Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Back to the Blog - Fitness

I simply cannot believe that it's been over a year since I've posted to my blog.  I do tend to use Facebook more than my blog, but that's no excuse.  So!  What's been happening since my last post??  I've been weaving - not as much as I'd like to.  I've been teaching - and I have some really wonderful students.   But 2014's big event was finally getting serious about losing weight and getting healthy.

Mostly, I belong to the school of "don't talk about dieting - nobody wants to hear about it."  So this is probably the only time I'll blog about it.  I don't know what triggered it in 2014.  I'm not even sure there was a single triggering event.  An influencing factor was the new owner of Yarnivore, the yarn shop where I work and teach.  Caryn is a lovely lady, yes, but to see her deal with physical issues that I don't even remotely have to deal with kind of kicked me in the rear.

Caryn inspired me to start in with yoga to recover flexibility.  So in February, I started practicing yoga at least once a day.  I kept this up for about six months and I need to get back to it.  Going to classes usually doesn't work for me.  If I have to leave home to do something, I typically won't do it for very long.  I found a great app for my iPad, Yoga Studio. I fixed up one of the upstairs bedrooms for yoga and meditation and found my old yoga mat. Starting out was a nightmare of stiffness and pain, but slowly I started to see results.  Then something in my head went "click" and at the end of June, I decided that my weight was awful and it was time to do something about it
Weight Watchers
Over a decade ago, I was advised by my doctor to lose some weight and to give Weight Watchers a try.  I took her advice and dropped down to a really good weight for me.  However, I didn't learn to eat smart.  I depended on Weight Watcher's frozen meals instead of re-learning how to cook.  Then 9/11 happened.  I lost my job, was a single mom and didn't have the money for Weight Watchers.  I dropped out and started packing the pounds back on again.  In late June, I decided to give them another try. Again, since I typically don't stick with anything that requires leaving home, I knew I wouldn't do meetings.  There's an online option now, which is just what I wanted.  I decided that this time, I'd re-learn how to cook, cook more of our meals at home and start getting some exercise.  I splurged on some new Weight Watchers cookbooks, have learned to stir-fry, and am generally a much better cook than I used to be.

George has done the diet and exercise with me, and we've both seen excellent results.  We've also discovered San Antonio's system of hike and bike trails, which is simply excellent!  We've gotten back on the bike, to a certain extent, and started walking much more.  As a little stocking-stuffer gift for Christmas, he gave me a Pivotal Tracker 1 fitness band by Pivotal Living.  And thus launched:

The Saga Of The Fitness Bands
Pivotal Tracker 1 (top), VivoSmart (bottom)

Take 1: Pivotal Tracker 1 from Pivotal Living

Pivotal Living's business model is a little different from other activity monitors / fitness bands.  You pay a $12 annual subscription and get the band for free.  There is a smartphone app that syncs with the band but no other way of viewing the data.  The app is supposed to be available for iPhone and Android devices.  The system is closed and does not interface with any other system such as Weight Watchers or My Fitness Pal..

Okay, the Pivotal Tracker is not a good choice.  It was launched before it was ready.  I think it was rushed to market in an attempt to catch the Christmas and New Years Resolution wave and as a result, had worse than a rocky launch.  The Android app is very bad, several of the features either don't work or are poorly supported and, worst of all, the initial band has some kind of hardware issue.  I should probably get over my fixation with Pivotal, but I'm experiencing a kind of morbid fascination with watching a train wreck.  I wish I was getting my PhD in Business,though, because I think I could get a dissertation from this particular train wreck!

So, real quick - a review of Pivotal Living's Pivotal Tracker 1

The product consists of a band and a phone app.  It currently (as of this writing) supports iOS 8 and Android 4.4 (Kit Kat).  It does NOT support Android 5.0 (Lollipop), which most new devices are running.  (For example, I'm contemplating upgrading my Samsung Note 2 to a Note 4, which won't work with the Pivotal Tracker.)  There is no webpage to view or manage data.

