Update: Wearable Activity Trackers; Polar M400 vs FitBit Flex

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I wrote a little while ago about a FitBit Flex my husband and kids got me for Mother’s Day. The idea wasn’t some passive-aggressive pitch a la, “You’re a sloth and we want you to get active, so put on this attractive arm band and report back to us every day” hint. I was curious about the technology and wanted to see how active I was because I felt reasonably exhausted at the end of each day.

By the end of June, the FitBit died.

“I win!” I thought to myself. “I killed the FitBit! I am so active, it couldn’t keep up!” Because we were still within the 90-day period from its purchase, Brookstone gave me a store credit because it was beyond their 60-day something or other. But we ended up having a bonus even more, because I didn’t want a new one, I felt the piece / technology was limited. But FitBit sent me a new one anyway after they noticed through their Minority Report software that the pod had died (but they didn’t bother proactively contacting me, I had to go to them…grr). So I took the new one, my kids use it for curiosity and I bought two blankets and a nifty lap desk from Brookstone with the store credit.

Over the months, I’ve had conversations with friends and strangers alike about the FitBit concept and one of them said to me, “I didn’t like being FitBit’s bitch. Granted, I lost some weight and my health improved, but I didn’t cotton to the idea that I was being scrutinized.”

“Sort of like being under house arrest, huh? ‘Cept, you’re encouraged to go wherever you want, vigorously and repeatedly, but still being accountable to something outside yourself…” I said.

“Yeah.” She said, laughing at the irony of the whole thing. “So I’ll probably go juice it up and put it back on in the fall…” I have no clue if she did.

Another friend, who is a runner and yoga lover just puts her in her purse. “It was a gift. I don’t like plastic on my skin. It doesn’t breathe… ”

“And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s ugly as ass,” I added and she laughed.

And then there are the cheaters: I know people who put the devices on their dog’s collar, to get more steps in and win on the leaderboard of their FitBit challenges with “friends.”

Other people give them to their kids to wear to school. My oldest two go to a high school that used to be the largest in the state. I KNOW there are felonious FitBits roaming those hallways…

Another friend talked about how she liked the idea as a form of incentive, but she’s pretty active anyway, and after a while she determined that it was not so far off from an Orwellian world where we all wear bracelets to condition us into conformity. A nagging yet vocal 5% of me nodded in agreement; the other 95% of me, convinced that I’d already done too much to indoctrinate myself into this Orwellian culture, looked for the troops to drag me away, denying me my steps to the van.

As my brother and I decided over a conversation about primitive wearables like the FitBit Flex and Jawbone Up that we already know how active we are. It’s nice to have “sleep data” but honestly, you know when you slept like a dog and when you slept like a meth addict. So for people like my brother and myself, the concept was redundant after a while.  Plus, I became sleep paranoid: “IS THIS QUALITY SLEEP? AM I TOO FITFUL? IS THIS GOOD? DOES THIS SLEEP MAKE ME LOOK FAT? WILL I GET A BAD SCORE ON MY SLEEP TRACKING?” That. As I say to my yoga students, “If this breathing exercise brings tension to your body, breath, or mind, that’s counterintuitive. Please ignore it and let my voice be a drone in the background.”

Over time, it became just a thing to have and for me, if I was going to wear something to track my activity, I wanted more. I wanted data. I wanted to know really, how “active” I am. I wanted, given the specter of Orwwellian threat, to also be put into the “moderately active  with potential” camp when the van comes.

So I researched, a lot. I already have a “relationship” with Polar heart rate monitors (I attribute my ability to stay motivated and aggressive in my workouts because of the feedback), I decided on the Polar M400 which is part smartwatch and part workout buddy.

It’s Bluetooth 4.0 compatible which means it will connnect with most smartphones; it also connects with the Polar H7 heart rate monitor (HRM), which also connects to your smartphone if you want. The M400 is big. It’s about the size of the Apple Watch, but it costs about $130 from heartratemonitorsusa.com; if you need the H7, the pair is about $180.

 

FitBit Flex on the left; Moby Dick on the right.

Its smartwatch capabilities are pretty nifty and also pretty useless in the grand scheme of life.

Nifty: Paired with and within range of your smartphone, it will notify you of all the notifications you receive on your phone, including texts messages, traffic and weather alerts (thus configured) and incoming calls. Some of its features are executive: You can “silence” an incoming call and it will send it to voicemail. It will also provide turn-by-turn navigation if you are using a GPS app and your phone is running the free “Polar Flow” app. If you’re out with friends and are expecting a text, you don’t need to have the phone in your hand to get it (unless you like that barrier to socializing and being fully attentive to your peeps); its preview will show on your watch and you can decide what to do next.

Useless: come on. Who needs to have this shit in their face all the time? If you do, you need to get a life. Work with the homeless. Run for office. Volunteer with animals.

