New Year resolutions are both very popular and very prone to failure. They're a concept grabbed at eagerly by folk who want to make some changes in their lives and see the dawn of a new year as an inspiring time to make those changes. Others pour scorn and cynicism noting halfway through February that those grand plans seem to have come to nothing and everything is still the same.
Well, I'm one of the former. I believe in them, but I also think you need to really want the change and should use the early motivation to put plans and systems in place to be able to measure and reward the progress as it comes.
This probably sounds quite geeky and it's true that different things motivate different people, but last year I was able to lose and keep off over 3 stone using MyFitnessPal.com to keep track of my eating habits and 'Wii Fit' on the (previously dust gathering) Nintendo Wii to keep a record of my weight. I'm not bragging, after all my year of being very good with food was preceded by years of being bad - what I'm saying is being able to see a simple chart plotting my improvement helped me stick at it, particularly during the times when there wasn't much progress over a week. I could simply look at the numbers over a month and console myself that the overall trend was in the right direction.
Weight loss is probably the all time number one new year resolution and I strongly recommend a look at MyFitnessPal, which I reviewed here, but this year I intend to go (literally) a step further. I don't want to just keep the weight off. I've really enjoyed how the weight loss has made me feel, so I want to go further and actually become fit and active.
General government guidelines recommend 5 pieces of fruit and veg per day plus 10,000 steps a day or 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on at least five days in a week.
I'm already in good dietary habits using MyFitnessPal and the Wii to measure what goes in, but how to measure what I'm burning off?
After a spot of research, I've settled on the FitBit Zip as my gadget of choice to motivate me through the year and hopefully see me writing a follow up with positive news.
The FitBit Zip is part of a new generation of connected devices that use a combination of sensors and an internet connection to provide information about your environment to you. In this case, a smart-pedometer that connects via bluetooth to your computer, smartphone or tablet and gives you lots of pretty graphs and charts to play with.
Before I get carried away, it's true to say that you can buy a pedometer for a few pounds (in fact they have been given away with cereals before) and those among us with the correct will-power could get by with one of these alone. Write down your daily count somewhere and you could quickly build up your own database of information, but for many of us, that would get boring and the folk at Fitbit have put plenty of thought into keeping the user motivated for months and years after purchase.
So, let's start at the beginning. For about £50, you get a FitBit Zip pedometer about the diameter of a two-pence-piece and about 4 deep. To keep it firmly attached to you and protected from the elements as you go about your day, there is a silicon case which clings tightly round the Fitbit with a firm clasp on the back. Also in the box is a bluetooth dongle, which you'll need unless you have a very new computer, as the Fitbit works with the very latest version (v4) which focuses on power efficiency and finally an adaptor to help with changing the battery, which is a watch style cell. Battery-life is estimated at 3-4 months.
It's all very nicely presented and very easy to set up. I have Windows 7 and the dongle installed automatically when I connected it. A small program is required to manage the connection, which can be downloaded from www.fitbit.com/start
Once you've taken out your FitBit Zip and wandered around the house checking it every ten seconds to see how many steps it was from the kitchen to the living room and so on, you're probably ready to see what else you're getting for your money and most of that is over at Fitbit.com
Sign up for your free account and the first thing you'll see is your 'Dashboard' which gives you some at-a-glance information about your current activity. During sign-up you can fill in your vital statistics (age, sex, weight, height etc) and then set some goals.
My goal is to walk 10,000 steps a day with a 70,000 weekly target (allowing me to make up on days where I fall short and still achieve a target). My dashboard shows that today so far, I've managed 9781 steps over a distance of 4.49 miles. I've burned 1873 calories (this includes my BMR, so my calories burned are not just excercise, but also just being alive) and the more arbitary 'Active Score' currently sits at 661.
Each time I come into range of the computer, the FitBit Zip will connect, so the activity chart should always give me up to date figures. However, when I'm away these basic stats are also available on the simple LCD screen on the FitBit Zip itself. It's sadly not backlit (although this will help the battery life), but it's clear enough to relay this information and you simply tab the screen to cycle through time, steps, distance and calories. The Fitbit will also register its happiness or displeasure with various facial expressions. I find mine sticks its tongue out at me a little too often for my liking, but I'll blame Netflix for that.