This is what the band/app should do:

  • The band can function as a watch, showing either 12-hour or 24-hour time.
  • The band tracks steps, distance, calories burned, minutes active and percent to goal.
  • The band has a sleep tracking function, although it is not automatic.
  • The app should pull this information from the band and also allow manual entry of hydration and weight.
  • The band can serve as an activity reminder and an alarm clock.  We have no idea if these work or not as we don't use them.

This is what is really happening:

  • Probably the worst problem for all users, iPhone and Android - the band randomly resets, losing all the data accumulated since the last sync and resetting the clock to midnight.  It also sometimes changes the time from 12-hour to 24-hour.
  • Due to numerous band resets, the time cannot be trusted, so it's hard to even use it as a watch!
  • When the band is working, it tracks steps, but the algorithm is a little wonky.  For example, it typically tracked around 50 to 100 steps before I got out of bed in the morning.  I don't sleepwalk.  Since George took the band over and compares band info with MapMyWalk, the steps vary but not consistently.  Sometimes it records more steps, sometimes fewer.
  • Minutes active is very wonky.  There's no way to manually start an activity. Apparently, the band has some way of determining when the wearer is active and it's very hit-or-miss.
  • Sleep tracking on the app is hard to understand. The sleep range is 12am - noon - 12pm, regardless of when you put the band into sleep mode or take it out.  And yes, noon and 12pm are the same thing.  The graph is so small that it's hard to see what's going on - even on a Note 2 screen which is very generous.
  • Percent to goal doesn't work on the app.  The band (when it doesn't reset) gives it, but the data doesn't sync.
  • At least with the Android app, syncing is very hit-or-miss - mostly miss.  I could get it to sync, but I had to nurse it along and frequently had to hard stop the app and restart it to get it to work. George has had fewer problems with the iPhone app, although it isn't always smooth either.
  • A bad problem is the lack of customer support.  It's gotten some better in recent days, but it's still lacking.  An example of this is the band reset issue.  Pivotal Living says that the bands are resetting due to static in the user's environment.  They will replace the band one time, at the user's expense to return the band.  Returning the band is around $6 - half the price of the annual subscription.  They do not guarantee that the replacement band will work any better since the problem is the user's environment.  Hmmm... So the resetting band is the customer's fault.  As you'll soon see, I have a different band in the same environment and have no problems. And even if it IS the customer's environment, that means that the band is still unusable... at least for those customers in those environments.
My band never had the reset problem from when I started using it on December 25th through George taking it over and using it to mid-January.  I read many, many accounts of other users having the reset problem and thought that we just got lucky.  Pivotal Living says one in five of the bands have the static issue.  One in five is 20 percent!  That's a high failure rate, folks!  And I know of at least one customer who has never reported the problem through social media.  Are we the only ones?  I doubt it.  On January 13, in the middle of the day, George noticed that the band was in sleep mode.  He didn't do it (he doesn't use or have any interest in the sleep tracking).  We wrote it off as a fluke or an accidental setting and went on.  The next day, January 14, the band started resetting and has never worked reliably since.  Some days it will go without a reset, others it resets several times in the day.  As a note, it doesn't seem to matter if it's a warm day or a cold one.  There may be some correlation with humidity levels, but I've not taken the time to track it.  Apparently, once something happens to the band, whatever it is, whether static or some other hardware issue, it is irreversible and the band cannot be trusted.

As of this writing, George is still using the band.  He hasn't decided whether to send it for a replacement or give up on it and buy another device.  My tolerance is much, much lower.  I bought another band.