But as I said, I like data and I knew the FitBit was no longer going to satisfy me when I went for a five-mile row one morning and it came back and said I’d taken only 4,000 steps. So I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Here is another important aspect: these gadgets don’t know if you’re hiking the Ozarks wearing a 70# rucksack, pushing a double stroller with two 40# toddlers in it, or if you’re walking around the house with a feather duster in your dominant hand which is not the wrist bearing the tracker. 

The M400 has some sort of genius meter in it that knows when I am standing, sitting, lounging, and walking or running. After initial set-up with the Polar Flow desktop application, you can import upwards of 30 activities on to the watch and when you’re ready to get it on, all you have to do it choose one. I would love one for “housework” but I suppose “other indoor” will suffice. There is rowing, yoga, dancing, fencing, treadmill, rock climbing…Assault & battery… I wonder how it would have measured the two inmates who escaped from the maximum security prison in Clinton, NY? There is no “crawling” option.

It also boasts GPS service, so when you go on those five-mile runs or rows or hikes, it shows you  where you went. The more data you give to it, the more you get back. If you wear the heart rate monitor, it provides a summary of the activity with very encouraging praise. I’m into praise. If you just use the GPS and forget the heart rate monitor, then it tells you your pace, and says something nice about how your activity will benefit you in the long run. It’s not like Jillian Michaels: it’s not going to call you a mess and tell you how much you suck. If you want a sado-masochistic relationship with your activity tracker, this is not the one for you. I”m not sure there is one for you. You have issues.

Deep down, you know that even getting up and moving a little is better than not moving at all. If you sit still for more than an hour, it beeps at you and tells you “It’s time to move!” Sometimes (when I’m writing) I tell it to go screw itself; others, I get up and try to unbend my tight knee.

Is it flawless? No. It’s close though. There are still some connectivity issues to wortk out; the most trouble seems to stem from the Bluetooth and the GPS — basically, don’t pair your H7 HRM to your phone. I did that in the beginning before I ever got the M400 or even my FitBit because I wanted to use RunKeeper and have it connected to my music and the Polar Beat app which communicates with the H7 via the phone… blah blah blah… so don’t synch the H7 HRM to your phone. That seems to solve a lot of problems. I think the people at Polar like to THINK they know a lot about the Bluetooth stuff, but they don’t. They just don’t. Also, if your H7 is paired to your phone, sometimes the H7 will communicate with the phone if it’s in range and that will kill the non-rechargeable battery on the HRM…

The M400 is not constantly online with the app the way the FitBit is. You have to consciously synch the watch to your app. I don’t think that’s a bad idea; it saves battery life. Speaking of which, it lasts a pretty good while: five days? Charging takes very little time too. The graphic interface on the watch is customizeable. I chose analog because I’m under some delusion that setting this small television on my wrist it to look like an actual watch will make it appear elegant and less HAL / Space Oyssey 2001 -esque. I know… I’m troubled. Sometimes it just doesn’t synch; I call it Scarlett O’Hara then. Try again. Tomorrow is another day.

 

See the little iPhone in the upper left corner? That means it can’t find the paired iPhone.

The Polar people were too close to the watch when they wrote their user manual. There are definitely instances when you lose connectivity with your phone and an icon in the upper left corner shows a tiny smartphone with a question mark in it (see above photo). That means the connection is lost. Not to worry, it will reacquire when in range. But you won’t find data anywhere that tells you what that icon means. I had to make four calls to get to the bottom of that. Even the people at Heart Rate Monitors USA didn’t know what it meant. I considered returning it because the issue was so problematic between the watch, the H7, the Bluetooth to the phone and the Bluetooth to the H7 and the planet Mars and Orwell… But I figured it out. Just keep the H7 unpaired from the phone.

Polar has upgraded the apps a bit, so that has been a plus. I will say this, however, Polar could make some serious improvements to the firmware, such as allowing users to create more alarms and other customizations such as editing what “other indoor” could mean for you. In that realm, FitBit has them beat.

In other ways, the M400 doesn’t deserve to be compared to the Flex. Polar knows you’re more than a walking machine. It offers three grades levels of your personal activity and goals based on your lifestyle; not just steps, so when you’re having a busy day, but you’re “not getting your steps in” the M400 has your back.  

these are ways to meet my activity goal, which is level 2: sitting for short periods but otherwise active… or something like that.

