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Activity Trackers 101

[ 21 ] 05/27/2011 |

There’s no denying it, we live in a world of technology.  It seems there is a gadget or smart phone app for everything these day.  The fitness industry is no different.  There are lots of different ways to track one’s food intake, training plan, activity, etc.  Today, I’m going to focus on some of the more popular methods of activity tracking.  Specifically, I’ll be looking at the Fitbit, the Bodybugg (also available as the Bodymedia FIT), the Philips DirectLife, heart rate monitors, and pedometers.

Anyone who knows me absolutely knows I’m a gadget freak.  I won’t be talking about all these various devices just from reading a bunch of information about them online.  Nope, I’ll be speaking from first-hand experience.  Yes, I own each and every one of the devices I’ll be discussing.  Here’s some photographic evidence:

Invariably, when people discover I own all these devices (oh yeah, I have a Garmin 305 as well but didn’t include it in this comparison), the first question I get is, “Which one is your favorite?”  That’s actually a really difficult question to answer because each device has its own pros & cons.  I’ll run through all the options in order of least expensive to most expensive and then give you my opinion as to which works best for me.


The pedometer I own is from Weight Watchers. I purchased when it was on sale and I had a coupon on top of that.  If memory serves, my final cost was around $15.  Once configured with your stride length, it will calculate your total distance traveled and the number of steps taken during the day by detecting the motion of your hip movement.  With the Weight Watchers model I own, it will also provide the number of Activity Points earned.

The biggest pro the pedometer has going for it is that it’s the most cost effective.  Pedometers do not require any additional fees or subscriptions after the initial purchase and are generally available for less than $30, depending on the make/model.

The con to the pedometer is that it only tracks steps and distance.  It can’t really be used for tracking activities other than walking.  Another con is that you generally have to know your stride length in order to set up the pedometer.  It won’t give accurate distance information if the stride length isn’t correct.

Heart Rate Monitors:

Heart rate monitors (HRM) could actually fall in multiple places in this list based on price point because there is a huge variety of HRM options and the prices can vary greatly depending upon the model, brand, etc. selected.  There are options available beginning under $50 all the way up to models costing a few hundred dollars.  I own a Polar RS100 which can typically be found for around $100.  It will track the time spent working out, total calories burned, minutes spent in various aerobic zones, etc.

Generally speaking, HRMs do not require any type of internet account to work.  Accordingly there are no additional fees or subscriptions required following purchase.

The biggest advantage of the HRM would be the accuracy factor.  Since the device is configured with your personal information (age, weight, etc.) and calculates the calories burned on your personal heart rate using and EKG signal, it’s generally considered the most accurate.  Another advantage to the HRM is that many are water resistant and can be worn while swimming.  I generally use my HRM for both swimming and spinning.

The downside to the HRM is that it’s not terribly comfortable if you are interested in all day statistics.  To accomplish that with an HRM, you would have to wear the chest strap all day long.  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound the least bit appealing to me.


This is the newest item I have obtained for activity tracking.  Since they have been sponsoring our May Your Way challenge, they were nice enough to send me a Fitbit to test/review.  I’ve had it for about a month and really like it!  It tracks steps taken, distance, and calories burned using an accelerometer system to detect motion similar to what is used for the Wii.  It will also track your sleep habits if you wear it when you’re in bed with the included wrist band.  The website also includes an extensive food database for tracking your food intake.  If there is something you eat that’s not in the database, there is an option to manually add it.

To use the Fitbit, it can be put in a pocket, clipped to a waistband, or clipped to a bra.  To sync the data from the device to the website, it can be placed on the included USB charging/syncing stand.  The stand also acts as a wireless sync device, so if the Fitbit doesn’t need to be charged, it can be synced wirelessly by bringing the Fitbit device within 15 feet of the charging/sync stand which I think is an awesome feature!

The biggest pro to the Fitbit is the cost.  It’s $99 which includes a free basic subscription to their website.  If you like, there is also a premium membership available for an additional fee of $50/year.  This membership gives additional analytical data and coaching plans to help increase your activity level.  The premium membership is completely optional.  There is a wealth of information available on the basic membership.  Another pro is that since it’s fairly small, it’s also extremely discreet.  No one need know you are tracking your activities/calories when wearing the Fitbit.

