The (Workout) Struggle is Real + Apple Watch vs. Fitbit

Welcome to 2018! We all know that a new year is a time for getting back to the gym; putting healthier food in your body; being a better friend, employee, and partner; and ditching every single one of your bad habits, right?! Well, until mid-February at least. I love staying active, and this year I have the added motivation of getting in wedding-shape by June. So here’s me jumping on the #newyearnewme bandwagon and seeing how long I can hang on.

I used to consider myself a finely tuned athlete — but these days, even though I do my best to maintain a consistent workout routine, I generally end up feeling like a shell of my former self. Up until the time I graduated from college and stopped playing tennis I never actually “worked out.” I played tennis anywhere from 2-6 hours a day, lifted weights, and cross-trained, but I never considered any of that “working out.” It was just what I did, and I loved every minute of it (well, almost). But because I never had to purposefully set aside time during the day to go to the gym or go for a run, I was not prepared for how challenging it would be to fit exercise into my post-college athlete adult life. When I look back at the 13 years (yikes) since I graduated from college, there are times I’ve done a pretty good job of staying active, and then there have been times where my effort could only be described as abysmal. The funny thing is, through all of it the importance I placed on exercise and staying active never changed. But as I entered the real world I started realizing that feeling strongly about being fit and healthy didn’t always translate into actually doing the things necessary to get there.

I started my first desk job a couple of years after college. Between sitting on my butt staring at a computer all day, the free (and amazing) food choices available to us on the Google campus, and the long commute to and from Mountain View every day, I always found myself saying, “I’ll figure out a workout plan this week…next week…next month.” This was my first taste of what it was like to have to SCHEDULE my exercise. And I was horrible at it. And it was hard. And I felt like a lazy failure. In reality, it probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed in my head (or when I looked at myself in the mirror), but it was a huge, huge struggle. And it weighed on me constantly.

The good news is, things did get better. If you graphed my progress over the past 13 years it would definitely look more like a roller-coaster than a hockey stick up and to the right, but slowly I learned to work within the constraints of my new reality. I am not sharing this to earn sympathy — I know people face much tougher challenges in life. I am sharing this because I want anyone reading this to understand that even people that may have a stronger foundation to start with (i.e growing up being extremely active, having access to gyms and fitness classes, having enough knowledge to do workouts without coaching or assistance) still STRUGGLE. Especially as life gets crazier and we all get older. There wouldn’t be so many fitness-focused Instagram accounts, or companies offering us everything from cool workout clothes to fitness tracking if everyone had it all figured out. And although buying those clothes or strapping a smartwatch or activity tracker on your wrist isn’t going to miraculously teleport you to the gym more often, I have found that owning the right gear does help my motivation to get up, and get moving.

Before I jump into the tech part of this post, I feel I owe you a disclaimer. I am probably one of the most indecisive people on earth. I am the person that when asked, “Where should we go for dinner?”, talks in circles about the five different options being considered, then gets completely flustered, and then ultimately lets everyone else choose. So when it comes to a moderately more important choice like which fitness tracker/smartwatch to make my primary wearable device, I literally lose my mind. This will become very clear as you read my head-to-head comparison of the Apple Watch and the Fitbit Charge 2. There are features that I love about each device and important features that each device is missing that the other one conveniently offers. So I haven’t been able to fully commit to either one. I tend to wear one for a while, and then switch to the other, and this cycle goes round and round and never ends. Then in some cases (like when I swim), I don’t have the option to wear my Fitbit. And sometimes, like a huge dweeb, I wear both! Sigh. This is all very frustrating because one of the biggest reasons I wear one of these devices in the first place is to track my health and fitness activity, and I think to reap the full benefit you really should wear the same device on a consistent basis so it collects enough data for you to start to see patterns and trends.

So. Which one is better? Will I finally commit to ONE device in 2018? You’ll have to read (or skip) to the bottom of the post to find out!

