If you work in an industry where each day is spent sat behind a desk and then you have the commute home, which again is spent sat in a car, bus or train, you will know that once you finally reach the welcoming glow of your front door, heading to the gym is the last thing on your mind. You certainly don`t want to spend your precious lunch hour working out either.
The problem is as the years roll by you will find, as I did, that your waist band increases and your energy levels plummet as your health slowly deteriorates. So what can you do with the little time you have to improve your health?
An activity tracker like the Fitbit Charge could be the solution if all you need is a little motivation to move more. This wristband will track your movements and using the online dashboard or smartphone application, you can see just how active or inactive you are during the day. Armed with this information you are given goals, challenges and an element of competitiveness which all help to gently push you to walk that extra mile or use the stairs instead of the elevator.
But is this the ideal solution for us desk jockeys? Does this wearable technology actually work?
Read on to find out.
Unboxing & Setup
The Fitbit Charge comes in a compact box with the device itself visible through a clear plastic window.
Also included in the box are a very short charging cable and a bluetooth dongle, which you can use to synchronise your data via a computer. Synchronising is an important part of any Fitbit as it allows you to upload and also visualize your data online within your own custom dashboard, or on your smartphone, but more on this later.
Before you can use the Fitbit you do need to connect it to a computer or pair it with a smartphone. For me this was relatively painless and within seconds my iPhone was connected to the Fitbit app. This initial connection not only helps to establish and activate your Charge but also download and transfer any firmware updates which have been made available.
Once setup, and the Fitbit has been charged, its then time to put it onto your wrist and begin tracking.
The strap itself is made from a band of solid silicone which is comfortable on your wrist, so much so you almost forget it’s there. It’s held in place with a dual stud clip which does a good job of securing it to your arm, even during the most rigorous of activities.
The main OLED display is a slim sliver of a screen but it’s also very bright and crystal clear making it easy to quickly cycle through your activities which include the time, steps taken, distance, calories burned and stairs climbed. This is done by pressing a small button next to the screen, but you can also tap the screen twice to quickly display a specific item.
These statistics are also configurable so you can decide what is shown, and in what order.
Fitbit state that the Charge is water resistant up to 1 ATM, which essentially means its splash proof but you can`t go swimming whist wearing it. I did test this with the Charge in the shower and it held up well, working perfectly during and afterwards.
The Charge in Use
What I like about the Fitbit Charge is it sits quietly on your wrist, silently keeping track of your daily activities. It does this by using the built in accelerometers to track your movements and elevation before using Fitbits own algorithms to work out exactly what you were doing. This is then translated into steps, stairs climbed or even how well you have slept.
What’s more, with a quick glance and a button press you can easily see how well you are doing, without the need to take your smartphone out of your pocket and synchronise each time. This makes the Fitbits unique display very convenient.
There are other elements you can track manually through the app or the dashboard and these include the ability to log your daily water consumption as well as food and calorie intake. The problem at the moment is there is no UK food database. Yes you can connect apps like MyFitnessPal but for me personally I wasn`t interested in this aspect of fitness, not at this moment in time anyway. It’s good to have the option there though should I change my mind in the future.
The first problem I did encounter when I began using the Charge was that the goals it sets initially are all generic and very impersonal. 10,000 steps in a day for example is the recommended amount we should be doing but it still seemed quite intimidating to someone like me, especially at the start of my journey. Luckily you can edit these and define your own goals in the app. The problem is knowing a good place to start, as everyone is different.
I would have liked to see an initial setup system which asked you a few basic lifestyle questions and then estimated a good starting point. This could be followed up with a week where it would track your activities and then set your goals based on the average results.
Fitbit does email you a weekly update which includes your averages so you could easily set your goals based on these yourself, but it would be nice to have it automated for someone new to the Fitbit universe.
I decided to begin with a goal of 5,000 steps and I also adjusted my stairs, distance and calories based on my personal averages. After a few weeks I noticed that I was hitting these goals so I increased them. I`m only at 6,000 steps now so nowhere near the recommended amount, but even this number makes me to do more to reach that goal.
It’s funny how having this small bit of motivation can push you that little bit further. I am finding that I look for excuses to squeeze more steps into my day, like parking further away from the gym or the supermarket when I go just so I have to walk further. Now if I have a choice of driving for five minutes or walking for ten I walk.
The difficulty for me is that I work from home. Yes I try to get out three times a week and go to the gym or go swimming, and it’s those days that I hit my goals, yet on the other weekdays the Fitbit has shown me just how inactive I am. I used to think that going to the gym was fine and the day after I could relax, but now I realise I need to do something more to get my activities up on my down days.
