Product Review: BodyMedia FIT Body Management System

12 04 2011

I have mentioned a few times that I wore a ""BodyMedia device last summer and really got a lot of value from it. I learned what I needed to know about my daily calorie expenditure versus consumption. So much so that after a few months, I sold the device on eBay and went about my life.header_armband3

But, as I have gotten deeper into training for my upcoming Half Ironman race, I started to miss the data I used to get from the BodyMedia. I wanted to know how many calories I was burning in a day, and I wanted to know how much I was really sleeping every  night. I also want to lose about 10 pounds (nice idea, but probably not practical) before my big race.

So, last month before we went on vacation to Utah, I hit up my peeps at Amazon Fresh the day before we left and had a new ""BodyMedia on my doorstep before dawn – just in time to take it skiing. Have I  mentioned I love Amazon Fresh?!

I have been wearing it pretty consistently since then, and have found out they have made some great improvements to the device since the version I previously used. I have found this little gadget so useful that I thought I’d write up a review about it and share what I’ve learned.

While the device is marketed primarily at those looking to lose weight, it can also be very helpful for endurance athletes who are concerned about maintaining weight and measuring sleep.

I’ll go over the details of what you get and how to use it, as well as nuances and tips/tricks I have discovered from using it. The coolest thing about this updated version is that it now has Bluetooth and has an app for both iPhone and Android. I’ll get into these apps a little later on.

You may have heard of the competitor to the BodyMedia, the BodyBugg, as this is the device that Biggest Loser contestants use. While the two are actually very similar, there are some differences – namely the ability to monitor sleep – that set the two apart. Here is a nice chart that compares the two based on functionality.

What’s Included:

Out of the box, you get:

  • Armband (grey strap)
  • BodyMedia monitor (white)
  • A user’s manual
  • A quick start guide
  • A mini-USB cable

Before you can use the device, you need to do a few things.

  • First, you need to plug the monitor into your computer via the provided USB cable to let it charge. To do this, you just pop the white device out of the grey armband and connect it to your computer for about 3 hours. image
  • Second, you need to set up a BodyMedia account so that you can sync your data from the device. This is done at their website, www.bodymedia.com. In this process, you enter some key statistics about yourself so the monitor can get a “starting point,” so to speak. Additionally, this account is where you will go to download and view data from your device.
  • Third, once you have a BodyMedia account, you can download and set up the BodyMedia app for your iPhone or Android. I have an iPhone, so that’s what I’ll talk about in this review.

Setting up Your Goals

Before you get started, you’ll want to set up some weight loss (or maintenance) goals so that the device can set up your “program,” or, what your daily calorie burn, step, calorie consumption, and activity goals will be to meet your weight goals.

Here is my Goals page. You can see that I have set up a goal to lose one pound a week. In order to do that based on my activity level, I need to burn 2940 calories a day and eat 2440. Sounds so simple. Ah, but it’s a challenge!  I very rarely get both metrics exactly right in a day. A more practical person would set a lower burn and consumption rate, but, I am a goal chaser!

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Don’t worry if you think you’ll change your mind about your goals. You can go in and change these at any time. So, start with what you think you want to do (perhaps “Get Active”) and then adjust over time as your goals change.

Using the Monitor

Once the monitor is fully charged and your goals are set up, you are ready to start tracking calories. You simply pop the monitor back into the armband and secure it around your left arm behind the triceps muscle and just go through your day as usual. There is no need to over tighten the armband – you want it secure but not super tight. If you over tighten, you’ll just end up with irritated skin (trust me).

It should be noted that the device is not active unless you hear this little “boop-be-boop” noise from it. This can take anywhere from 1-10 minutes after you put it on. That noise lets you know everything is good to go and you are officially tracking calories. I suggest not leaving your house until you have heard said “boop-be-boop”  noise to avoid potentially awkward social situations…

As far as tracking calories, there are two aspects to this:

  • Calories In. This will need to be manually logged and requires diligence. (Wouldn’t it awesome if there was some way to track this by just scanning foods before you eat them? Dreamy but not possible!)
  • Calories Out. The BodyMedia takes care of this for you!

CALORIES IN

With the ""BodyMedia, you get access to their own food logging system. I’ll be totally honest: I don’t use their food logging system. I find it cumbersome and slow. If you have never logged calories in any kind of app or website, you might find it okay, but there are so many better choices for this task. So, I use the Lose It! app on my iPhone for logging and don’t worry about inputting any calories into either the BodyMedia app or website.

The one benefit to taking the time to set up your food logging in either the app or website is that you will see a visual comparison of your calories burned vs. calories consumed in your online and app dashboard. To me, the time saved by using Lose It! is worth it. I just keep a little Excel spreadsheet that I input calories eaten and calories burned in one week chunks. It works for me, but you may want to have everything in one place.

