Gear Review: FitBit Charge HR

LRTYesterday, a fellow LRT passenger noticed the black band around my wrist and asked, “Is that an Apple watch?”

I refrained from pointing out how my FitBit, with its narrow, rectangular screen and lack of push button on the side looks nothing like an Apple watch and what rock was he living under, anyway!? By opting for a more polite response, I ended up having an unexpected discussion with a total stranger about the pros and cons of wearable fitness trackers. This morning I figured why not incorporate some of the key points from our conversation into a brief review of the FitBit Charge HR?

Why I Own a FitBit

Mr. GeoK has worn a FitBit since late 2013. Every few weeks, for more than a year, he’d suggest that I get one, too. Each time he asked, I replied “no”. I figured his step count would be higher than mine everyday, and wasn’t interested in getting into a never-ending, always losing, friendly competition.

Arc-Trainer

Hard at work on the Arc Trainer.

My opinion started to change after I borrowed a pedometer from the Calgary Public Library and signed up for the UWalk / Alberta Venture walking challenge. As the three-week challenge progressed, I discovered that I enjoy a bit of competition when it comes to daily activity.

At the time, Mr. GeoK was wearing a FitBit Force, but since that model was no longer available (it’s the FitBit that had a voluntary recall due to some users having issues with skin irritation and rashes) I started looking for something else. Around the same time, I read a gizmag FitBit Charge HR Review that included the observation that the FitBit Charge HR is aimed at “active users who do a reasonable amount of exercise, but are not fanatical about tracking that data” – which is me! Also, since my background is accounting and finance, I’m always interested in analyzing numbers, so I figured I could have some fun digging into my FitBit numbers, including my heart rate data.

The FitBit Charge HR was brand new to Canada. After shopping around a bit, the best deal I could find was to sign-up for an account at a sporting goods store, which gave me 10% off my first order and qualified for free shipping. My size large, black FitBit Charge HR arrived on January 30, 2015 and I started wearing it later that day. My thoughts based on wearing a FitBit Charge HR for five months…

Favourite Features and Functions

So far, the most important features and functions for me are:

  1. Tracking steps, stairs and active minutes. The default targets are 10,000 steps/day, 10 flights of stairs/day and 30 active minutes/day. Based on my experience in the UWalk / Alberta Venture walking challenge, the first thing I did was increase my daily step target. In the spring I took part in a flights/day challenge on the UWalk website and temporarily increased my stair target to 50 flights/day. I’ve left my active minutes target at the default, but wish there was a way to more finely control this aspect of tracking so that I could set my target at 30 very active minutes/day.
  2. Bluetooth and wireless connectivity, so that part way through the day I can check my active minutes using the app I’ve installed on my Android phone or my iPad (pressing the button on the side of the FitBit Charge HR cycles through time, steps, distance, stairs and current heart rate but NOT active minutes) AND so that my FitBit buzzes me when I have an incoming call (particularly important when my phone is buried in my bag and set to silent or when I’m in a noisy environment). I find the incoming call notification from my Samsung Galaxy S5 to be a quite laggy, but Mr. GeoK has an iPhone and doesn’t experience the same degree of lag.
  3. Friends. I regularly grumble about the fact that Mr. GeoK outsteps me just about every day. But since I accumulate more active minutes than he does pretty much every day, I’ve decided to take the position that we’re both winners! Seriously, we both find the daily friendly competition is a real incentive to be more active than we otherwise might be.

After I’d been using my new FitBit Charge HR for about a week, Mr. GeoK finally decided to take advantage of the FitBit Force voluntary recall program to upgrade to a FitBit Charge HR. Three factors swayed him:

  1. HR monitoring. I like numbers, but Mr. GeoK really likes numbers, so he took a strong interest in my resting heart rate. It didn’t take long before I suggested that if he was that interested in heart rate information, he should start tracking his own!
  2. Automatic sleep tracking. Using the FitBit Force, Mr. GeoK had to remember to set the sleep mode each night. The FitBit Charge HR automatically tracks your sleep (at night and during the occasional afternoon nap).
  3. More secure strap. About a year after he started wearing his FitBit Force, the USB-style strap fastener started to loosen up. The turning point was when his FitBit Force fell off twice in one week and we had to scour the house for it one time and the yard for it another time. The FitBit Charge HR has a tried-and-true buckle-style fastener that is much more secure.

Since we’re primarily interested in maintaining an active lifestyle, neither one of us is using the food logging, water logging or weight tracking functionality available through the FitBit app / website.

