The FitBit Flex Will Get Your Ass Off The Couch, But Not Through A Marathon [Review]

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Flex by FitBit
Category: Fitness
Works With: iPhone 5, Mac
Price: $100

The FitBit Flex is a $99 rubber band you wear around your wrist to track how many steps you’ve taken every day. It connects via Bluetooth to your iPhone, or through a dongle to your Mac. If you are utterly sedentary, it’s a fantastic gadget that may very well encourage you to make some slight adjustments to your lifestyle before your heart explodes in front of your computer desk one day. If you are already even lightly active, though, the FitBit Flex is a puzzle of a product that seems fetishistically focussed on how much you walk while utterly ignoring how much you bike, swim or even run.

The Fitbit Flex has been getting a good deal of positive press lately for its no-frills, light weight approach to activity tracking, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a good design. The heart of the Flex is a small Bluetooth dongle about the size of the first joint of your pinkie finger that inserts itself into a stylized rubber band around your wrist. These bands are swappable, and come in numerous colors, so you can accessorize them to your outfit to an extent.

The Flex is very small and light, and only has five LED lights that show you throughout the day what percentage of steps you’ve taken towards your daily goal. Consequently, battery life is pretty great: the FitBit Flex can go a week between charges easily. All together, this adds up to a gadget that is a pleasure to wear: it doesn’t do much, but it’s also easy to forget.

The Flex outside of its rubber band holster.

The Flex outside of its rubber band holster.

The FitBit Flex’s entire raison d’etre is to track steps. By default, FitBit sets a daily goal of 10,000 steps for most users, which you can change through the accompanying software. According to FitBit, 10,000 steps a day is ” a rough equivalent to the Surgeon General’s recommendation to accumulate 30 minutes of activity most days of the week. It should be enough to reduce your risk for disease and help you lead a longer, healthier life… Unless you have a very active lifestyle or profession, you probably don’t reach 10,000 steps on a given day without putting some effort into your activity. ”

The good news is that the FitBit Flex tracks steps very well. You wear it on your wrist and it just keeps on counting the tiny little bumps of your tread throughout the day, squirting them through Bluetooth 4.0 to your connected iPhone or to your Mac when it’s in distance for tracking. Even without your phone, you can see how many steps you’ve made towards your daily goal by tapping the Flex, which will show you a series of lights, each one equivalent to 2,000 steps. When you hit 10,000 steps (or any other goal you set), the FitBit Flex vibrates and its lights twinkle to show you you’ve managed to make your daily quota: anything over that is just gravy.

All well and good, and like I said, the FitBit Flex is just great at counting steps. The problem, though, is that counting steps is actually a fairly one-dimensional way to track fitness, or even activity. And that’s pretty much all the FitBit Flex does.

To be sure, 10,000 steps a day sounds like a sizable amount, and in fact, it is: it’s about the equivalent of walking five miles a day. But truthfully, you need to be almost pathetically sedentary to not make close to 10,000 steps a day just in the course of your daily activities.

Need proof? Look at me. I work from home, I have no commute, I live and work in a small apartment, I have a BMI of over 30, and in the last three weeks of testing the FitBit Flex, there’s only a single day I didn’t make a 10,000 step goal… and that was a day I essentially spent entirely on the couch. Even then, I missed 10,000 steps by less than fifty steps. This is not a high hurdle to clear.

By default, the Flex does not track the eating of ramen.

By default, the Flex does not track the eating of ramen.

10,000 is only the default goal, of course, and FitBit claims it’s roughly 50% more steps in the day than the average American takes… a fact which is almost too depressing for words. But the point remains that if the Surgeon General’s recommendation to doing the bare minimum to reduce your risk for disease is so easy to maintain, then for an activity tracker to be truly useful, it needs to be helpful in tracking other types of activity as well. Walking’s just not enough. But for the Flex, walking is the only activity it tracks automatically, and steps are its only currency.

For me, this was the most frustrating thing about the Flex. Every morning, for example, I usually swim a mile at the local YMCA, but the Flex, while waterproof, can’t register that at all. Competitors such as the Nike Fuelband can at least measure that I’m doing some sort of activity there, but as far as the Flex is concerned, if I’m not walking, it’s not tracking. The same is true with bicycling, another thing I do fairly regularly. And while the FitBit Flex does count the “steps” of the five mile jogs I take three or four times a week, it can’t distinguish that steps made while running might be of a higher value than steps made between the couch and the refrigerator. To be fair, the FitBit companion software allows you to track all of these activities, but the Flex itself just doesn’t care.

The Flex has some other cool features besides step-tracking. The Flex will track your sleep, but not particularly well; it registers every movement in bed as a period in which you have woken up. It will also function as a “silent” alarm, buzzing you awake in the morning, which if you sleep with a partner might be its neatest overall trick. And that’s about it. All for $99.