Apple Watch (Series 2)

In many of the Apple Watch articles I’ve read, the Dick Tracy reference comes up. I never watched Dick Tracy, but I guess he had some sort of fancy futuristic watch? It appears that you can even buy a modern version of his watch for almost the same price as an Apple Watch. I digress. The reason I bring this up is that even though we now have the option to actually buy a watch that can receive/make phone calls, compose text messages, and display the latest breaking news, the Apple Watch still doesn’t feel like a must-have device for me. Is it cool? Sure. Is it fun to use? Sometimes. Is it sexier than any other smartwatch or fitness tracker on the market? Absolutely. But despite all of those things it still doesn’t add the kind of value to my life that I expect from a smartwatch in 2018, or for a $650 price tag. And that’s really my ultimate test for any high-end technology or gadget I purchase these days. It doesn’t really make my life easier either. Instead, I still find it gimmicky at best and frustrating at worst. I’ve asked myself what the perfect smartwatch might look like. And the truth is, I’m not even totally sure. I guess most simply put, I’d want a watch that would allow me to leave my phone at home and not miss it. For that to happen, it needs more useful apps, it needs to give me as much functionality as possible without drastically changing the size/shape/weight, and most importantly, it has to have a battery that lasts all day. Is this possible? I’m sure it is. Someday. But without these things (just to name a few) the Apple Watch is still just a fun companion device to my phone. And yet another thing that I have to remember to charge. Argh.

WHAT I LOVE

  • Freedom! — I hate lugging my phone around with me when I’m running or I’m at the gym. And no, those ridiculous armbands are not a viable solution. Get yourself a pair of AirPodsload music onto your Apple Watch, and off you go!
  • Unlock your MacBook — very cool feature that works 99% of the time.
  • Flashlight — comes in handy when I’m fumbling around in the dark trying to open my front door.
  • Side knob controls audio volume — helpful when you can’t easily access your phone (or if you’re using AirPods since you still can’t change the volume with them).
  • Raising your wrist to open the current audio app — instead of bumping you back to the Watch home screen after it goes to “sleep”, if you’re listening to audio and re-engage with it, it will display the app you’re actively using (i.e. music, podcast).
  • Waterproof — it’s nice to be able to wear the Watch when you jump in the shower or the pool, and it’s obviously critical for swimming workouts.
  • GPS — Fitbit really needs this. I’ve run with both devices and the lack of GPS severely hinders the Fitbit’s accuracy.
  • Activity/Workout tracking (especially swimming!) — probably the Apple Watch’s best feature. The amount of information collected and provided is awesome.
  • Timer — highly underrated feature! I use it all the time when resting between sets in the weight room, heating the oven, or cooking.
  • Some useful apps — I have hundreds of apps on my phone (yep, I’m one of those people), but only a couple of them translate into something useful on the Watch.
  • Activity Rings — this is a small thing, but important to me because I constantly try to hit all the goals that these devices throw at me. The Apple Watch has three rings that you try to close each day: 1) standing and taking at least ~250 steps every hour for 12 hours, 2) calories, and 3) exercise minutes. It’s a little hard to understand if you’ve never used the Watch (see photos below), but for instance, I like that in order to achieve the “stand” goal you don’t have to stand for x number of consecutive hours. Instead, Apple allows you stand for any combination that totals 12 hours for the entire day. This comes in really handy if I’m stuck on a conference call that doesn’t allow me to pace around my office. With my Fitbit, in order to meet my stand goal, I have to stand and take at least 250 steps every hour from ~8:00 am — 5:00 pm. Which means I often “miss” 1-2 hours every day. Which means I fail to hit that goal. Which means I stink.

