New wave of pedometers can help step up healthy habits

Smart and stylish pedometers area step in the right direction for keeping fit, writes Jeanette Wang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 11:01am

Chances are you're reading this sitting down. In today's sedentary society, it is becoming increasingly important to get ourselves moving more. But how?

A simple solution is the pedometer, a low-cost step-counting gadget, invented by Swiss horologist Louis-Frédéric Perrelet in 1780. Studies have shown it is able to motivate and inspire increases in walking activity across all ages, leading to weight loss and lower blood pressure. The goal agreed on by medical experts is 10,000 steps a day.

In a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Stanford University researchers reviewed 26 studies that looked at the use of pedometers as a tool to encourage physical activity. Users were found to increase their physical activity by an average 2,491 steps a day (about 1.6 kilometres) more than non-users - and lowered their weight and systolic blood pressure.

Although it's not the most stylish accessory, now there are trendy pedometers that are starting to convert health- and style-conscious people into dedicated walkers. Recently, San Francisco-based company FitBit launched the Flex, a wristband that not only counts steps but also tracks the distance travelled, calories burned, minutes of activity and sleep quality - and automatically syncs all this data wirelessly to a computer or smartphone.

It joins an increasingly crowded market of wearable fitness-activity-tracking wristbands that share similar features. These include the Nike+ FuelBand, Larklife, Basis, Amiigo, Shine by Misfit Wearables and UP by Jawbone, among others.

Demand for these gadgets is set to explode over the next few years, according to the New York-based ABI Research. It predicts the total shipments of wearable wireless gadgets in sports and health care will grow from 20.77 million devices in 2011 to 169.5 million in 2017. Of that projected figure, 60 per cent will be fitness trackers, and the rest will be home- and remote-monitoring technology for patients and the elderly.

The goal was to know where I could make small changes to have a large impact on keeping fit
Terence Tsai, up user

UP, for instance, by a San Francisco-based company known for its stylish Bluetooth headsets and funky wireless Jambox speakers, was launched in Hong Kong last month. It's the first fitness tracker to be officially sold here, though you can buy the others online direct from the US.

Terence Tsai, an equity trader and outdoor enthusiast, has been using it for about a month. "I was looking for a fitness tracker because I was curious about what my average daily amount of activity and my sleep patterns looked like during the work week," he says.

"The goal was to get a better understanding of where I could make small changes to have a large impact on keeping fit, being more alert, and making positive lifestyle changes."

Surveying the other product options, Tsai says he settled on UP because he liked features such as its long battery life (10 days), integrated app support and useful data.

I myself have been testing UP for the past month. I was hesitant initially because I don't consider myself sedentary, as I exercise - swim, cycle, run - an average of 10 hours a week. Counting steps seemed to be insignificant in comparison.

I was wrong: on days I don't run, UP shows I hardly meet the 10,000-step recommendation - and spend too much time sitting at the office.

Research from the University of Queensland, Australia, published in 2011 in the European Heart Journal found that prolonged periods of sitting, even in people who also spent some time in moderate-to-vigorous exercise, were linked with worse indicators of cardio-metabolic function and inflammation, such as larger waist circumferences, lower levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol), higher levels of C-reactive protein (an important marker of inflammation) and triglycerides (blood fats).

Taking plenty of breaks, even as little as one minute, was linked with smaller waists and lower levels of C-reactive protein. I set UP's activity reminder function - the band gently vibrates - to remind me to get up for a walk every 15 minutes during office hours.

The band knows when you're moving or sleeping through a built-in motion sensor called an accelerometer. Sync the band with the app (plug it into the phone's audio jack) and that's when the UP experience really starts.

The app (for both iOS and Android) is super easy to use. Phone contacts and your Facebook and Twitter friends lists are automatically searched for fellow UP users, and you can add them to your "team" so that their activities will appear in your feed. You can also share your activities to your Facebook or Twitter page. This social aspect of UP motivated me to move more through friendly rivalry and guilt.

The band also tracks your sleep cycle and knows when it's deep or light. You can set a daily alarm clock, and the band wakes you at the optimum moment of your sleep cycle. If you plan to have a siesta in the day, there's a "power nap" function that works in a similar way. There isn't a snooze button, though; one of my 30-minute "power naps" turned into a three-hour slumber fest.

Janice Lee Fang, a communications executive who just had her second child, says the sleep function is what she likes best about UP. "I was especially interested in analysing my sleep patterns to see what worked best in terms of how much more deep sleep I got sleeping with my newborn, nursing lying down, and so on."

One's calorie intake can also be tracked, but this has to be done manually by scanning a food item's barcode to retrieve its nutrition information, taking a photo of what you're eating or searching the app's food database. It's quite a hassle, so I didn't use this function.

Apart from charts and graphs of your activity and sleep data, the app also offers insights. For example: "Last night, 65 per cent of your sleep was deep, putting you with the super sleepers in the top 10 per cent of the UP community. All this great sleep is known to keep your mind sharp and nimble." These insights are supposed to get more incisive the longer you use the band and the more data it has from you.

You can get more out of UP by pairing it with third-party phone or computer apps, ranging from lifestyle, workout, food and other health tracking services. Log a run or bike ride with RunKeeper or MapMyFitness, for example, and view your workout data in UP, including maps of your route, to see how last night's sleep may have affected your speed or distance.

Tsai says UP has made him more conscious about activity and sleep. "Now I will think twice before jumping into a taxi or public transport if walking is a reasonable option. I will also try to take a longer route somewhere just to get extra steps in. I've also been more conscious about going to bed earlier."

Did UP motivate me to move more? Yes. Will I continue to use it? I'll get back to you after the thrill of a gadget wears off.

While the band is a trendy accessory that is comfortable enough to be worn all day, it's not waterproof and has to be removed when swimming. It also can't tell activities apart - so there's no difference between jogging and vacuuming.

At the end of the day, UP is simply a jazzed-up, HK$1,099 version of the humble pedometer. The motivation to move doesn't have to come at such a price.

But if you can afford it, this could just be what you need to start taking control of your health.

Are you looking for a wearable fitness activity tracking device? Try these on for size.