Fitness

Keeping well with fitness trackers

Tech meets health in these wearable devices

Some men cope with the stress of facing their 40th birthday by purchasing a fancy new sports car. Others take a big trip.

Jeff Barr bought a dog and a fitness tracker. His choices — a Basenji he calls Basie and the Fitbit Flex — have helped him shed 40 pounds in the past year. Basie has helped a bit, but his Fitbit has been the difference maker.

“When I turned 40, I decided I didn’t want to be a sedentary person anymore,” said Barr, a software engineering manager, now 41, who moved to Bend from Las Vegas three years ago. “The dog forced me outside, but I needed to have metrics to measure what I was doing and that’s where Fitbit came in.”

Pedometers have been around for ages. The ancient Romans counted steps with a device they hooked to their carts called a hodometer. Leonardo da Vinci experimented with pedometer designs and Thomas Jefferson reportedly bought one in France and introduced them to America. But in the past five years or so, a number of companies have introduced activity trackers that do a lot more than just measure steps. In Bend, where it’s not uncommon to hear absurdly fit looking men and women trading notes about their latest triathlon, activity trackers are becoming ubiquitous, if you know where to look (shoelaces, wrists, waistbands, and, on women, bras).

Features vary from brand to brand, but most trackers in the $100 range can track steps, miles, calories consumed and burned, floors climbed and sleep quality. Gale Orcutt, a sales associate at Bend’s REI, said that Fitbit, which released the first activity tracker in 2009, is still the most popular brand, with their One and Flex models leading the way.

“People also really like the Polar Loop, because they are kind of sleek looking,” she said. “If they want to measure their heart rate, they go with Polar Loop or one of the Garmin trackers.”

Other popular trackers include the JawBone Up24, which is very lightweight and inconspicuous, the Nike + Fuelband, which is stylish and has a user-friendly app, and the Misfit Shine, which looks like a high-end watch and has a cool halo of lights on its face that shows users how close they are to achieving their daily step goal.

John Hammarley, who runs his own video production company in Bend and is a feature reporter on the television program “MyWindow,” uses a Misfit Shine, because it’s one of the few activity trackers that can measure swimming strokes and convert them to steps. A year after hiring a fitness trainer at the Athletic Club of Bend and purchasing the Misfit, he has lost 20 pounds and says he’s kept the weight off.

“Everyone in my whole family has died of heart disease so I want to make sure I do everything I can to keep my heart from giving out,” said Hammarley, 62. “I’m from the Midwest; I’m a goal oriented guy. Having a goal every day and the fact that this thing is strapped to my wrist, it helps.”

Jeff Barr said that he had a scare after getting a physical when he turned 40.

“I’ve always been heavier, but when I was younger, I didn’t really care that much,” he said. “But when I hit 40, I thought, I can’t pretend I’m still young. If I keep this up for another 10 years, I’m going to be dead of a heart attack.”

Barr spends 8 to 10 hours a day in front of a computer. He tried various ways to change his sedentary lifestyle, including buying a stand-up desk, but nothing worked until he bought the Fitbit a year ago. Now he runs 4 miles a day and charts his progress on the Fitbit app several times a day.

“If I get to the end of the day and I’m only at 7,000 steps, I get a little panicked because I know it’s going to look really bad,” said Barr, a native of Saskatchewan. “I like checking my fitness graph online and I want to see it look a certain way.”

He wears his Fitbit Flex everywhere — including the shower — to make sure he gets credit for every step and he uses it to count calories and chart his sleep quality and quantity. The Fitbit’s sleep function has helped him determine that he needs six hours of sleep per night to function at full capacity.

Many of the activity trackers have a social component that allows users to compare their stats with friends, but Hammarley, who has completed 12 marathons and two Iron Man competitions, says that he prefers to keep his activity private.

“I’m a closet fitness tracker,” he said. “Bend is so fitness-oriented that I’m probably too intimidated to share my fitness information with people who are much fitter than me. They’d think my stats are chump change.”

Barr likes the fact that Fitbit sends him an email each week with detailed performance statistics and he’s joined a Bend group on the Fitbit website, where he can chart his stats versus other Fitbit users in Bend.

“There’s a guy named Aaron who always seems to have the most steps each week,” he said. “One of these days, I’d like to log into the group and see my name on top.”

— Reporter: dave.seminara@gmail.com

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