The Obesity Panacea Holiday Gift Guide 2012

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Although we don’t do it very often anymore, the original impetus for starting this blog 4 years ago was to deconstruct products aimed at fitness and weight loss.  Most of those posts (collected here on ObesityPanacea.com) were highlighting products that we felt were making unsupported health claims (the term “weight loss gimmick” could be used to refer to many of them).

But over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to try out a few fitness-related products that I’ve actually really enjoyed, and since this is the time of year for gift buying I thought it would be a good time to share my experiences.

Full disclosure: I was provided with each of these products by the manufacturers, but we have no other association with the products and aren’t making any commissions from the below links. Here are my thoughts, and if you have personally tried any of these products I would love to hear about it in the comments.  Also, apologies in advance for the length of this post – if I’d had more time I would have made it shorter.  Thought it would be better to get it out sooner than later. Enjoy!

The MOVABLE MOVband

The MOVband is a pedometer/watch combination.  It consists of 2 parts – the pedometer/watch, and the rubber strap that allows you to wear the MOVband as a wrist watch.  I like pedometers but they usually aren’t all that exciting (if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all), so I wasn’t expecting to be particularly enamoured by the MOVband.  However, I’ve got to say that the MOVband is definitely my favourite of the three products in this review.  It is cheap ($29.99 US), simple to use, and gives data in a variety of formats that are convenient for both the luddite and the tech savvy user.

The good

The pedometer portion of the MOVband attaches to your computer by USB, which allows you to setup the pedometer by inserting your height, weight, and local time, as well as downloading data to the MOVABLE website.  This is also how you charge the MOVband, but I found that I was able to go 2-3 weeks between charges without a problem.

While wearing the pedometer it gives you the time of day, the number of “moves” you have made that day (it resets automatically each night at midnight) and the number of miles you have traveled since last resetting the device (estimated based on your height and number of steps each day).  Downloading the data from their website in CSV format is very simple, and below you can see some of my data from earlier this fall (steps/day in green, miles/day in red).

Data downloaded from the MOVband (click to enlarge)

I’m not sure just how precise the MOVband data are, but the data for most of my runs seemed pretty reasonable and consistent from day to day.  And with this sort of relatively inexpensive pedometer for personal use, that level of accuracy is good enough for me.  If I were using the MOVband for research I’d certainly want to validate it first though.

The MOVbands are designed to be used with MOVChallenges, which are “fun and motivating events that build camaraderie and unity as everyone strives to reach a common goal“.  Essentially a school or business would give the MOVbands to a bunch of people then use them to track progress towards an activity-related goal (e.g. traveling 100 miles).  What I especially like is that the MOVChallenges are free for an organization to setup once you’ve paid for the MOVbands.  Given my experience with the MOVbands, if I were trying to do some sort of school or corporate physical activity challenge, I would certainly consider using them.

The bad

The MOVband has one very annoying design flaw – the pedometer falls out of the wrist strap with alarming regularity.  It fell off numerous times during my recent trip to Australia, I lost it (briefly) in the mud today while unloading groceries, and I catch it in the process of falling off at least once or twice a day.  I haven’t lost the pedometer (yet), but my wife promises me she is going to stop telling me when I drop it.  For a device which is targeted specifically at children and schools, this seems like a big design problem.

Another quibble with the device is that while it collects data on an hourly basis, individual users can’t access this data (although it is available to “group managers” overseeing a MOVchallenge).  This means that I couldn’t look at patterns in my activity levels throughout the day.  Nor does the MOVband collect any information related to movement intensity, although I’ve been told it is “on the radar to include in a future release”.  And as with all pedometers, the MOVband doesn’t collect any information on sedentary time (e.g. sitting).  The rubber wrist strap is also quite small – it would be fine for kids (or distance runners), but I’m not sure how well it would fit for people with larger wrists.

