Fitbit and Friends


Recently I’ve been using technology to help me lose weight. Actually, I have a bit of history of being most successful at losing weight when helped by technology – my last reasonably successful period was when the Wii Fit was launched.

This time my technological friend is the Fitbit. It’s really just a supercharged pedometer. You wear it clipped to your belt and it monitors your activity during  the day. It then automatically uploads the data to a web site so that you can keep track of how active you’ve been and how your activity changes over time.

You can get one from Amazon. At £80 it’s a bit pricy, but I guess there’s a lot electronics in that little plastic package. And you can use the price as an reason to get as much use as possible out of it. Something similar worked for me when I first got the Wii Fit – which cost about the same amount.

As I said, the Fitbit monitors your activity. It measures the number of steps you take, the distance you walk and the number of flights of stairs you climb. It recommends that you aim at taking 10,000 steps, walking five miles and climbing ten flights of stairs a day.

When I first got the Fitbit a few months ago I was doing nothing like that (well, except the stairs – that’s never been a problem). But by having targets and knowing how far you are falling short it becomes pretty simple to improve. These days I generally meet all of the targets easily. Well, except on days like today when I’ve sat at the computer all day writing a training course. On a day when I think I might be falling short, I just make sure I get up and walk around the office a bit more. Three or four times a week I try to fit in a two-mile walk – that will add 4,000 or so steps.

And talking about my two-mile walks brings me to my next technological friend – RunKeeper. With smartphones we now all carry a GPS around with us all  the time. And RunKeeper is a smartphone app that uses your phone’s GPS to track exercise like walking, running or cycling.  You can set targets by distance or time (“I want to walk for two miles” or “I want to jog for twenty minutes”) and break the activity up into intervals (“two minutes of walking followed by three minutes or running”). All the time you’re exercising the app will give you updates every few minutes telling you how you’re doing. At the end of the activity it will upload the details to the web site so you have a history of your exercises. And the whole thing ties up with Google Maps so you can see exactly where you’ve been going.

I started by using it to track my two-mile walks. But over the last week I’ve finally got round to starting running. So now it tracks that for me too.

Of course, exercise is only one half of the equation. You also need to address your diet – both in quantity and quality. And technology can make that easy too. Calorie counting is too hard when you have to remember everything you eat and work out the calories at the end of the day. Now there are smartphone apps which will make that easy.

I’ve been using MyFitnessPal. A lot of these apps have food databases that are very US-centric. MyFitnessPal contains a lot of British information too. And a smartphone comes with a barcode scanner. So if you’re eating or drinking something that comes in a packet with a barcode then it’s often just a case of scanning it in order to get all the data you need.

Calorie counting can be a pretty soul-destroying activity. I’m trying to stick to a pretty aggressive limit per day – which often leaves no room for treats. But MyFitnessPal can be linked to Fitbit so that if I do more than my base level of exercise, MyFitnessPal knows and will give me some more calories to compensate. On a day when I’ve walked a long way, I can get up to 600 calories added to my allowance. Which is enough to sneak in the occasional bar of chocolate.

So, there you have it. That’s the technology that I’m currently using to lose weight. Three smartphone apps, all of which have associated web sites. And all of which are happy to share information with each other.

So far it seems to be working. In the last couple of months I’ve lost a stone. It’s not as fast as it could be, but steady progress is more likely to be a permanent change. More noticeably, I’ve had to buy a new, smaller, belt. I’m happy with the way things are going.

Oh, and being web sites they all have a social aspect. If you use any of those sites and you want to become my friend and share my pain, then please feel free. Find me on Fitbit, RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal.

A good book for finding out about this stuff is Fitness for Geeks. I highly recommend it.

Update: I’m on Fitocracy too. I’d forgotten about that one.


Google Phone – First Impressions

I’ve now had my G1 for almost a week, so it’s time to share some first impressions.

The executive summary is that I’m really rather happy with the phone. There’s one small niggle problem and one huge “what the bloody hell were they thinking” issue.

Good things first. The phone works well and does pretty much everything I wanted it to do. The standard applications that come with the phone all do what you want. The browser is of particularly high quality. Usually when I get a new phone, I replace the built-in browser with Opera Mini as soon as I can. But there’s no need at all for that here.

The screen is big (ok, not as big as an iPhone, but bigger than the screen on any other phone I’ve owned) and really sharp. I haven’t had any problems at all reading the display. And the touch screen is really responsive. The phone is a nice size and weight and fits nicely in my pocket. I don’t know how resistant it will be to scratches, but it comes with a protective sleeve which will counter that.

Once I was bored of the built-in applications I started looking for others to download from the Android Marketplace. There are many applications to choose from in many different areas. Two that I particularly like make good use of the location and direction sensing built in to the phone. One is a compass and the other is a star map which shows you a map of the sky in the direction that the phone is facing. I’ve also enjoyed using the GPS application which uploads your data to the InstaMapper web site allowing you to review (and mash-up) your data without the hassle of transfering it off the GPS device.

Two applications seem to be a rich seam for developers to mine and there are plenty of overlapping applications available. The first is weather forecasting. These applications use your location to give you local weather forecasts. The other is barcode scanning. These applications use the phone’s camera to scan a barcode and then search the internet to find alternative suppliers for the product in question. I can see this being ver useful of shopping trips. With both of these applications there are a number of different (but very similar) programs to choose from. And I can’t really see a good way to differentiate between them.

I mentioned a couple of problems with the phone. Let’s mention the smaller one first. The only input/output port on the phone is a USB port. Except it’s not a standard USB port – it is asymmetrical. Standard mini-USB plugs do fit in it, but I’m not sure that they’re supposed to. This port is used to charge the phone, but the problem is that it doubles as the output for the headphones. This means that you can’t use any headphones that you want. You have to use the ones that came with the phone. I haven’r tried them yet, but they aren’t the small ear-buds that I’ve become used to in the last couple of years. I hope that someone will soon produce some kind of adapter that allows me to use any headphones that I want.

Then there’s the big issue. This has been mentioned in every review of the phone that I’ve read. It’s a big enough problem that I seriously thought about sending the phone back. I’m still not sure that I’ve done the right thing by keeping it.

It’s the battery life. It’s appalling. I estimate that if I’m using the phone’s features to any great extent then I’ll get three or four hours of use out of it. Currently I’m carrying round the USB charging cable so I can plug it into my computer at work if it starts flagging in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, I can get more life out of it if I turn things off. Turning off the GPS, Bluetooth and wireless all help considerably – but what’s the point of a smartphone if you have to turn off all of the smart features? For an average day at work in London this won’t be a problem as I’m never going to be more than a couple of hours away from somewhere to charge it. But things like the GPS tracking will be most useful when I’m out of London walking on the South Downs or something like that. It’ll be a bit of problem if I have to turn the GPS off to conserve battery life in that situation.

I don’t understand how the product came to market with such a major flaw. I honestly think that at some point in the next six months, T-Mobile will contact all of the owners of G1s and offer them an improved battery. Without that I think that the G1 has no chance of becoming a mass market success.

It’s a shame because it’s a great product. It’s only (massively) let down by one fundamentally flawed design decision.