Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gadget Review: My Month with BodyMedia's LINK Armband

My past 28 days of use summary
A month ago the kind folks from BodyMedia sent me one of their LINK armbands to test drive. I was excited as I'm clearly into collecting and quantifying data - for instance I haven't missed an entry in my food diary for over 2 years and regularly log my workouts on Fitocracy.

I was curious to see if having access to real time activity data would change my own exercise behaviours.

For me the short answer is probably not. I did love the information I got from the LINK, I checked it regularly, but more to see how much I'd done rather than to push myself to do more. I also questioned the data some.

As far as what the LINK tracks it covers calories it thinks you burned, calories you tell it you ate, how long it thinks you were moderately or vigorously active, how many steps it thinks you took and how long it thinks you slept.

My iPhone summary for a particularly active day....and then the chicken wings got me
The LINK armband (it's the one the The Biggest Loser contestants use) sits just above your bicep via a stretchy band with a velcro fastening. It's not water proof so you've got to take it off in the shower and the band does get sweaty with vigorous workouts (but is washable). The other issue I had with it was as a shirt and tie wearing guy. I found it tough to put back on without taking off my shirt.

Tough to put on without taking off shirt

I have to admit, I notice wearing it. When I loosen it to the point of not feeling it periodically I will lose the connection to my arm (it sounds a few notes to say it's signing off) and keeping it tight I definitely feel it all day long and every once and a while the area in contact with the skin gets a bit itchy.

Following the data is easy if you have a Bluetooth enabled Smartphone whereby you simply press a button on the armband and your data will then stream live to your phone. You can also use your phone to upload your data to the website tracker.

Food wise I'm not using their food diary. Instead the LINK syncs with myfitnesspal (my current tracker) which is quite convenient. What I don't find convenient however is that communication is two way in that the LINK tells myfitnesspal that I've burned calories and myfitnesspal then tries to tell me to eat more to make up for them. For folks using a LINK in the context of weight management, this may well inspire, "because I exercised" over-indulgences.

As far as the data's accuracy, I personally think it's overestimating some. While I do workout an average of 4-6x weekly, I'm convinced it sometimes tracks my typing as activity. Apparently I'm not the only one thinking this way as Gretchen Reynold's NYTs piece yesterday speaking to the accuracy of a whole pile of these sorts of monitors references the armband that overestimated typing too.

The price for the unit seems quite fair in and around $100 depending on the retailer, but I am a bit surprised by the monthly fee for the website and app. My understanding is that the website will only provide you with very basic information without a subscription while the app won't work at all. Given the now highly competitive landscape of exercise trackers, and with this one being slightly less wieldy consequent to the armband (rather than a bracelet or something pocketable), I'd expect they'd be better off throwing in as many free bells and whistles as possible.

All in all I'm not sure if this gets my buy recommendation. I say I'm not sure because to be fair, I haven't tried out any other trackers. I think I'd be more comfortable recommending if it weren't for the subscription fees as all of my other complains and issues were minor.

That's my month long data summary up above - now if someone could just teach me how to sleep better.

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  1. Anonymous10:44 am

    Thanks for the review. I think the NYT article author is Gretchen REYNOLDS, not Rubin. :)

  2. Oh my God, I would die if I slept that little! Have you ever had a sleep test done? Maybe it woudl help...Very interesting device.

  3. I've been wearing one of these off and on for two years and have found it an invaluable tool in many ways. When I first started wearing it, I was shocked at how little calories I actually did burn after years of using those online "Determine How Many Calories You Burn Per Day" calculators, which had me burning many more calories than the BodyBugg showed me burning. Although I'm already physically active, it showed me that I definitely needed to eat less calories if I wanted to lose weight and once I did that, I lost 100 pounds. As a side note, I also found it very interesting that at one point, my calories burned per day went way down when I went through a period of depression, so I looked at my profile and I realized that my physical activity went way down. I went from between 8000-12,000 steps per day to around 4200 steps per day, and I was exercising about 2 times per week for maybe 30 minutes instead of my previous levels. I don't necessarily need the device to be totally accurate for it to be useful, it just needs to be within a decent shouting distance.