Finally, the appearance of the MOVband is pretty polarizing – some friends have told me it looks “sleek” and modern, others (including my wife) think it looks a bit silly.  I tend to think that if you’re in elementary school or the type of person who wears a Timex to work then you probably won’t mind the look, but for some adults it’s probably not going to fit the bill.

Cost: $29.99 US

Worth the price?

In my opinion, yes.  The device is inexpensive, easy to use, and provided data in a usable format.  If I were looking for a decent pedometer to track my activity levels, then this one would be at the top of my list.

Overall Rating 8.5/10

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The BodyMedia CORE Armband

The BodyMedia armband is worn on the upper arm, and uses a variety of sensors (movement, heat and sweat) to track daily physical activity and sleep patterns.  The online activity manager can also be used to track food intake and body weight.  Based on the activity data, the device also estimates daily energy expenditure.  I should mention that the device comes with a free smartphone app, but it wasn’t available for my Blackberry so I wasn’t able to try it.

The Good

In contrast to the MOVband, the BodyMedia Armband provides data on physical activity intensity.  In the below figure you can see my daily sedentary behaviour (blue) moderate (red) and vigorous activity (green) in hours per day.

Data from Bodymedia armband (click to enlarge)

The online interface is also easy to use, and allows you to see data on an hour-by-hour basis (however, unfortunately you cannot download this data, you can only see it on the website).  You can also set daily targets for energy expenditure, which makes it relatively easy to tell if you’re getting the amount of activity that you’re aiming for.

The band also gives information on sleep “efficiency”, which is essentially the proportion of the time you spent sleeping relative to the amount of time you actually spent in bed.  I’ve been told that this is very accurate, but I personally found that it was repeatedly giving me very low efficiency on nights when I slept through the entire night and woke up feeling refreshed.  I’d personally take the sleep efficiency data with a grain of salt, but I still found it useful to know how many hours I was laying in bed each night, which I took as a rough measure of my total sleep time.

If your goal is to monitor your weight/weight-loss, then the Armband might be a useful tool, since it allows you to collect a bunch of weight-related data all in one place.  That wasn’t what I used it for personally (I was really just interested in the sleep and activity data), but if anyone has used it for that purpose I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

The bad

While the Armband provides you with more detailed data than the MOVband, the data is a bit more complicated to graph due to the format (the format is hours/day, which Excel doesn’t like).  If you only want to look at the data using the online portal then that’s not a problem, but if you want to export and analyze your data  à la Quantified Self, then I think the data formatting could get pretty annoying.  Another personal peeve is that the monitor lumps together sedentary behaviour and light activity.  So whether you’re standing, walking or sitting, the monitor combines them all into one pile.  That’s not unique among this type of monitor, but it’s still frustrating.

From an aesthetic perspective, it is also very obvious when you are wearing the Armband.  I tend to wear tshirts most of the time, and it’s hard to hide a big monitor strapped to your bicep.  A related problem is that the device only comes with 1 strap, which you are expected to wear during the full 24-hour day (workouts included).  The monitor obviously gets pretty sweaty during workouts, which makes it a bit unpleasant to wear the rest of the day. Also, no matter how much you wash it, it gets stinky pretty quick.  So if you’re planning to buy an Armband, plan on buying a couple extra straps.

Finally, perhaps my biggest issue with the Armband is that it costs $6.95/month to access the online Activity Monitor, which is the only way to actually view your data.  Over time those costs are going to add up.

Cost: $99.00 US (plus $6.95/month to access necessary online activity manager)

Worth the price?

It depends.  If you really want to track your daily energy expenditure and other data related to weight maintenance, then this might be worth the cost and monthly fees (although you might also want to consider the less expensive and sleeker FitBit before making any purchases).  For someone like myself who is mainly interested in tracking physical activity levels, I would save my money for something else.

Overall Rating 6.5/10

The Fitdesk

By far the most intriguing item in the Obesity Panacea Gift Guide is the Fitdesk.  It is essentially a very simple stationary bike with a platform that acts as a desk.  It comes with 2 elastic bands that allow you to strap down your laptop, and has enough space for an external mouse, as well as pockets on the side of the platform that can hold things like calculators, external hard drives, etc.