 It knows you’re doing other things. Throughout the day, as you check your progress on the watch, it also offers ways to achieve your goal with examples of activities ranging from playing 30 mminutes of squash to walking your dog for 50 minutes to baking for two hours and 15 minutes. Yes, baking… Niiiiiice

I’m shocked by how easy it is to keep the M400 clean. As you can discern from the photo above, I bought the white one, for some reason it felt less ominous and monolithic and more like Moby Dick, and I’ve thrown major yard work its way.  I even spilled mustard on it and it came off. The band is comfortable, oddly velvety soft and non-binding. The FitBit is harder and less negotiable. Plus, the FitBit just pops off every once in a while. My husband had to buy tiny O-ring washers to put around the clasp to keep it from popping off. FitBit knows about this, the complaints about the clasp are rampant. Their offers of assistance are mediocre. They already have your money, suckers.

The Polar community has always been a motivating group. It’s neat to see how long these watches have lasted. I’ve had a Polar F5 for at least 10 years, and way back when in 1995 my husband and I bought a NordicTrack skier and it came with the polar heart rate system and ever since then, I’ve been hooked. I could chalk all this interest in my own presence and performance as narcissism or consider it a form of validation from recovery of a pretty hard childhood with dysfunctional parents and a lot of addiction chaos.  When people tell you all through your childhood that what you’re seeing isn’t happening or they deflect your inquiries altogether or dismiss you, it can be hard tobelieve  yourself when you say you saw and did things. Either way, I love the hard data and the encouragement.

The Polar Facebook wall is very cool and the staff seem relatively responsive. People have been posting pictures of their V800 watches, which is a souped-up version of the M400, and there’s some crazy clamping thing going o when folks are trying to recharge their watches. The V800 is prohibitively expensive (for me) but quite rugged.  It makes the Apple Watch look like a lace doily. Which we alll know it is…

A while back, I posted some intial inquiries and unsolicited suggestions to the Polar FB wall and I can’t find that thread anywhere; they seem to have removed it. I knew I would be writing this post eventually though, so I’m glad  I saved it to my reading list, and here’s the link if you’re so interested:

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10153167053619915&id=28748279914&ref=m_notif&notif_t=feed_comment&actorid=100003924260590
The bottom line, for me, is that these devices make me more mindful; the M400 encourages me when I need it if I’m slacking and praises me when I’ve rocked it out. However, when I’m brushing my teeth it thinks I’m running. When I’m drying my hair, it thinks I’m running. When I’m running it thinks I’m running. So the only reliable measure of you actually stepping is if you put a sensor on the sole of your foot. Just take your data with a grain of salt and be aware that you’re moving around.

I am also more mindful about standing instead of sitting or leaning. Somehow it knows. The paranoia can get a little tiresome, so I don’t wear the M400 all the time. I’ve actually had an “easy day” when I just wear the FitBit because it’s there. I also go several days or weeks not wearing either. 

I will admit that when I first got the M400, I did try to compare them. And I’ve found that they vary in step count by about 150 steps at the end of the day. However, I find it vexing that when I teach yoga, the M400 says I’m sitting but I’ve learned to get over that. If I tell it I’m going to teach or practice, it gives me little heart icons because I’m awesome. Here’s what a typical Wednesday looks like for me:


On Wednesdays I don’t sit much; but when I do, I’m either teaching or driving or peeing, and as you can see, I went to bed close to midnight. Thay “grey” zone from 12am to 8am is me not wearing the device until 8.

I like the concept of the buddy or the “sponsor” but I also like to take a break every now and then knowing that I’m really a pretty good person and am active when I can be and when it feels right. If you are someone who’s second-guessing yourself and you have trouble making decisions, and you don’t know what from whatnot, don’t complicate your life. Go simpler. Go with the FitBit. But if you like technology, you are already active, but you LOVE the idea of it all being right there for you, get the MM400. Just be OK with not wearing it every once in a while, or you’ll turn into one of those people who talk about their steps all day… and if you’re one of those people, don’t sit near me at a restaurant. While I will be proud of you for making your health a priority in your life, I will still point and laugh at you. You truly are a Stepford.

The M400 offers tons of other stuff, too. This is a just a couple of numerous feedback pages from a row last month:

 

so even though i was technically “sitting” for my row which lasted 80 minutes, I was busy too.

 


this is some of the feedback i mentioned: it’s encouraging.

Given the cost of the M400, what it tells you and how it motivates you, I don’t regret this purchase a bit.

Thank you.

And lookee here… Just as I was finishing the post… This is what I do for you guys… 

  

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

5 responses »

    • sorry i’ve been away. life is … life. my husband has the HR charge or charge HR… he likes it. it tells him when someone is calling him on his BT connected phone and he loves the sleep data. he admits he’s become a bit of slave to it, and while it started to have an influence on his life when he first got it, I’d say that influence has waned. Lately, he’s more “disappointing the damn thing” than anything else.

      thanks for your comments… i hope you are well! 🙂 -m

  1. Are you wearing the heart rate strap with it all day until you go to bed? I just purchased the m400/h7 bundle, but I wasn’t sure when to put the strap on. 🙂

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