I Hated Fitness Trackers Until I Got One: A Fitbit Flex Review

I am shocked to see myself typing this, but I’m in the middle of my third week wearing a Fitbit Flex, and I am in love with it. I have hit all my goals every day, including calorie I/O for a modest weight loss plan, and last week I earned the Penguin March badge. I wear the Fitbit to bed every night, and I seem to be sleeping pretty well. At 5:45 a.m., it silently taps me on the wrist to wake me up, and my partner goes on sleeping soundly, so she loves it, too.

You have to understand, I have abhorred the idea of the Quantified Self™ movement from the moment I heard of it. It’s always seemed to me to be the ultimate neurosis. With Nietzschean spite, I watched this strange set of nerds in my life abdicate their own internal regulations of their body’s rhythms and swear fealty to a set of hard numbers imposed from the outside. I catastrophized about their privacy and their sanity, imagining the crushing anxiety that must result from failing to meet one’s numbers. Weren’t these people already traumatized — as I surely am — by capitalism’s harsh, curveless grading? Through school, through work, through online-mediated social life, survival under capitalism is a constant rain of numbers we pathetic, illogical primates have to try and make add up. And now people want to give up the soft refuge of their very bodies to be branded like cattle and herded by health insurance companies!

I mean, I might have been right about all of that. But I failed to consider that fitness tracking might also have several benefits. Alas, as curmudgeonly people are wont to do, I formed my strident opinion without any first-person experience. Last year, when I got an iPhone 6 that was going to just go ahead and track my steps anyway, I decided to check the built-in Health app every once in a while and see how I was doing. I’m a big walker, and I usually bring my phone along for podcast listening, so my scores kind of impressed me. Eventually, I got a little app called Pedometer++ that presented the same data more attractively and accurately. Sometime after that, I began to discover a trend in the numbers: they were increasing.

By jove! The awareness that I could easily check objective facts about my exercise behavior was causing me to exercise more! For the first time, I was of two minds about the Quantified Self.

The Gadget Itself

Meanwhile, Apple Watch had been announced, and my lizard brain immediately decided it wanted one, even though I hadn’t worn anything with more computing power than prayer beads on my wrist since I was a kid. But concerned as I am with the spiritual costs of constant computing — distraction, disembodiment, overwhelm, and so forth — it didn’t take me long to realize I might have overlooked some potential downsides to wrist gizmos.

I noted that Apple Watch would enable me to leave my phone at home while exercising and still get my precious points, but interacting with it still seemed too computer-like to actually feel liberating. I imagined myself diddling with the little crown and squinting at the OLED in the sunshine. Then I tested some dumbwatches and realized I loved them just the way they were. Since that blog post, I’ve added one more watch to my collection — a digital one this time — and I’m wearing it every day. I love the timers, the alarms, the time zones, the battery life, and the lack of text messages. All that made buying an Apple Watch seem silly to me. I would certainly like a watch that shows the moon phase, the weather, Jewish holidays and prayer times and what-have-you, but I’m going to wait a few generations until it’s also better in every way than an old-school digital watch.

So with my watch needs mostly met, I recalled from my gadgeteur days that there was one well-loved fitness tracker that could bring me just the bits I wanted in the most minimal possible package: the Fitbit Flex. It’s a not-unattractive, water-resistant rubbery bracelet that displays no information other than five white dots arranged horizontally. I got the “slate”-colored wristband, shown here. The lights stay off until you tap the device twice, prompting it to show your progress toward your daily fitness goal, which by default is 10,000 steps. When you reach your goal, the Fitbit buzzes and flashes its lights in celebration. If you wear it to bed, it also tracks sleep time and “restlessness” based on your movements.

The Fitbit syncs with a phone app that allows for reasonably easy management of the device and its data — including logging food, water, and forms of exercise that don’t involve steps — but the device runs for days on its own. Best of all, you can switch into and out of sleep mode without touching the app, so I can maintain the no-screens-in-the-bedroom policy I’ve instituted since my watch took over alarm clock duty. And now, instead of that annoying digital watch beeping pattern that hasn’t changed since I was a child, my alarm is now a silent tapping pattern on my wrist. The Fitbit has a “silent alarm” feature that you set from the phone app, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Fitbit says the battery lasts five to seven days, and indeed I’m getting slightly over five. Apparently silent alarms drain the battery, which makes sense, so Fitbit recommends not setting more than one, although you can if you want. In order to ritualize the charging process, I set weekly reminders to charge on Monday and Friday mornings at 10:00 a.m., times when I’m guaranteed to be at my desk for the couple hours it takes to charge.

Besides when it’s charging, I take the Flex off to shower, as well as to do other things that require nakedness. It doesn’t know how to track that kind of exercise anyway. Other than that, I wear it all the time.

How It Feels

Now that I have this thing on my wrist, I’ve begun to understand how letting a device govern my bodily functions feels, and lo and behold, there are phenomena for which I failed to account in my ignorance. I didn’t realize that giving up responsibility for keeping track of my exercise would be a relief. It’s precisely because I don’t have to worry about whether I’m doing enough that I can just relax into doing it, knowing that my Fitbit will tell me the truth.