The Good

I’ve got to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the FitDesk.  It’s certainly not the fanciest stationary bike in the world, but it does work pretty well considering the price.  It’s comfortable, the cranks rotate smoothly, and it’s compact enough that it can fit in a small space (which is good in our apartment where space is at a premium).  The height of the platform is also quite good for use as a regular standing desk when I want a break from pedaling.  I’ve enjoyed using it enough that I actually miss it when I have to work at a traditional desk for a prolonged stretch (my wife has enjoyed using it as well).  Since I’m in the process of writing up my thesis, which basically means I’m sitting in front of a computer all day everyday, the FitDesk has been very useful to me the past few months.

The Bad

One very important caveat to my use of the FitDesk is that I was mainly using it to reduce my sedentary time, rather than as a means of getting any moderate physical activity.  I personally find it quite difficult to use a computer while pedaling at any  level of exertion that could be considered “exercise”, although I find it works well at a lower cycling intensity (e.g. pedaling at low resistance at about 45-60 pedal revolutions per minute).  In fact I’ve been using the FitDesk whenever I work from home the past few months, and it has been extremely useful while working on thesis for several hours at a stretch (I’ve been pedaling throughout the writing of this blog post).

In contrast to my usage, the FitDesk website portrays the bike as a way to lose weight.  I am willing to entertain the idea that the FitDesk could help to reduce metabolic risk or improve cardiovascular fitness (provided that you have a reasonably low level of fitness to begin with), but I just do not see it burning enough calories for it to help the typical user to lose any weight.  In fact, I would take most of the claims in the below promotional video with a grain of salt.  It is also worth mentioning that while it seems very plausible that using something like the FitDesk should reduce the negative impact of prolonged sitting, I am aware of no studies that have actually examined whether that is the case.

Other issues with the FitDesk include the “computer”, which one reviewer on Amazon pointed out looks like a discarded Sony Discman.  The computer is so heavy that the velcro that is meant to attach it to the bike ripped off within 20 minutes of putting the bike together.  I also have some reservations about the accuracy of the computer, which told me that I was pedaling at more than 50 km/h (30+ mph) with relative ease – something that I know is not possible.  The estimated caloric expenditure seemed rather generous as well, which is a concern since they are trying to position the bike as a way to lose weight.

The pedals were also very finicky – in fact the company had to send me replacement pedals and crank arms since the first batch were so problematic.  Again, it’s not the most robust stationary bike in the world, but it’s solid enough for light intensity pedaling for hours at a stretch.

Finally, the ergonomics of the desk aren’t ideal for using it all day, everyday (to be fair, I don’t think that the bike is really intended to be used in that way).  I personally find that I can use it for a few hours/day and feel just fine, but if I use it all day (not necessarily pedaling that whole time, but just using it as my primary workstation) for more than a day or two at a stretch my back gets quite sore.  Lately I’ve been more conscientious about going back and forth between a regular desk and the FitDesk, and find that it’s made a big difference.   So I’m thinking that if you have any back problems you might want to be careful about using the FitDesk for prolonged periods, or at least take a lot of care to make sure that you’re not going to be doing more harm than good.

Cost: $249.99 US 

Worth the price?

For me, yes. In the past we’ve had posts on ways to build pedal desks at almost no cost, but I don’t think you’d be very comfortable using those as your primary workstations.  The FitDesk, however, does work quite well as a full-time workstation even if (like me) you don’t pedal all that time.  Using this desk is very unlikely to help you improve your 5km personal best.  But if, like me, you spend most of your work day sitting in front of a laptop computer, it seems like a viable option for making your day a bit less sedentary.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

If you have tried any of these devices, or have suggestions for other similar devices please let us know about them in the comments (no spam please).

Travis

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