Take 2: VivoSmart from Garmin

Since I have an Android phone and was increasingly frustrated with Pivotal's buggy app, we did some research and found a band that had the features I liked in the Pivotal Tracker band.  In addition, there are many more features I wanted as well as an app that worked with my Android phone and a very nice web dashboard.  I chose the Garmin Vivosmart.  We got it on sale at REI, bundled with a heart rate monitor.  Now, I've never used a heart rate monitor and wasn't sure I'd like it, but for $30 more than the band, why not?  I've used it on several long walks now and really do like it.  The Vivosmart itself has had a rocky start (although nowhere near as rocky as the Pivotal).  I did have some initial issues with it getting going with the Android app, but it works very well now.  As of this writing, it supports iPhone and Android 4.4 (KitKat).  There is some question as to whether or not it supports Android 5.0 (Lollipop).  I'll be sure it does before I upgrade!

Vivosmart Showing Steps Over Daily Goal and Goal

This is what the band/app/dashboard should do:
  • The band can function as a watch,  You do have to double-tap it to get it to show the time.
  • The band tracks total steps, goal and steps remaining to or steps over goal, distance, and calories burned,
  • The steps goal is intelligent. It formulates a goal based on age, gender, weight and reported activity level.  It automatically adjusts the goal based on how many steps you take during the day.  You can override the automatic settings, but I find them very reasonable.
  • The band has a sleep tracking function, although it is not automatic.  The graph is readable on the smartphone, but it's really useful on the web dashboard.  You can see a minute-by-minute breakdown of your sleep.  For example, I've noticed I tend to go into REM sleep at the same time of night, regardless of when I went to bed.
  • The band has an activity tracker, though it's not automatic either. If you put the band into activity mode, you can see the activity stats by moving the band up, as if to read a watch.  This isn't 100% reliable, but it's pretty close.  The activity will upload as a separate event into the smartphone app and web dashboard.  The web dashboard allows you to edit more information about the activity, such as naming it, tying it with gear (I keep track of miles on my shoes, for example) and assigning a activity type and category to it.
  • In addition to the above, the band can notify of the receipt of phone calls, text messages and emails, if it is within Bluetooth earshot of the smartphone.  It can also be used to manage the volume of the smartphone's media player if it is within earshot.
  • The web dashboard allows weight entry.  I can't remember if the smartphone app does or not.  I tend to enter it into the web dashboard once a week when I enter it into Weight Watchers.
  • The band can serve as an activity reminder and an alarm clock.  I honestly haven't used the alarm clock, so I don't know if it works.  The activity reminder certainly does!  If you don't move within an hour, it reminds you, and then reminds you every 15 minutes thereafter until either you move or it resets itself and starts over again.
  • The band can sync with other ANT+ devices.  The heartrate monitor is already paired with it, if you buy the bundle. The heartrate starts showing as soon as I put on the monitor and will be tracked and reported during an activity. I'm contemplating getting a cycling monitor to pair with it as well.  
  • The smartphone app is very nice, but I really love the web dashboard, which I use for studying the results of what I'm doing.  The web dashboard is customizable, allowing me to see only what I want to see.
  • The VivoSmart comes in three different sizes and five (I think) color combinations.  The Pivotal Tracker comes in one size.  You can see how much too big the Pivotal Tracker is for me in the photo above.
You only get one list because it does everything it's supposed to do!

One thing to note: Weight Watchers advertises that it can now sync with Garmin (and other) activity trackers.  The Vivosmart definitely can't be used with Weight Watchers.  This isn't a problem for me as the web dashboard makes it very easy to enter my activity numbers into my Weight Watchers tracker.  If, at some time, I decide to leave Weight Watchers for My Fitness Pal, it will sync.  At some point, Weight Watchers may decide to fix the bugs with syncing.  From what I understand, other fitness trackers aren't well supported by Weight Watchers either.

If you've made it this far (and you're brave if you have!) then I must say that the initial $12 investment has had some amazing results.  George and I are walking about 4 miles every day.  We do have a rest day now and again, but we're out and exercising much, much more than we were.  We're also contemplating a walking marathon - 26.2 miles.  We'll see if we manage it!

So there you are!  A review of two activity monitors and a very involved peak into what's going on around here.  Next post, I'll go back to weaving.  Stay healthy this year, everybody!