WHAT I DON’T LOVE

  • Battery — it consistently lasts me ~1.5 days, which is super annoying. It basically forces me to charge the Watch every night or keep an extra charger at work. This also kills the ability to track my sleep.
  • Special charger — I travel quite a bit, and because the Apple Watch is high maintenance and requires its own special charger, it’s another thing I have to remember.
  • Notification overload — you’d think the ability to get notifications on your wrist would be handy, but I’ve actually found myself turning more and more of the notifications off. So many of them are useless and don’t allow me to take any action, in which case it’s just another reminder to pull out my phone. It’s nice to be able to quickly glance at texts if I absolutely can’t get to my phone, but nothing I’ve received has ever been so urgent that it was worth the additional distraction. Some of my friends with kids have said this capability becomes more useful when you’ve got your hands full with kid stuff and can’t access your phone.
  • More notification woes — oftentimes I’ll miss notifications because I don’t feel them come in on my Watch. When connected to your phone priority is given to the Watch, so even if my phone is sitting right next to me the screen won’t light up. If you know of a setting that fixes this, let me know!
  • Next-gen isn’t appealing — the new Apple Watch Series 3 offers cellular connectivity (i.e. you can make a phone call from your Watch even if your phone is miles away!). For now, all this means to me is more money and a worse battery.  Also, if I go somewhere without my phone it’s because I really don’t want it with me (i.e. the gym). It might be good for people with kids that always need to be on call, but right now the cellular connection is not something I am willing to upgrade for.
  • Red dot — the side knob on my Apple Watch is black. The knob on the Apple Watch Series 3 is red. I guess this is so people can see how cool you are and get jelly. But I think it sticks out in a bad way. And it definitely looks terrible with many of the watch bands Apple offers. A weird design choice IMO.
  • Low ball stats this might be ticky-tack, but like I said, I like to hit all of my Watch goals, and Apple seems to make this reallllly hard. It’s almost impossible to hit my calorie or exercise goal if I don’t work out. Maybe that’s the game Apple is playing, but there are days where I simply do not have time to workout enough to close my rings. And then they look pitiful. I don’t know which device gives more accurate numbers, but in general, I think Fitbit probably overestimates them, and Apple probably underestimates them. So pick your poison. My feeling is as long as the device is consistent one way or the other, you can work with it.

 

Fitbit (Charge 2)

I purchased my first Fitbit long before the Apple Watch launched, and despite owning two versions of Apple’s smartwatch since then, I keep coming back. I’ve owned three different Fitbits, and the Charge 2 (which I currently wear) is definitely my favorite. For those of you that haven’t owned a Fitbit before, the Charge lineup is still more of a fitness/activity tracker and not a true smartwatch. I’ve stayed away from Fitbit’s “smartwatches” because I think they look a little too masculine (Cody owns a Blaze). I’m hoping for a Charge 3 in 2018, and wouldn’t mind if it included some (or all!) of the things on my wishlist: give it built-in GPS, improve the touchscreen, make it waterproof, include a timer and a color screen, and offer a white band. This isn’t asking a lot, is it?! I realize that the more features and functionality you add, the more the form factor may change (read: get bigger or bulkier) and the more the battery life may suffer. But the folks at Fitbit get paid the big bucks to nail that balance — and I have faith that they will! So while my Fitbit certainly has its weaknesses, I’ve learned to live with them.