Even though I just listed the Fitbit’s size as a pro, it can also be a con.  Given it is so small in size, that also means it can very easily be lost.  For this reason, I tend to keep it clipped to my bra rather than putting it on my waistband or in my pocket as those both seem like it would be a bit easier to lose.  Another downside to me is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to order extra parts on their website.  It would be nice to be able to order replacement wristbands, an extra charging/sync cable for my office, etc.  It would also be nice if it were possible to display data from the previous day on the device.  It automatically switches over at midnight and once it switches, there’s no way to see the data from the previous day without syncing it and accessing it via the website or the smart phone app.

Philips DirectLife:

The DirectLife is less of a calories burned tracker and more of an overall activity tracker.  It’s designed to encourage the user to move more by displaying a series of LED lights on the device based upon how much one has been moving.  The cost of this device is $149 which includes one year of coaching and access to their website.  At the end of the year, users are given the option to extend their membership for another year.  If one opts not to renew, the device will still work, but there will no longer be coaching and website access will be limited to only two days of history.  Like the Fitbit, the DirectLife also relies on accelerometer technology to detect movement.

DirectLife users go through an initial one week assessment period.  During this time, the user wears the monitor and just goes about their normal routine.  This is used to set a baseline activity level.  Once the assessment period is over, a 12-week program is created to help the user increase their daily activity by gradually increasing the activity level goal with each passing week.   Once each 12-week program is completed, the user can immediately move into a new 12-week program.

Like the Fitbit, the biggest pro of the DirectLife monitor is its size.  It can easily slip into a pocket or be worn around the neck with the included neckstrap.  Another major pro of the DirectLife is the personal coaching.  It’s not just some automatically generated email from the system.  It’s an actual person that you work with during the duration of your subscription.

As for cons, also like the Fitbit, it could easily be lost since it’s so small.  Personally, I also didn’t care for how it displays progress during the day.  It has a series of green LED lights that illuminate based on how active one has been through the day.  In order to display those lights, the device must be taken off and placed on a flat, hard surface.  It never displays actual numbers, just the progress lights.  Being such a numbers geek, I want to see the numbers!


Finally, the last option is the Bodybugg/Bodymedia FIT device.  Prices range from $160-$260 depending on the model and options selected.  The Bodybugg includes a free 6-month subscription which can be renewed for $79/year thereafter.  The BodyMedia FIT includes a free 3-month subscription which can renewed for $83/year.

I have the Bodybugg version 3 with the digital display.  (Please note the one I have pictured above is decked out with an argyle skin I purchased from the BodyMedia skins website.  Without the skin, it’s just a plain solid black color.)  One of the things I love about it is the amount of data that can be accessed via the digital display.  I can see today’s calories burned, steps taken, and activity minutes.  I can also see all the same information for yesterday.  Additionally, there is a “trip” feature that lets me view that data for the time since the trip feature was reset.  There is also a newer version that doesn’t have the digital display but instead connects wirelessly to ones’ smart phone.  Like the Fitbit, the website also includes an extensive food database that will allow users to track their daily food intake as well.

Unlike the other accelerometer devices that rely solely on the accelerometers, the Bodybugg/BodyMedia FIT also uses body heat as an indicator of activity.  It will actually detect when you are working up a sweat and use that in the calculation process.

The biggest downside to the Bodybugg is the size & location where it has to be worn.  Since it’s worn on the left upper arm, it’s visible if you wear something sleeveless or with cap sleeves.  Some people aren’t bothered by this, but it makes me uncomfortable in the work environment since I’m often in meetings with the executives & upper management of the company where I work.  Those are definitely not the type of people I want to get into a discussion with about my weight loss journey.

Another downside is the subscription requirement.  Unlike the DirectLife monitor, the Bodybugg/BodyMedia devices will not work without a subscription.  It will only hold approximately two weeks of data, so once you reach the two week mark after the subscription ends, it will stop working.  The only way to download the data from it to clear the memory is via the website subscription.

So, now that I’ve laid out all the similarities and differences between the devices, we’re back to the question of which is my favorite.  Overall, the Fitbit works best for me, but it might not necessarily be the best fit for you.  It would all depend on what you want out of the tracker.  Here’s how it all breaks down, in my opinion:

  • Pedometer – This works best for someone who is only interested in tracking their daily steps and/or distance walked.  It’s also a great choice for someone who wants something affordable and easy to use.
  • Heart Rate Monitor – This works best for people who are interested in only tracking calories burned during their actual workouts but aren’t interested in tracking every waking hour.  It’s also a good choice for those who do cycling or spinning as the accelometer-based devices (Fitbit, DirectLife, Bodybugg/BodyMedia) typically don’t do well measuring those activities.
  • Fitbit – This works best for people (like me) who are number crunchers and want a lot of data but don’t necessarily want the whole world to know they are tracking.  It’s also a great choice for those who don’t want to be locked into a subscription-based device.
  • DirectLife – This works best for people who don’t really care that much about the actual  numbers but just want to be reminded to move more.  It’s also a good choice for those who don’t want to be locked into a subscription-based device.
  • Bodybugg/BodyMedia FIT – This works best for people who are number crunchers who don’t mind if the device is visible to other people.