So in that respect the Fitbit Charge has done its job and I am surprised that after two weeks I didn`t get bored, in fact it’s more the opposite. I still get a feeling of pride whenever it silently vibrates on my wrist to tell me I have reached my daily goal.
Now the Fitbit isn`t perfect and sometimes it doesn`t track things how you would expect it to. The stairs climbed for example is a bit of a grey area. If I run up the stairs it’s not logged, even if I hold the banister which steadies my wrist it ignores the flight of stairs, so you almost have to train yourself to ascend them a certain way.
With the pedometer this again isn`t an exact science. What you have to remember is that it’s tracking your movement and guessing what’s its sensing is a step. With this in mind I have found that in the morning I might wake up and have done twenty steps in my sleep. At the gym, it reads the movement on the rowing matching as actual steps too even though you’re not physically walking.
I personally don`t see these as major issues and you can work around them. With any wearable technology like this you have to make sure you use it as a rough guide only. If you’re looking for exact numbers then you may have to invest in something a lot more expensive, and less comfortable to wear.
As well as the Charge tracking steps, stairs climbed, calories burned and many other aspects of your daily life you can also ask it to track a specific time period with Exercise Mode.
Holding the button down for a few seconds will activate a stopwatch. A second button hold will end the timer and any activity done during that period will be marked in your data as a “Workout” which can be categorized later.
This is useful for example if you go for a walk or a run and can even be used whilst at the gym. I`ve tried it on the elliptical, treadmill and even the rowing machine and it kept track of my movements, although it did just simplify this information into steps. How accurate it is for these I don`t know, and I did find myself having to input most activities manually too to take into account other statistics I wanted logged like distance etc. just to get those extra calories which otherwise would not be included.
Luckily the Fitbit is clever enough to notice any overlapping activates so won`t double up your numbers, instead it will simply merge the two. Ideally the “Workout” entry should be expanded upon so you can manually add the distance you travelled and other key factors yourself so the need to add two entries is made redundant.
It`s those activates which don`t have any step value, as in your wrist doesn`t move much, which leave the wristband redundant. You can manually input these into the app, so the exercise bike for example can be easily added, yet other options like weight training are very basic giving you the ability to record the amount of time you have been working out and that’s all.
For me I like to keep a record of what equipment I used, how much I lifted and also reps so looking back I can see what I have done. Even a notes section under each entry would be useful for tracking this data.
Another area of improvement would be for the Fitbit to notice other activates automatically, or at least make a guess which you need to confirm. After a few sessions on the rowing machine for example the Fitbit Charge could learn these movements and add the data for you. The same could be applied to repetitive movements like weight training on a machine. Your arm is only going up and down a certain amount of times so couldn`t the Fitbit recognise this during Exercise Mode too?
This goes back to it feeling very impersonal. With a few firmware and software updates what you could have is a device which learns your activities over time and can then recognise them when you do them.
It’s all well and good having all this data collected on our wrist but how do you visualise it? Well once synchronised, your data is sent to the cloud and stored in your own, free Fitbit account. You do this via the supplied Bluetooth dongle and a small piece of software you can download from the Fitbit website.
It’s here that your statistics come to life and the data shines. The online dashboard is bright, colourful and excellent for seeing not only your current statistics but also your history, so hopefully over time you will see yourself slowly becoming more active.
The amount of data you are given is impressive and you can easily identify what time of the day you were most active through the detailed graphs. It even works down to the minute so even a five minute walk is tracked and then you can see it later to see how well you did.
To some people the dashboard may seem a little overwhelming. As well as showing the wristbands data you can also manually input a wealth of other information. Again, you can add your food consumption and calorie intake directly into the dashboard, you can also keep a personal journal which allows you write whatever you like about your day to help balance out the data. You can even track your glucose and blood pressure measurements, so it’s quite comprehensive.
For many though, like me, I just stick to the main page which is fully customizable meaning you can drag and drop the tile style layout so it shows just the information you need.
In addition to the dashboard you can also access your data via the smartphone app which for some may be much more convenient. I personally use this far more than the desktop dashboard.
In the app you have access to all the data on your dashboard but you can also configure and manage your Charge too, and even see your battery level, so in some respects you rarely need to access the dashboard via a computer.
Everything is well presented making it easy to follow and view plus the app is fully configurable so you can show and hide just the areas you personally want to track.
Run & Walk Tracking with GPS
Another aspect of the Fitbit app is the ability to track your walks and runs as well as the other activities mentioned above, using the phones built in GPS in conjunction with the data the wristband collects.
As with every area of the app, setting this up is simple, all you need to do is set the device to track your exercise. Once you start the phone will then begin tracking your position on a map so afterwards you can see exactly where you went.