There aren’t really major strikes against the FitBit Flex at the end of the day. If you do more activities than just walking, you can enter them all manually into the app, along with meals eaten and other such details, while the Flex itself keeps track of your passive activity throughout the day. Overall, it’s a pretty good picture of your total health. Even so, I think it’s important to temper expectations with the Flex. In truth, unless you’re willing to heavily invest time and effort into FitBit’s activity tracking software, the Flex will be an underwhelming accessory for anyone who is moderately active already. And as a motivational tool? The Flex is best aimed at either the utterly sedentary, or those for whom other types of exercise besides walking are difficult or impossible.

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Product Name: FitBit Flex

The Good: Tracks steps like a champ. Unimposing and easy to wear. Long battery life. Cheap at $99.

The Bad: If you’re already active, tracking steps and steps alone just isn’t enough.

The Verdict An excellent device for the truly sedentary, but more active users might quickly find it superfluous.

Buy from: Fitbit

Cult of Mac rating: Good

  • PaulMiller

    “But truthfully, you need to be almost pathetically sedentary to not make close to 10,000 steps a day just in the course of your daily activities.

    Need proof? Look at me. I work from home, I have no commute, I live and work in a small apartment, I have a BMI of over 30, and in the last three weeks of testing the FitBit Flex, there’s only a single day I didn’t make a 10,000 step goal…”

    I’m a little surprised by this. I have a FitBit One, and find myself needing about an hour of reasonably vigorous walking plus the general back and forth throughout the day to reach my own 10,000 step target.

    For me, the target acts as a gentle nudge, and helps me to prioritise an hour’s walk (away from the desk) over deleting a few more emails…

    • Jono Major

      raise your target

  • glashus

    Yeah, 10k steps equals around 5km of walking and you simply won’t do that without going outside.
    Playing drums or j*rking off counts as steps though…

    Also, you missed the real point of wearing a Fitbit- to track your average calorie burn. The app then lets you balance this with calorie intake. If you like to track other activities Fitbit has integration with other apps (like Endomondo) so your other workouts gets synced to the app. If you combine this with the Fibit Aria you have a rather powerful tool that measures daily calorie burn (the Flex), workout burn (phone app), weight (Aria) and food (the Fitbit app).
    So yes, the device itself is pretty limited, but the ecosystem around makes it really good.

  • painterlymuse

    I’m also surprised you found 10,000 steps no effort even though you work from home. I also work at home and don’t drive and I walked 10 blocks yesterday running errands, I still didn’t make 10,000 steps, not even half. I’m using the Fitbit One and I wasn’t trying, just observing how I actually move. 10,000 steps has to require a little effort, I’m not seeing how you racked up those steps without doing more than working at home like you said here:

    Need proof? Look at me. I work from home, I have no commute, I live and work in a small apartment, I have a BMI of over 30, and in the last three weeks of testing the FitBit Flex, there’s only a single day I didn’t make a 10,000 step goal…”

    Actually, you work out a lot from what I read in the article. Maybe it doesn’t register the swimming and biking but obviously your running gets counted along with the effort walking to do those swimming/biking activities. Sounds like some effort to me.

  • SueRH

    There’s no way you get even close to 10,000 steps a day without working out. I have an 8 hour a day desk job and if I don’t go to the gym, I average about 3500 steps.

  • ChinaBlue

    Really surprised that for the author 10k steps per day was almost no problem. I have been using my FitFlex for just over a week, already it’s helping me make some positive changes as I realised just how little I was doing and the impact of what I was eating. Additionally, it shows calorie burn and gives a simple way to track food and water consumption. Hopefully in a couple of months I’ll really see the benefit of it. And if I “graduate” beyond it – then fantastic!

  • snsime

    “Unless you lead a pathetically sedentary life you can make 10,000 steps per day” If most people walked five miles a day in North America we wouldn’t have a health crisis. It takes me about an hour (two 30-minute dedicated walks) per day plus my usually office movements to hit 10,000 steps. This from a guy that two months ago was, in fact, pathetically sedentary. I’m proud of my progress and my 4-5 miles a day feels far from pathetic. The author here has either an incredibly narrow, uninformed view of the world or is simply dishonest. I guess I shouldn’t shoehorn… it’s likely both.

    • Jono Major

      the obvious solution to that problem is to raise the goal which is easily done on the website. I’ve used it for a few days and easily meet the 10k but i am on my feet at my job alot. I think the huge takeaway is that this is a tool to help motivate people to be more active and it is what you make of it.

  • stephanie simons

    I work from home as well, I cant believe you get 10,000 steps at home doing no workout.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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