Healthy Outlook: How a fitness tracker changed my life

Plus, an early review of Fitbit Ionic

Flashback to fall 2014: I’m roughly 35 pounds heavier, and the only time I move fast is to answer the door when my grease-soaked delivery food arrives.

I finally decide it’s time to do something about my slovenly ways, so I begin sort of watching what I’m eating, and kind of working out a little. I know deep down, though, that it’s not going to stick. This is not the way to start building good habits.

Fitbit, Garmin and other brands had fairly recently started coming out with fitness activity trackers. They were pricey, but the more I read about what they did — and realized what they could help me do — I knew I needed to get one.

At first I worried that these things would be like many other weight-loss gimmicks: You try it for a while, and maybe it works, but eventually you get tired of it and stop wearing it or using it.

This graph shows an example of how Fitbit tracks your movements and heart rate to determine how much time you spend in each stage of sleep overnight. Shown here is health reporter Mackenzie Clark's data from Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.

My Fitbit Charge, however, served as the foundation of major changes to my life and lifestyle after I purchased it in January 2015. It added accountability to my workouts and day-to-day activity: I was able to meet the goals I’d set for myself, including taking 10,000 steps per day and making sure I climbed at least 10 flights of stairs.

The standard goal fitness trackers set for you is to take at least 10,000 steps per day. To some people, that sounds like a lot, and to others it sounds like hardly any, but it doesn’t take long to realize you’ll probably have to make some changes in your life to reach that goal each day.

The Charge also helped me make sure I was getting enough sleep. By capturing your movements, trackers can analyze the quality of your sleep. If you’re tossing and turning a lot, the tracker will know.

I learned a lesson quickly, though: If I’d paid an extra $10 or $20 at that time, I could’ve gotten the Charge HR, which includes heart rate monitoring, and I sincerely wish I had done so. That’s my first recommendation if you’re going to buy a fitness tracker: Spring for the heart rate capability.

I upgraded to the Fitbit Blaze in March 2016. It added several capabilities, including tracking specific workouts and automatically sensing some as you’re doing them. Most importantly for me, it tracks your heart rate.

This graph shows an example of how Fitbit tracks heart rate throughout your exercise. Represented is health reporter Mackenzie Clark’s elliptical workout on Oct. 26, 2017, from warmup to cooldown.

It’s not a medical device, and it’s certainly not 100 percent accurate, but being able to keep an eye on your heart rate during a workout is extremely helpful so you can make sure you’re working hard to really push yourself but stopping short of overexertion.

It also gives you better insight into your sleep patterns, and, perhaps above all else, it enables you to track your resting heart rate. According to the American Heart Association, knowing what’s normal for you — generally between 60 and 100 beats per minute — can serve as a good “heart-health gauge,” so you can watch for any changes or fluctuations that could indicate a health problem.

This graph shows health reporter Mackenzie Clark's strength training session from Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. As shown in the random peaks and valleys in some of this heart rate data, Fitbit has trouble keeping steady data when workouts involve a lot of arm movement.

Unfortunately, the heart rate function has its limitations: it’s perfect to get a good idea of your resting heart rate and your pulse during steady cardio workouts, such as running or the elliptical. However, it tends to be less helpful for activities that involve a lot of arm movement, such as weightlifting or Zumba. (I always wear a wrist sweatband over my tracker during workouts to help it stay in place as much as possible, and it seems quite effective.)

Simply buying and wearing a fitness tracker won’t change your life, but paying attention to — and meeting — your daily goals certainly will. Learning to use each feature of a tracker and its app will help you realize your progress, and it will help you listen to your body’s signals.

Even if you don’t reach the goal every day, putting in the effort to get closer will make a world of difference. As Garmin’s trackers say, “Beat yesterday.”

Fitbit Ionic

This week, I upgraded again to the new Fitbit Ionic, which was released Oct. 1. For those who want to leave their phones behind, Ionic has a lot of helpful features.

This map demonstrates Fitbit Ionic's built-in GPS capabilities. Health reporter Mackenzie Clark took a quick walk around the block of Seventh and Massachusetts and Vermont streets Saturday, Oct. 28 to try it out.

It adds some smartwatch capabilities, such as storing music and allowing you to “tap” to pay for items in some stores. You can also swim in it, and it has a built-in GPS to track the routes you run, hike and bike. (Some previous Fitbits have included GPS as well.)

So, theoretically, I could wear the Ionic, leave everything but my keys at home, jog down to my neighborhood coffee shop, grab a latte and pay with a tap of my wrist. (Will I, ever? Probably not — but I could.)

The music storage feature thus far seems a bit janky, but I think it’s one that will easily be fixed with software updates. In short, right now it’s difficult to even figure out how to add stored music, and it’s limited by some songs’ encryption. Once the bugs are ironed out, though, some users may want to take advantage of the new “Flyer” Bluetooth headphones and music stored in the device.

Though I wish everything could be perfect before it’s released into the market, I think with a bit more time for Fitbit to fix the kinks, Ionic will be a fantastic device.