Activity – Fuel bands, Fit bands and Pedometers
On the 14th January I have been wearing a Nike Fuel Band for a year. When a friend, a personal trainer, suggested I got one at the beginning of last year, I was sceptical. I wasn’t sure what benefit it could possibly have for him – he is one of the most controlled people I know, or me – I eat too much cake but am pretty active. However I decided to read the reviews and keep an open mind. I bought one the next day and a year later I am a huge fan.
THE THING IS…..
Physical activity is defined as any movement that involves contraction of your muscles and includes all the activities we do throughout the day. Housework, gardening, shopping, climbing stairs and driving are are all forms of physical activity although their intensity can vary widely. Physical exercise is a type of physical activity and is generally of higher intensity. It is ‘planned activity’ done to improve fitness, sports performance or for other health benefits. Working out at a gym, aerobics, swimming, cycling, running, and sports like football, hockey or tennis, would all count as physical exercise.
Although there are indisputable benefits for cardio health, there is very little evidence that going to the gym, doing high levels of endurance training or regular long bouts of intense exercise result in thinness or long term good health. In fact in children it has been found that high levels of physical exercise in school or clubs results in a corresponding decrease in activity in free time (1). That is not to say that exercise is not good for children but that like similar research in adults, it suggests that doing high intensity physical exercise may not mean that you are more active overall and has no palpable effect on overall size, shape or health. We know that joining a gym doesn’t make you healthy and it turns out that using it is no guarantee either.
This is where wearing an activity sensor comes in, within a week of wearing mine I discovered that my most ‘active’ days were not the ones where I made it to the gym, played tennis or ran, they were the days where I never sat down. The days where I sat a lot, working at a desk or travelling, I had unbelievably low activity scores, almost as if I had not moved at all. Because of this I found that my behaviour changed, on low days I found myself making unnessary trips upstairs or started doing late night star-jumps to get up my total. All sorts of chores are now seen in a totally new light, cooking is surprisingly high scoring, as is hoovering and cleaning the car. I also plan…. If I’m in meetings and it’s nice, I park the car further away and go for a walk at lunchtime, things I never did before. And its not just me, research at Stanford University has shown that wearing a pedometer increases physical activity by just over 2,000 steps, or about 1 mile of walking per day (5).
SO WHICH ACTIVITY BAND…..
When I bought my Nike Fuel Band it was the only one Id heard of. Reviews at the time were mostly good, though there was some complaint that being on your arm, it didn’t measure cycling and that being only water resistant, it was no good for swimming. I haven’t been bothered by this, as I think the point of wearing a band is to measure general activity but I can see it would be annoying if a big part of your activity was not counted. A friend also told me it reads very low when you are pushing a pram and Im guessing this is the same for all the wrist bands, though people who have tested a number of bands say the fuel band is particularly stingy. It is water-resistant and can be worn in the shower. A new Nike Fuel Band SE has come out this year. I would say the design of the bangle is one of its main strongpoints. It’s a hard black bracelet with bright coloured flashes. The dot-matrix display is invisible most of the time and is accessed by pressing small button on the front. It shows steps, calories burned, the time, and the Nike Fuel points. Nike fuel is Nike’s own unit of activity and although it may seem arbitrary at first, over time it becomes familiar and it does allow you to compare your activity against your friends. The fuelband doesn’t track distance, stairs, or sleep, and the mobile app is iOS-only. It will sync with other Nike apps though I have never used this feature. It syncs easily with an apple mobile and the battery lasts around 10days.
The Fitbit Flex. Fitbit is probably the biggest manufacturer of modern-day pedometers. During the day it measures steps taken, distance covered, calories burned and active minutes. At night it claims to measure your sleep quality and can function as an alarm clock. Flex automatically syncs your data to PCs, Macs, many iOS devices and select Android phones without plugging in or pushing buttons, which is a mixed blessing as syncing can be battery sapping… Online graphics tools are good and allow you to add in details of food consumption and activities and exercise. It is a good all round tool for the health conscious, who want to monitor eating as well as activity. Has quite a lot of negative reviews for its strap which can undo but most people love it. It is water-resistant to 10m and some people have used it for swimming though its not advised on the fitbit website.
The Jawbone UP tracks daily activity and sleep efficiency, and comes with very well-designed app that works with both iPhone and Android devices. It feels comfortable around the wrist, and includes a vibrating silent alarm. A couple of friends who have it say that build quality isn’t great and one switched to the Nike as she felt she was too old for the way it looked. However, people who have tested a range of bands say it’s the most comfortable to wear. The old jawbone up did not synch wirelessly and needed to be plugged in. The new UP24 is wireless. The old Ups battery life was a plus at 10-15 days, the new UP24 battery last 6-7days.
The Misfit Shine has been launched this year and has had fantastic publicity. It’s waterproof, can be fixed to a wrist band, clipped to your waist, magnetically attached to your shoe or put in a pocket. It has the standard three-axis accelerometer you’ll find in most activity trackers and although there is no altimeter for logging stairs, it is meant to be able to tell the difference between walking, running, swimming, and cycling (although the last two require an extra step for tracking). It has a watch battery with 4-5month life and syncs with apple iPhone, ipad or iPod. When I saw the first articles about the Shine, I immediately wanted one but I haven’t met anyone who has tried it and I guess there is a concern that if its not attached to your wrist you will end up leaving it attached to your coat, shoe or swim suit.
WHAT SHOULD YOUR TARGET BE ? HOW MUCH ACTIVITY IS HEALTHY?
The optimum volume, frequency, duration or intensity of exercise for long term health and well- being is not clear. Research has suggested that exercise expending as little as 1000kcal per week is associated with a reduction in disease risk of as much as 30% (2). Other research suggests 40minutes of moderate exercise a week (3) or even 30-60minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day (4).
The average person walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day, with 1,000 steps being the equivalent of around 10 minutes of brisk walking. The NHS working with business has set up the 10,000 step a day challenge, which is a pretty good target if you are working and generally involves some behaviour change. See the film below.
For full review of the health benefits of physical activity see Warburton et al (2006) Health benefits of physical activity : the evidence. CMAJ 174(6). 801-809. I research on activity and blood sugar is also interesting, see http://sciencenordic.com/easy-walk-lowers-blood-sugar-level.