CALORIES OUT

This is the meat of the product, so I’ll try to cover as many aspects as possible.

With your online BodyMedia Account, you get a dashboard that shows you what your body has been up to for the day. You can show information at a daily, weekly, or monthly level.

Here is a snapshot of one of my days recently. Each little area is expandable, so while in your Dashboard you can drill down in a particular area to get more info. You’ll notice here that I don’t have any “Calories Consumed” because I don’t use their calorie logging feature.

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Here, I have drilled down on the calories burned section to show the detail you get by expanding the section.

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Notice that there is a grey slider just above the graph in this image. You can move that slider closer together or farther apart to get a calories burned snapshot for a certain time period. On this particular day, I ran on the treadmill for almost two hours between 4 and 6 p.m. If I want to know how many calories that exercise burned, I just move the sliders closer together. From 4-6 p.m, I burned 1209 calories. Pretty cool to see, huh?!

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If you so desire, you can also see calories burned information down to the minute level by moving a little blue line across the data with your mouse. During the heart of this workout, I was burning 11.5 calories a minute. It should also be noted that eating was the last thing on my mind after this workout – it was a doozie!

A second bit of data that I find valuable on the Dashboard is my sleep information. Here you can see that I am a fidgety sleeper. Some nights I do well, some nights I don’t. The ""BodyMedia tracks time laying down and time sleeping, and tells you your sleep efficiency percentage (ratio of laying down to sleeping) so you can see what is happening overnight.

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Apparently most adults have about an 80-90% sleep efficiency. I usually see about 83%, but this particular night I was up a lot for some reason.

GETTING DATA

In order to see information on your Dashboard, you need to download data from your monitor. This involves removing the monitor from your arm and plugging it into your computer. You just snap the monitor out of the armband, plug it in via the mini USB cable, and you’ll see a little pop up that your data is now downloading to your account.

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The monitor can store 14 days worth of data before you need to download, but the battery only lasts about a week. So, at the very least, you should download once a week.

I like to download every couple of days, but I want updates more frequently than that, and that’s where the iPhone/Android app comes in.  The app lets you take a snapshot of where you are throughout the day without removing the armband.

To get real-time data via your phone, you do have to sync the monitor to the app, which requires depressing the little button in the middle of the monitor and waiting for the “boop-be-boop” noise. Translation: Don’t sync the monitor in a library. Or a church. Or, while waiting in line at the grocery store. Or, do. But, don’t be surprised when people look at you weird because your arm is beeping!

Here is a mid-day snapshot from a day when I was seriously slacking. (Okay, it was a rest day, but, you can see, I didn’t do much.) In this image, you can see the battery level on my monitor (the little battery image in the top left), as well as key stats about my day.

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Calories burned, activity, and steps are all transmitted via Bluetooth. For some reason, sleep does not sync via Bluetooth. It will remain at 0:00 until I sync the monitor with the online app, at which point, it will update. I have seen some folks complain that the syncing doesn’t always work, but honestly, I have had about a 98% sync success rate with the app. I can only remember one or two times where I couldn’t sync when I wanted to, and when I tried again later it worked fine.

I have also used the app real-time while running on the treadmill. I just prop it up onto the little shelf, sync it, and start running. Then, I see calories burned and steps taken updates throughout my workout. It seems to refresh data about once every minute. There is a lag, but it is not significant.

Like the online Activity Manager, the iPhone app has the imagecapability to do food logging. Also like the online version, the food logging is slow and cumbersome. I just don’t use it. I  used it for one day and wanted to pull out my hair. But, if you use the logging feature, you will see your real time deficit or overage information between the top and bottom sections of this screen.

In general, I find the iPhone app a huge improvement over the very plasticky “watch” device that you used to have to use to get real-time updates. It’s convenient, free, and works well enough for my needs. I would love to see some sort of integration with other calorie tracking apps so that you could just sync up your data across apps and not have to input calories into the BodyMedia app specifically. Calorie counting is definitely not their forte, so it would be nice to see them farm that out to a company that does specialize in making counting calories easy.

WEEKLY AND MONTHLY VIEWS

For those looking to monitor trends over time, the online Activity Manager allows for snapshots of your daily stats over a 7 day, 14 day, 21 day, or 28 day period. This deeper look is pretty interesting to see how you are doing over a more macro instead of micro level.

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Here we can see that from February 27-March 26, I burned almost 2500 calories a day, walked about 8500 steps a day, and slept an average of 6:40 per night. Interesting data, I think, but I am an admitted geek and enjoy this sort of analysis.