In addition to this once you synchronise the Charge you will also see information on your speed, calories burned, steps taken and also elevation too.
In practice this worked really well over a one hour walk and it was nice to see a visual representation of just what I had achieved.
Unlike many of the other Fitbit devices, the Charge now has automatic sleep detection. So it notices when you fall asleep and then begins tracking rather than you having to tell it it’s time for bed.
In practice I found the Charge to be quite accurate, although on the days when I went to bed early and watched TV or read a book, my lack of movement meant it thought I had had an early night. This is easily fixable though and you can edit the times it’s logged the next day via the app or dashboard.
You can configure the Charge to either use a Normal or Sensitive approach to tracking your night. Fitbit say that the normal setting is best for most people with sensitive being used if you don`t sleep soundly as it essentially tracks more movements.
For me this was a little confusing at first as I wasn`t sure if I was a sound sleeper or not. Yes I do wake up sometimes in the night so should I have it set to sensitive?
I tried both ways and the results were either I had a good 8 hours sleep, or a restless 5 which made me a little anxious. In the end I decided to keep it set to normal as in general I don`t consider myself a bad sleeper, but its interesting to see your sleep patterns.
If you`re lacking motivation you can make your Fitbit experience a little more social by joining with other Fitbit users. Adding friends opens up a whole new area of competition which in turn can boost your flagging motivation.
By default you are ranked according to a seven day step chart, so initially you can see how well you are doing compared to your friends. In addition to this you can also ask your friends to participate in a series of challenges. These are quite basic at the moment but range from competing to see who reaches their daily goal first to seeing who racks up the most steps in a week.
Hopefully Fitbit will expand upon this to include some more imaginative challenges using other aspects of the data the Charge collects. Maybe most stairs climbed or calories burned?
As well as adding friends directly you can also join various online groups to get help and advice plus team up with people in your area.
All in all these are great additions to the Fitbit community and will scratch that competitive itch, pushing you even further.
As well as all the information above the Fitbit Charge also has a few more tricks up its sleeve. You can set up the Charge to use its vibrate feature as a silent alarm. This, as it turns out, isn`t that silent, but if you need to be woken in the morning or reminded of something during the day it’s a perfect and discreet way to do it.
It would be nice for the alarms to flash custom text on the screen, if it is being used as a reminder. Like “Take Pills” or “Ring Home” rather than just flashing the time.
When paired with a smartphone you are also treated to call notifications. The number or name of the caller is sent from the phone to your wrist so you can judge whether to answer without having to remove it from your pocket.
This is a great extra feature but would be even more valuable if it expanded to notify you of messages, emails or reminders. All it needed to do was flash up the name of the person the text message or email was coming from so again you can judge whether to dig your phone out of your pocket or leave it until later.
With a device like this battery life is very important. You don`t want the extra chore of having to charge it every day, especially if your also tracking your sleep.
Fitbit claim that the Charge will give you seven days of use between charges and from my tests this seemed accurate. Obviously this will drop during your first week of use as you are constantly checking your statistics, but after the novelty wears off you will find the battery last much longer. I have had twelve days continuous use before I was notified that it was time to charge it.
Another tip is to disable the All Day Sync option in the app which will save battery life. It will mean that you have to synchronise your Charge manually when the app is open but that’s not a big deal, and it automatically searches, connects and synchronises when the app is launched anyway.
Should You Invest?
I`ve been wearing the Fitbit Charge for over a month now, only taking it off briefly to clean myself or the device, and I am impressed with not only the amount of data it gives you, but more importantly how it continues to motivate me.
Yes, it’s a very impersonal device and I would love to see it become more of a fitness friend, something which can learn from your activities and make suggestions rather than just collecting statistics. Also, some of the manual tracking tools do need an update, particularly if you go to the gym and use non-step based equipment.
This aside, what you do have is an excellent activity tracker which offers the user a great deal of data about their day. Not only this, it does actually get you out and about more.
The convenience of the OLED screen is a huge bonus. Just a quick glance can tell you how well you’re doing and getting that little buzz notification when you hit your daily goal is a great feeling.
So is this the device for you?
If you simply want to improve your health and find out how active or inactive you actually are then the Fitbit Charge is perfect. It will motivate you and if you add friends and join groups they will add to the motivation meaning after a while you will find that your activity levels have risen. It’s just important to use the data as a guide and not take it as gospel.
What about the Charge HR?
Also released alongside the Fitbit Charge was the Charge HR. This device is very similar to the Charge except it also continuously tracks your heart rate. I am pleased to say that I have now had some hands on time with the Charge HR and my follow up review is now available, you can find in by following the link below.
Although Fitbit supplied the device, the opinions offered in this review are my own.