Still, these are the kind of stats that it would be easy enough for you to keep yourself. Fortunately Fitbit.com goes further. Firstly you can look at your totals over weeks, months and eventually years. For example I can see that I've taken some 66,988 steps over the last week and travelled just over 30 miles on foot. Not bad for an IT bloke who used to be glued to his PC. I can also look at my time spent being active vs sedentary, which at the moment clearly comes in fits and spurts as I fit walks around my desk job, and use it to think about where I might find more time to be active.
So the FitBit Zip gives you a very solid idea about your activity patterns and how many calories you're burning. Fitbit via the website and phone/tablet apps will also allow you to track the calories going in, rather like MyFitnessPal does, meaning your charts get even more useful, like the one that shows calories in vs calories out. Set a goal for weight loss and Fitbit.com will track how much you can eat (in calories) helping you maintain the correct calorie deficit for weight loss. I set a medium-term goal where I'd like to lose about 7lbs at a rate of 1lb per week. This means I need to maintain a 500 calorie deficit per day and I'm not doing too bad so far.
Remember house-points, good behaviour stickers and badges as a child? Well, Fitbit isn't above awarding you some even though you're now a grown up. And you'll feel pretty good about it! Alerts may come via email or your installed apps. So far I've had badges for my first 10,000 steps in a day and first 50 miles covered. Nice.
Now I'm not a particularly competitive person, but some of us are and there is nothing like a bit of healthy competition to get us out for a walk when it's cold and wet outside, if only for bragging rights over a friend. Fitbit.com recognises this and includes a social networking element where you can link up with other Fitbit owners and share your data. Simple messaging is included and a weekly chart leaderboard, which I must admit I'm keeping a close eye on, perhaps only because it's my time at the top! People who don't mind a bit of mingling with the internet community can also join groups of like minded folk and get really into that side of things, but I haven't explored this.
I've had my FitBit Zip since early December and am happy to report that all these features are coming together to have the desired effect. I'm taking myself out for walks during lunch at work, rather than being tempted to stay at my desk and watch Netflix or sip expensive coffee with friends. It's become a very social experience with my coffee drinking buddies being more than happy to go for a wander instead of a Starbucks, so the money I used to spend on coffee will pay for the gadget in no time and the charts and numbers with the goal targets set to be an effort, but attainable, are slowly upping my general activeness, so is there anything not to like?
Well, there are limitations, but several have been anticipated and mitigated to some extent. These pedometers are accurate for walking and jogging etc, but they won't record other activity. For example, all your tennis efforts, swimming (obviously) and horseriding will go unnoticed. Fortunately the apps and the website will allow you to log your activity and a wide range of sports seem to be included.
Secondly, for those of us in the UK, I found the food logging to be very USA-centric. However, it's easy to link your Fitbit account to MyFitnessPal and use that to log your food, with entries automatically passed across.
The last limitation has yet to be fully overcome and that's app support. There is no dedicated app for the iPad, which is very disappointing and the iPhone app is basic to say the least, with only a few far too simple graphs available. I would hesitate to recommend a Fitbit to users who do not intend to use the full website available to PC and Mac users. The biggest let-down is the lack of support for Android. Sure you can look at the same basic stats as iPhone users, but you cannot synchronise. I hear this is set to change but do note, iPhone 4S and newer users can sync, Android owners cannot.
Limitations aside - people who are genuinely sporty and fit already, or who want to make a bit of a fashion statement, may consider spending more money and looking at the Nike Fuel Band, or Fitbit's own 'One' which comes in closer to the £90 mark. The One is a smaller, rechargable device which also adds the ability to track your sleep patterns and knows when you're climbing up steps etc, making the calorie count even more accurate. If you value that, I've had a look at one and it's a very nice device.
For us normal folks who are simply looking for the right motivational tool to leave the sofa behind a bit more often than we might otherwise do, the Fitbit is a fine gadget that encourages you along the way and offers a sense of achievement when you hit your goals, giving you a taste for more, hopefully proving the cynics wrong in the process.