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These charts are pretty cool for seeing trends. Since I have “hard” days and “easy” days in my training plan, I can see those expressed over the month to see if I’ve had too many hard days or not enough in a very quick view. I can also see trends of where I may be slacking. This graph is interesting because you can quickly see that meeting my 2900 calorie burn goal happens much less frequently than I would like…

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MANUALLY INPUTTING ACTIVITIES

There may be times when you do an activity but don’t wear the device. For me, this is when I go swimming, as the monitor is not waterproof. But, never fear! You have the opportunity to manually input activities in your Activity Manager through the “Edit Off-Body” screen.

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You simply click “Edit Off-Body,” an a pop up window appears. From this screen, you see the times when you weren’t wearing the monitor, and can select what you were doing during that time from a list of activities.

In this case, I was swimming, so, I have selected swimming and my speed, and then I click “Save” to save the activity to my Dashboard. You’ll notice that the manually-edited activity time is much more rigid looking than naturally-occurring activity. I now have a solid block of time between 8:30-9:30 a.m. which reflects my swimming time.

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Note: I have noticed when I do a manual off-body edit and then sync my iPhone app that the edits do not appear in the app. The Bluetooth connection to the monitor appears to override the online edits. This is not a big deal to me, but, you should keep it in mind. Hopefully BodyMedia will fix this glitch in future updates to the app.

PROS AND CONS

I could continue to deep dive into every screen available in the Activity Manager, but I think you sort of get the picture that you can get a lot of data out of this tiny little device. So, let’s talk about pros and cons.

Pros

  • Small, lightweight, and barely perceptible. I honestly forget I have the monitor on. It’s about half the size of a credit card (horizontally) and about 1/2” thick. It’s weight is really insignificant. I have walked into the shower several times and had to run out to remove it! (The device is not waterproof.)
  • Highly accurate. I have found the device to be really very accurate, with the possible exception of biking. I have read a lot on this topic, and other folks appear to agree that it underestimates calories burned during biking and spinning. In general though, if I calculate out my Basal Metabolic Rate, and then add in the various activities I do throughout a day, I find that the monitor is very close to that projected number. But, I don’t have to do a bunch of math every day – I just let the monitor tell me what I’ve done!
  • Easy to use. Really, the device is pretty simple. There is one button on it that you press to sync with your phone. Otherwise, you just wear it.
  • Easy to clean. I wipe down the sensors on the back of the unit every day with a cotton ball with a bit of rubbing alcohol on it. That’s it.
  • Highly motivating. When you look at your progress throughout the day, seeing real numbers is amazingly motivating. I have been known to grab the dog and go for a walk – even if I’ve had a workout already – to meet my daily step or calorie burn goal. It’s like having a live-in trainer tell you what to do, without all the yelling.

Cons

  • Ongoing cost of ownership. In order to download your data, you need a BodyMedia subscription. It’s free for the first three months, but after that, it’s anywhere from $6.95-$9.95 per month, depending on how long you commit.
  • Potential for skin irritation. I haven’t had this problem since I figured out not to over-tighten the device, but if you have sensitive skin, you could experience skin irritation from the metal sensors. The keys here are to move the device around (i.e., don’t put it in the exact same spot every day), keep it clean, and, make sure not to put the armband on too tight.
  • Weak calorie (input) tracking capabilities. I’d say the “calories in” tracking aspect of the whole package is the weak link. If BodyMedia wants to really improve their offering, they’ll get their act together on the tracking aspect. Page load times need to be improved and the food database needs to be dramatically expanded. For now, using a non-integrated calorie tracking app or website is your best bet to avoid frustration.
  • Notice-ability. Personally, I don’t care about this. But, if you wear a lot of sleeveless or tight-fitting shirts, people may  notice this monitor on your arm. Be prepared to explain what it is (people are fascinated – I have explained it a lot) or cover it up!

OVERALL IMPRESSION

Overall, I think this device is pretty darn amazing, especially for something that only runs about $220 US.

It uses a lot of different inputs received from your body to do a pretty good job of telling you what you do in a day. It may not be 100% accurate, but it is definitely accurate within a small tolerance. When the data from ""BodyMedia and my food tracking shows at least a 3500 calorie deficit over a period of time, I can back that up on the scale with weight lost. It is just that simple.

I am a data-driven person, so I like to see in real numbers what is happening. This also helps me not get down on myself. I know if I don’t have the numbers to back up weight loss, I shouldn’t be upset about not losing weight. It helps keep me rational!

I think folks that are looking to lose weight and not succeeding could find a lot of benefit out of this device. Weight loss comes down to math, pure and simple, and this device tells you in no uncertain terms if you are really on a path to lose weight. It also doesn’t lie or sugarcoat anything – it tells you what you are really burning, not what you “think” you are burning. It is human nature to overestimate energy expenditure and underestimate food consumption, but as long as you consistently wear this device, there will be no need for estimation.

They say knowledge is power. This device gives you all the knowledge you need to succeed in weight loss. It takes the guesswork out of the “how many calories do I need?” equation, and leaves you to do the real work – eating right and exercising to hit your numbers.

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