I used to talk a tough game about Quantified Selfers giving up their ability to regulate their own bodies, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was barely regulating myself! That’s what I discovered at my first physical exam in years a few weeks ago (right before I got the Fitbit), when I found out I weigh 14 pounds more than I did in my imagination. I probably haven’t weighed the weight I thought I weighed since I was 21. The difference was wide enough to startle me. So when I got the Fitbit, I used its weight loss plan feature to take me down 14 pounds on the second-easiest setting. The Fitbit app presented it in simple terms: I have a certain number of calories to eat a day, and it’s 500 fewer than I have to burn in a day. As long as I stay in my lanes, I’ll hit my target weight in a couple months. That’s a concrete plan. I can work with that.

That of course meant I had to start logging my food intake, which is the hardest part. It definitely threatens to take the joy out of eating, which is one of my most joyous activities. I wish it were possible to just take a picture of the food or something, but you actually have to enter the items in by name. The database of foods is pretty huge, and the calorie counts are in there already, but for more contrived dishes, you often have to break them down into their constituent ingredients. This can take a couple minutes, which is a drag.

I’ve devised a few strategies to ease the pain. If I’m cooking the meal, I log all the ingredients while I’m taking them out, and then I can cook and eat without thinking about it again. Otherwise, I try to log before eating, so I can at least enjoy the meal without having homework afterward. If I don’t have time to do that politely, I’ll just jot down a reminder of what I ate and log it in detail later. And I don’t log food on Shabbat. I do wear the Fitbit to track exercise, since I do lots of walking on Shabbat, but Shabbat is a time for eating joyously — and not for using phones or doing any kind of “writing” — so I just eat like a human being on Friday nights and Saturdays and try to walk a lot.

The main thing that pleasantly surprised me about fitness tracking boils down to this: I didn’t know until I tried it that you can feel the data. Now that I know precisely how much exercise I’m getting and how much food I’m eating, I’ve learned — quickly! — what the associated body/mind states feel like and can now sense quite accurately when I’m on or off target. I was probably enduring a lot of low-level discomfort from overeating or lack of exercise back when I was naïvely governing myself. But now that those states are associated with clear, measurable goals, I’ve learned to detect the somatic warnings and rewards, and that’s nice.

The sleep features also provide unexpected pleasures. I’m pretty into sleep, and I do intensive bedtime and wake-up rituals to help wall off dream time as sacred and separate from waking concerns. The tapping ceremonies for switching the Fitbit into and out of sleep mode have become part of those rituals. The silent alarm has changed my first waking sensation from a sound that suddenly floods the room to a subtle, highly localized touch, which is much more pleasant and less scary. All this makes the right wrist into a beloved spot on my body that is powerfully associated with dreamy consciousness. And on top of all that, it’s really interesting to study the minute-by-minute data about my movements during sleep and see how that corresponds to my dreams.

A Good Fit

The Fitbit is part of my life now. I don’t feel attached to it, though. Not yet, at least. The idea of going a week or two without tracking doesn’t bother me, because now I feel trained to do a reasonably good job of hitting the goals without the tracker. I’m sure bad habits would creep back in without it, though. The idea of someday switching to a tracker outside of the Fitbit ecosystem doesn’t scare me, either, even though I’d have to start over with my data, because I could just start fresh with a new plan, just like I did the first time. But who knows, maybe after years of self-quantification, my millions of logged steps will feel as important to me as the MP3s I’ve had since high school. But, realistically, I know none of those concerns matter at all as long as my body is healthier, and after three weeks, it already is.

There are some drawbacks particular to the Fitbit Flex, though, and other, fancier trackers can handle them. Those include cycling, calisthenics, and swimming. You have to enter these forms of exercise completely manually, because the device doesn’t know how to track them. But hey, if I ever get serious about any of those kinds of exercise, I’ll get a serious tracker. For now, it’s mostly long walks and hikes, and it’s not a big deal to enter a bike ride every so often. I let my occasional sit-ups and push-ups slide; nothing bad could come from the app under-reporting that little bit of exercise.

One feature I’d love for Fitbit to add is meditation. I wish the Fitbit had timers that worked exactly the same way as the wake-up alarms, but you triggered them to start with a tap signal, say three quick taps, a pause, and then three quick taps. So you’d set your preferred interval time in the app, and then when you tapped the signal, the Fitbit would start the timer and tap you when it runs out. This would be perfect for meditation, but it would be great for all kinds of other activities, too.

I’m not as interested in tracking meditation activity, but I wouldn’t be mad at Fitbit for adding it. There’s a very fine line for me here between helping the practice by tracking and destroying it, as I’ve stated elsewhere and still intend to write about at length. But the short version is, I have no problem with logging the frequency and duration of meditation sessions as long as the software makes no attempt to say anything about the quality of the sits. There is no app for that.

I’ll be sticking with the Fitbit Flex for a good long while, although I may want to add another wristband color at some point. I rather fancy the orange one. One smartwatch has definitely caught my eye, though: the Withings Activité Pop. Honestly, I kinda still want one of these. It’s just an analog watch with a second dial that tracks your progress toward your fitness goal. It runs on watch batteries, so it lasts for months, but it syncs with your phone, so even though it’s a watch with hands, you don’t have to set it. It’s completely waterproof and can even track swimming. It’s better than the Fitbit Flex at everything, in other words.

The problem is — and I know this is silly, but — as a watch, it’s not better than my watch! Even though the Activité Pop syncs time with the phone, I just prefer a digital face with the day and date, the timers and alarms and all that. So since I’m not going to wear two watches, I’m going to keep the watch I like on one wrist and the Fitbit on the other.