WHAT I LOVE

  • Fitbit’s mobile app interface — it’s hard to believe that anyone could top Apple when it comes to usability and design, but I find Fitbit’s app to be miles ahead of the Apple Activity app. Simpler, less cluttered, and makes it easier to find things.
  • Badges/AccomplishmentsI’m a huge fan of gamification. Take a painful and daunting activity and turn it into a game and my attitude towards it completely changes. Both devices let you earn badges for completing certain longer-term goals or accomplishments (i.e. close all rings in a month, or walk 100,000 steps), and I think Fitbit does badges a little better. This is certainly a personal preference, but they seem more fun and more cleverly thought out.
  • Leaderboard and challenges — both devices kinda sorta let you follow your friends’ progress, but only Fitbit lets you compete with them directly. Fitbit has all kinds of fun little challenges and adventures that I find really entertaining (i.e. one-day step challenge, weekend warrior challenge, challenges that simulate walking the length of New York City). Since most of our family members have Fitbits, it’s fun to do a little trash talking every now and then.
  • Silent alarm — since Cody and I are generally on different morning schedules, it’s nice to be able to set an alarm that won’t wake the other person up (if you wear your Fitbit to bed it will vibrate at the designated alarm time).
  • Sleep tracking — I adore sleep and have never had any issues falling or staying asleep. So although I don’t have problems that I’m looking to track, it’s still awesome to wake up every morning and be able to analyze my sleep quality from the night before.
  • Battery life — set it and forget it. My Fitbit’s battery is a workhorse and lasts 4-5 days on average. After using an Apple Watch you realize just how incredible this is.
  • Size/Weight — you almost forget you’re wearing it!
  • Price — I paid $650 for my Apple Watch and $150 for my Fitbit. For anyone on a budget or not willing to invest that kind of money in a smartwatch, the Fitbit offers a ton of value for not a lot of money.
  • Calorie tracking — this is also personal preference, but I like that Fitbit tracks ALL of my calories for the day, not just my “active” calories. Basically, Fitbit tracks the calories you burn just by living and breathing (and exercising) — not just the ones you burn while standing or moving. Apple actually DOES track the total as well but it’s buried a little bit, and only the active calories count towards your calorie ring. I can argue the usefulness of both, but the best thing about how Fitbit handles calories is that you can log your food and see a fairly accurate total calories-in vs. total calories-out count.
  • Syncs with 3rd party devices and apps — I haven’t explored all of the 3rd party devices/apps that Fitbit syncs with, but two that have been useful for me are my Withings scale and Strava.
  • Simple is sometimes better — some might say a Fitbit is too simplistic, but I find that to be one of the best things about it. The things it does, it does well, and I never feel like it’s trying to do too much.

WHAT I DON’T LOVE

  • Not waterproof — unacceptable in 2018!
  • USB cord charging — I hateee plugging my Fitbit into my computer to charge it. It’s just not convenient AT ALL. You’d think an easy solution would be to plug it into your iPhone or Android brick, but I read in the Fitbit help forums that Fitbit doesn’t recommend using any sort of charging brick. They need to make their own charging brick and be done with it.
  • Build — while I like that my Fitbit is lightweight, it does feel just a little bit cheap, especially when compared to the sturdy, high-end build of the Apple Watch. Maybe that’s where your extra $500 goes.
  • Average touchscreen — compared to an iPhone (or Android) touchscreen, Fitbit’s screen seems sluggish. You’ve actually gotta give it a pretty firm tap, and about 20% of the time it doesn’t register the tap accurately.
  • Weak exercise tracking — a Fitbit it will always track your steps/calories/distance covered in a day, but the Charge 2 also offers the ability to log a specific workout. Great, right? However, because my Fitbit only offers what it calls “connected GPS”, I have to carry my phone with me to take advantage of GPS features (like accurate distance and pace). If I DON’T bring my phone on a run but still try to track my distance on a map, it is wildly inaccurate. The newest Fitbit Iconic has true built-in GPS, so hopefully more Fitbit devices will in the future as well.
  • Lack of a timer — my Fitbit has a stopwatch, but no timer. Because I use a timer all the time for all kinds of random things, this is a big annoyance.

The conclusion I came to at the end of 2017 was that I had been clinging to my Apple Watch because of the “cool” factor. It seemed to be the obvious choice for a tech-obsessed Millennial like myself, and I really wanted it to be my primary, every-day device. That said, I realized that if I was being completely honest with myself, even though the Fitbit is less sexy, less tech-y, and less futuristic, it is the device for me. There’s just something about hitting my 10,000 steps, feeling my wrist vibrate, and pulling up my sleeve to catch a glimpse of the silly little black and white fireworks animation. It makes me smile. It’s simple. It’s fun. And in the end, that’s all I really want or need. Hopefully, Fitbit will up its game and release a Charge 3 this year that includes the features on my wish list, but until then I’ll live with my current Fitbit’s minor weaknesses and focus on kicking my family’s butt in this week’s Fitbit Workweek Hustle challenge.

If any of you have grappled with the same decision, know of features of either device that I missed, or have a strong feeling about which device is better, let me know!

 

Articles about the Apple Watch Series 3 (with cellular service)

https://www.wsj.com/articles/apple-watch-series-3-review-untethered-and-unreliable-1505905203

https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/20/16334066/apple-watch-series-3-lte-new-features-review-2017

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