Cons

Skin Irritation – About three weeks after I started wearing my FitBit Charge HR, I noticed increased sensitivity on the skin of my wrist. There was no redness or rash, and I have super-sensitive skin to begin with, but as a result of the irritation I decided to stop wearing my FitBit to bed. Yes, that means I forego the automatic sleep tracking functionality, but I was finding the green LEDs just bright enough that they’d disturb my sleep if I happened to move my wrist close to my eyes when I was sleeping anyhow. I also make a point of washing the band on a daily basis and have loosened the strap one notch. These three changes allow me to wear my FitBit for about 16 hours/day with minimal skin irritation. It also makes it easy to charge my FitBit overnight every few nights so that I don’t encounter the “low battery, charge your FitBit now” message that Mr.GeoK occasionally gets.

Rocky-Mountain-Legacy-TrailPoor Tracking of Cycling Activity – Despite knowing the FitBit Surge has the best capability to automatically track cycling activity, Mr. GeoK opted for the FitBit Charge HR. I figured the ability to “tag” activities might accommodate cycling activity, but based on the one extended bike ride I tagged, I am disappointed. FitBit credited me with 0 steps and 4.07 km for a 2.5 hour bike ride that actually covered a distance of 36.5 km.

Noise in the System – What I mean by this is that the step count isn’t always that accurate. For example, one afternoon I decided to count the number of steps I took while peeling and chopping potatoes. Actual number of steps = 15. Number of steps according to my FitBit = 150. And there was one night when I was ready for bed but 80 steps short of my goal for the day so I climbed between the sheets and then waved my arms around until my FitBit buzzed to indicated I’d reached my goal. If you’re after a 100% accurate step count, I doubt there’s a device on the market that can give you that. But I think the FitBit Charge HR does a very good job of providing overall feedback on your level of activity.

Insights

Wearing a FitBit has improved my understanding of various aspects of my daily activities. For example, a few years back I attended a comprehensive wellness conference where I heard about the importance of non-exercise activity thermo-genesis (NEAT) and since wearing a FitBit I’ve noticed that on the days I clean the house, my active minutes go way up. I also discovered that drills the instructor runs in a  one hour of taekwondo class, my FitBit registers anything from a really tough workout to not much of a workout, so I shouldn’t count on regular taekwondo class attendance to meet my cardio exercise requirement. I’ve also noticed that my resting heart rate seems to vary day-to-day, ranging from a low of 51 to a high of 59. This variation is significant enough that I’m trying to figure out a way to determine what’s behind the variance: caffeine? amount of sleep? how many days have elapsed since I did a really hard work out?

Overall, my activity level has increased since I started tracking, first with a pedometer and now with a FitBit. I know this because I’ve dropped a couple of pounds without changing my eating habits.

I also know that the “friends” aspect can spur increased activity. Mr. GeoK has increased his daily step count by about 3,000 steps/day since we became FitBit Friends a couple of months ago. As a result, he’s lost a bit of weight too, a few stubborn pounds that crept on about 4 years ago.

Notwithstanding all the good outcomes, I think it would be all too easy for some folks to let my FitBit take over. There have already been a couple of evenings when I wanted to be done for the day but FitBit sent a notification saying something like “You need 2,634 more steps to reach your goal!” and I’ve headed out for an after supper walk in order to earn my smiley face for the day. In fact, over the past couple of days I’ve come across two articles describing the potential tyranny of fitness trackers. The first is a rather humourous piece – “Stepping Out” by David Sedaris appeared in June 30, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. The second is “How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers” by Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray, published June 19, 2015 on The Conversation.

Final Thoughts

The FitBit Charge HR is an unobtrusive, all around activity tracker with a decent (and bug free) companion app that allows you customize step, distance, stair and active minute targets. The FitBit Dashboard offers up enough functionality, data, badges and pats-on-the-back to satisfy anyone looking for insight into an already active lifestyle or those looking to transition from a fairly sedentary lifestyle. We’ve learned through firsthand experience that using the Friend (or Community) functionality can reveal competitive tendencies and make you more active. And bluetooth smart phone connectivity means you’ll never miss a call when you’re out accumulating steps!

What’s your experience with fitness trackers? Let me know what I’ve missed and/or what strikes a familiar chord by leaving comment…

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4 thoughts on “Gear Review: FitBit Charge HR

  1. Pingback: Snowshoeing Banff NP – Lake Minnewanka and Stewart Canyon | Out and About with the GeoKs

  2. NOTE: Update to the FitBit software yesterday and did another bike ride today. 3 hrs, 32 km actual, FitBit recognized 7.5 km. Guess we were riding too slow!

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