Fitbits: What's Up With Them?

If all your friends are sporting Fitbits and waxing lyrical about step counts and sleep quality, you might be feeling a bit left out. You will likely be confronted by a bedazzling, befuddling, wide array of options. But what, exactly, does a Fitbit do? How does it work? Which one should you choose? And, once you’ve got one, how do you set it up, charge it and set about winning those all-important step challenges? 

What is a Fitbit?

A Fitbit is an activity tracker, usually worn on the wrist, which can track the distance you walk, run, swim or cycle, as well as the number of calories you burn and take in. Some also monitor your heart rate and sleep quality. Many allow you to receive text, call and calendar alerts, connect to your phone’s GPS system in order to map running routes and even control the soundtrack to your workout. You can also use Fitbit to connect with friends and family, sharing messages and progress data, and competing in challenges.

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How does Fitbit work?

Fitbit’s trackers use a ‘3-axis accelerometer’ to track your motions, using algorithms designed to look for specific motion patterns e.g. those that indicate walking, swimming or cycling. Independent testers reckon the system is about 90% accurate.

How does Fitbit track sleep?

Newer Fitbit trackers are set to track sleep automatically, logging sleep duration and quality. Fitbit’s algorithms assume sleep has begun when you haven’t moved in more than an hour. In ‘normal’ mode, Fitbit will only track major movements such as rolling over. In ‘sensitive’ mode, Fitbit will log almost all movements as ‘restless’ time.

Different Types of Sleep

For the purposes of tracking, Fitbit worked with sleep researchers and the National Sleep Foundation to decide to highlight four specific types of sleep. These are what you’ll see in a read out in the morning when you wake up. Here’s a breakdown, along with Fitbit’s explanation, of what each stage means:

Awake: When it comes to being awake during the night, many of us think that waking up at all is bad news. Turns out, waking up during the night is a really normal part of sleep. In fact, waking up anywhere in the ballpark of 10-30 times in a single evening is perfectly normal. So, if you’re one of those people that roll over a few times during the night, or even gets up to pee once or twice, you’re just like everyone else. There’s nothing to be super worried about.

Light Sleep: Light sleep is when your body starts to slow down at night, it’s that moment when you start to fall asleep, but you could be easily woken up again. The best example is probably those moments when you’re commuting and fall asleep on the train or in the passenger seat of your co-worker's car. When you’re in light sleep, you might still be aware of what is going on around you, and someone could wake you up pretty easily — but you’re still asleep. During this sleep stage, your heart rate will decrease slightly from what it is when you’re awake. Just because you can be woken up easily doesn’t mean this isn’t a useful stage — light sleep helps a ton with mental and physical recovery, so you can feel a little better after an hour of light sleep than you did before you started to snooze.

Deep Sleep: Deep sleep is the type of sleep you really want to have each night. When you wake up in the morning and think “Gosh, that was a great night of sleep,” you probably had a ton of deep sleep during the night. When you’re in a deep sleep, as you can imagine, it’s harder to wake you up than it is in a period of light sleep. Your body becomes less responsive to stimuli, your breathing becomes slower, and your muscles start to relax.  During this sleep stage, your heart rate becomes more regular and your body starts to recover physically from the day before. This stage also helps support your immune system and can help with memory and learning. Unfortunately, the older we get, the less deep sleep we typically get, although sleep patterns vary from person to person.

REM: Once you’ve made it successfully through your first stage of deep sleep in an evening, you typically enter REM sleep. You typically stay in REM sleep for a longer period of time during sleep cycles occurring in the second half of the night. When you’re in REM sleep, your brain becomes more active. In most cases, dreams occur during this stage.  During REM sleep, your heart rate becomes more rapid, and your eyes will move quickly from side to side. Muscles below the neck are typically inactive during this sleep stage, in part to prevent you from acting out what’s happening in your dreams. REM sleep helps with learning, regulating your mood, and memory. During this time your brain also processes what happened the day before, and consolidates your memories so they can be stored in your long-term memory.

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I've fallen in love with my Fitbit Charge 2 from Verizon. When you get a Fitbit you set up your health, fitness, and life goals. Your goals are adjustable and you can change them at anytime. The Fitbit cheers you on and tells you when you’re getting close to certain goals for the day. While the Fitbit isn’t a magic cure for all your ailments, it does arm you with the information you need to make healthier decisions. We are fortunate enough to live in an era where almost everything is trackable. If something can be tracked, it can be improved.