  4. I just got a Fitbit Flex this week. Same idea, but you wear it on your wrist. From a comfort perspective, I'd hate having something strapped to my bicep. From a style perspective, I like the wrist option (it subtly says, "Yeah, I care" to those in the know, and it's unobtrusive otherwise.) It's also comfortable and waterproof to 30 feet.

    It's not terribly accurate, nor did I expect it to be. So far today, I've gotten up, had breakfast, walked around the house a tiny bit, and sat down in front of my computer. 496 steps. Usually by noon I have about 1100 steps, and I've been mostly sitting in front of my computer, going to the kitchen, etc.

    And then when I *do* go for a walk, it almost seems to under-count steps. I'd have to walk at a reasonably brisk pace for about two hours to get to my "10,000 steps" goal.

    Nevertheless, if I think of "steps" as "activity units" and don't try to think of them as any more than a relative guide, it's pretty cool, and has already inspired me to move more.

  5. I have a Fitbit and I think the most helpful thing for me has been the ability to see how your friends are doing. I have three friends who also use Fitbits, and honestly, there have been days when I might have slacked off were it not for the fact that I didn't want to fall too far behind them. Anyone who is motivated by competition should look into getting a fitness tracker that has this feature. (If you don't have friends using it, you can join or start a group.) The monthly fee would be a deal breaker for me, personally -- I pay enough monthly fees as it is!

  6. William Dement, The Promise of Sleep:

    Dark dark dark. Blackout curtains. 'Specially this time of year.

  7. Roman Korol2:34 pm

    This gadget seems very similar to Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP. They are all nice and enticing but share one common shortfall: if you swim, they will not work. Too bad: swimming is an important daily exercise for me. I swim 1 km daily. I guess aficionados of water sports are out of luck on this one.

    It's like making a sports gadget that works only for the one-legged. I wonder why?

  8. Anonymous4:12 pm

    I've been using a BMF armband for a couple of years now & find it very helpful. I don't wear it all the time, but whenever I change my lifestyle, I put it back on to keep me on track and accurate. As in I had a running injury, so not exercising as much, now I'm back to running & trying to keep my deficit to just 500 calories to loose the last 10 pounds I would like. I'll be going back to school in September & again, it will change (i.e. more sitting). I'm a SAHM right now, so I never sit. LOL!

  9. I use a FitBit One (which you can clip onto anything and it's tiny, so you can wear it with any type of outfit). It measures the same kind of thing.

    I find the FitBit very motivating - just the act of tracking my activity for the day makes me want to do more. If by the end of the day I have 9400 steps in, I go for a walk around the block to try to get it over 10,000 (since you get a badge for that). It's fun! And I like the web stuff and "friends" feature attached to it, too.

    However...I am aware that this is yet another data-mining tool - they get access to all of our stats and our friends' stats, etc. And I usually don't bother using it for sleep anymore, although that was a neat little toy aspect at first.

  10. Check out the responses on their facebook page:

    The new algorithm BodyMedia put in place 2+ weeks ago gives a crazy high burn and huge deficit (ie: 500+ calories or 16% for me yesterday). It's also 900+ calories higher than the fitbit flex which I used as a baseline. They sayt the difference is between 10% and ok, but it's more like 16% or more which is nuts. If I followed their new algorithm I'd gain weight, not maintain and slowly lose & lower body fat. This is especially critical as I am trying to keep to a 500 calorie deficit max and the numbers they tell me to follow are often 500 calories too much.

    First they were telling customers that something was wrong & they were working on it & 2 weeks later they called this high burn and activity level which has us burning sitting at our desk typing improved and more accurate. And will do nothing for the customers who rely on them. (ie: yesterday I has a 2 hr+ difference in my activity level between display & manager, I know the display was right as I know what I did)

    Hoping your reviewers will investigate and ask them about this new algorithm as they will not release any info to customers except to tell is it's now better.