, such as the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP, can also be worn overnight to track the user’s sleep.

Heather Tienter, of Fargo, uses the Fitbit Flex and said the wrist band device tracks her sleep, letting her know how many times she woke up and how many hours she slept throughout the night.

“You tap the band a few times, and then it vibrates to tell you the mode has been switched to sleep,” she said.

The Jawbone works similarly for its sleep and exercise modes. Carlson said he prefers his Fuelband because he doesn’t have to worry about switching modes; he just has to remember to put it on. On the other hand, Tienter only has to remember to switch modes because she rarely takes it off.

“The one that I have is water resistant, so you can wear it in the shower, and when you’re sleeping,” she said. “You can wear it all the time.”

And, she does. Tienter said she only takes it off every few days to charge it.

Carlson said the devices hold a charge for several days, but he wishes they were more durable. The button on his Fuelband is worn out, so it’s hard to bring up the screen. He said the entire first version of the Jawbone was recalled because they were faulty. And, the newer models aren’t any better. Carlson said his wife’s Jawbone UP broke within three months.

Although the technical durability of his Fuelband needs some work, Carlson said the physical sturdiness is good. He’s dropped and stepped on his device before, and it still worked.

Day-to-day tracking

At the end of the day, users can sync their devices with software on a computer or smartphone. The Fuelband uses a standard USB cable to plug into the computer, while others use device-specific adapters or apps. But, whether it’s a Fuelband, Fitbit, Jawbone or other activity tracker, they all have some type of software that allows the user to track their day-to-day and week-to-week activity.

“If I want to download all my activity for the day, I plug it in and it brings me to the Nike website,” Carlson said. “It breaks it down, and I can see when I’m most active.”

Tienter said the Fitbit software allows her to view the number of steps taken, the calories burned, the distance traveled and the high activity minutes throughout the day.

“And, for the online portion, there’s also a food calculator,” she said, which allows her to input her meals to compare the number of calories consumed and burned.

Carlson said this is a good feature because people often overestimate calories burned and underestimate calories consumed.

“(Activity trackers) put it into numbers,” he said, adding that those numbers help put it in perspective.

Accuracy, benefits

The records aren’t 100 percent precise for each individual because they’re based on averages for the different populations, but Carlson said it’ll give the user a good idea of how active they are.

“It might not be exact on calories, but if it tells me the same calories that I’m burning day in and day out, I can still get a good estimate from that,” he said. “It might not be exact, but as long as they’re consistent for the person… it’ll give you a rough idea.”

Carlson and Tienter agreed the devices make them more aware of when they’re inactive, which motivates them to get moving.

“(The Jawbone UP) would beep and vibrate if you were inactive for too long, which was kind of neat,” Carlson said.

Other devices have meters to indicate how close the user is to meeting their goal for the day. The face of the Fitbit Flex doesn’t display the step count, but there are five small dots that will light up one-by-one as the user approaches her goal. Tienter said it’ll also send a daily email with the user’s progress.

“When you reach your goal, it’ll light up and vibrate,” Tienter said. “It’s a pretty good motivational tool.”

She added that she doesn’t consider herself to be a super active person, but her Fitbit has let her know how much she walks at her retail job, which can be more than six miles a day. When she isn’t walking as much at work, she’ll make an extra effort to get up and move to reach her goal.

Best devices

As a personal trainer, Carlson said he’s had a lot of people ask him about activity trackers throughout the past couple of months.

“I’ll tell them to try a cheap pedometer or an app on a smartphone,” he said. “That’ll give (them) a basic idea.”

From there, he suggests looking for specific features that interest them such as telling time or monitoring sleep. He said the Fuelband is best for tracking other exercises, while the Fitbit is best for tracking sleep. He said new and improved devices are coming out as well, such as the Fitbit Force and the Polar Loop, which is able to monitor heart rate.

“Everybody is different,” he said. “But, I would personally recommend the Fitbit ones or the Nike Fuelband.”

Top Activity Trackers

  • Fitbit Flex: Tracks steps taken, calories burned, distance traveled, active minutes, hours slept and quality of sleep; water resistant; automatically syncs wirelessly with phone and computer; sells for $100.
  • Nike Fuelband: Tracks calories burned, steps taken and levels of various activities; connects to computer with USB cable; water resistant; sells for $150 to $170.
  • Jawbone Up: Tracks calories burned, workout intensity, hours slept and waking moments; syncs with smartphone via Bluetooth; sells for $130.
  • Fitbit Force: Tracks steps taken, stairs climbed, calories burned, distance traveled, active minutes and quality of sleep; displays time; syncs wirelessly with phone and computer; sells for $130.
  • Polar Loop: Measures steps taken, distance traveled, elapsed time, and pulse; waterproof to track swimming; connects to computer with USB cable; sells for $110.
Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
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