So, that’s my run-down on activity trackers.  I hope I was able to give you some valuable information if you have been considering purchasing one of these devices.  If you have any additional questions that I haven’t covered already, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll try my best to answer them.

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary Fitbit device for the purpose of this post.  All other referenced devices were purchased at my own cost.  I was provided no monetary compensation for this post.  As always, the opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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Category: Fitness, LOVE IT, Mel, MOVE IT, Product Reviews

About Mel: A 40-something Tennessee girl living in Southern California, Mel is currently on a journey to lose over 100 pounds following the Weight Watchers PointsPlus™ program. Mel also blogs at and can be found on Twitter as @TheDailyMel. View author profile.

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  • Brooke F

    yes, but which is your favorite ;)

    • Mel (@MelGetsFit)

      :P  I forced to answer, I would have to go with the Fitbit.  It gives me the geeky numbers I want without the whole world knowing I’m wearing it. Not to mention the fact that their website is INFINITELY easier to navigate than the Bodybugg site.  There, happy?  ;)

  • Brooke F

    yes, but which is your favorite ;)

  • Lissa_ShrinkingJeans

    Great post, Mel!!

    I do love my Fitbit, but after wearing it on my pocket from the trip to ND to MD, it disappeared. I am so sad!

    • Mel (@MelGetsFit)

      Thanks!  I know it’s a lot of information to digest.  I just really wanted to give as good a comparison as I could to help our readers make an informed decision and not end up with one of everything like me. LOL

  • Lissa_ShrinkingJeans

    Great post, Mel!!

    I do love my Fitbit, but after wearing it on my pocket from the trip to ND to MD, it disappeared. I am so sad!

  • Jan

    Great review Mel.  Thanks so much :)

    • Mel (@MelGetsFit)

      Thanks, Jan! :)

  • Patty

    Great post! You’ve given me a lot to think about. It’s definitely between the FitBit and the Direct Life. thanks!

    • Mel (@MelGetsFit)

      Thanks, Patty!  Just let me know if there is any additional information I can provide that will help you make a decision.

  • Gules

    Very interesting post. I watch the biggest loser and always wanted a body bug but I might check out this Fitbit device, it sounds awesome. I have a hear-rate monitor but I havent’ used it enough to see the benefits. I love the ability to use the database to track food and it sounds like it’s the most comfortable to wear.

  • Anonymous

    Great coverage!!  I had the hardest time picking out one, but I ultimately went with the BodyMedia Fit thingy.  I love it! 

  • Anonymous

    Great coverage!!  I had the hardest time picking out one, but I ultimately went with the BodyMedia Fit thingy.  I love it! 

  • Anonymous

    Love this review….definitely some great info to take into the process of choosing a new “toy” for my birthday this summer! But maybe I’ll get lucky (blessed) with the FitBit from SJ and I won’t have to fret over a decision! lol

  • Nancy

    I’m so jealous.  I wanted so badly to win one of the Fitbits during this challenge.  Guess I’ll just have to save up and buy one.  Great post.  Very informative.

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  • Sarah Kopf

    Thank you for the information! I’ve been wanting to get a FitBit, so that helps a lot! 
    Sarah @ Thinfluenced

  • Sarah Kopf

    Thank you for the information! I’ve been wanting to get a FitBit, so that helps a lot! 
    Sarah @ Thinfluenced

  • Nick Buckeye

    Read about this new device today; reminded me of this article:

    Jawbone Up

  • kidhelper

    I have had my fitbit for a year and I have loved it!! There is one problem that the company NEEDS TO FIX. The belt clip does not hold well to the belt, waistband or bra. Several times mine has fallen off but I have been lucky enough to save it from loss untill the last time. I am just sick about this. I don’t understand why the makers of this product haven’t designed a better clip with a back up claw to hold it when the clip fails!! I cannot find any information on their site as to a phone number or email address so that I can contact them. To say the least, I am frustrated and angry.