Category: FitBit

FitBit Flex Now Has an Auto-Sleep Tracking Mode

FitBit recently released a firmware update for the Flex that adds a useful feature. Once your Flex has been updated to version 81, it will automatically detect when you sleep and when you wake up so that you no longer need to remember to tap the device to put it into sleep mode and to take it out of sleep mode in the morning.

I like this feature because it addresses one of my key criteria for self-tracking: Ideally, a self-tracker should not have to do anything beyond their normal activity in order to track the activity.

In the normal course of my day, I walk. I don’t have to anything to track those steps beyond wearing my FitBit. I don’t have to tell my FitBit that I am walking. It knows when I am walking, when I am running, and when I am idle, and detects and tracks these activities automatically. Prior to this recent update, however, I had to take an action to tell my FitBit when I was going to sleep, and when I woke up. It was a simple action, tapping the device to put it into sleep mode, but it was still something I had to remember to do. You lose one stat with automatic sleep mode—how long it took you to fall asleep. But you can get that back by continuing to put the Flex into sleep mode manually. How long it takes me to fall asleep is one stat that I don’t really miss.

With the recent update, FitBit has eliminated those actions, and there is one less thing for me to remember.

If you don’t have the recent update and are interested in getting it, you can follow FitBit’s instructions for updating your tracker.

3 Days Without My FitBit

Three days ago, the band for my FitBit Flex broke, and I didn’t happen to have a backup handy, as I have in the past. This means that for the first time since around March 2012, I missed three consecutive days of collecting step data. The good news is that a replacement band (my 5th) is schedule to be delivered today.

Broken FitBit

The bad news is… well, there really is no bad news. It is not like I lost any steps. They simply were not counted. I can’t speak for others, but after a while, it seems like if you forget your FitBit (something that’s hard to do with a Flex since you wear it on your wrist) there is a panic because you will “lose the steps” for the duration. But that is nonsense. I still walk. I still take steps. The FitBit device is not the reality. It is only a mirror of reality. I can look into a mirror and see my reflection, but I don’t need the mirror to know I am there. The same is true with my FitBit.

I like data, and I am fascinated by looking at the data and digging out the ore, but I also understand that just because I didn’t collect the data doesn’t mean the thing didn’t happen. I think that is one trap of the quantified self movement–that we begin to substitute the numbers for the reality. If the numbers don’t exist, the reality never happened. And that, of course, is silly.

So I’ve gone these three days without my Flex, but I am okay with it. My left wrist feels strangely naked without the wristband, but that’s about it. I’ll have a gap in my data, but even that is okay. I have enough data (over three-and-half years’ worth) that missing a few days will not upset the overall numbers.

Still, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the delivery truck today.

A Competitive Bunch of FitBit Steppers

On Monday, my buddy and coworker, Rob, invited me to the FitBit “Workweek Hustle” challenge. This is a little challenge in the FitBit app that allows you to compete with friends to see who ends up with the most steps through the course of the workweek. Apparently, I have a competitive set of friends when it comes to steps. After not quite 3 complete days, here is how things stand (no pun intended):

FitBit Challenge

We are each averaging close to 20,000 steps per day.

And, while we each have a full 5 days to complete the challenge, I must point out the my pals Rob and Alvaro have the advantage of walking in the comfort of warm southern California air, while I am getting in my steps in windy (sometimes rainy) and cold conditions of the east coast. I think I should get some kind of handicap for that. My count is down today for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am back on the rollout countdown for this project-that-never-ends.

The challenge ends Friday. I’ll let you know how things went.

5 Tips for FitBit Newcomers

With the holidays approaching quickly, people are beginning to think about New Year’s resolutions. Getting into better shape is always one of the more popular resolutions. And with the explosion of wearable tech devices–like a FitBit–on the market, I imagine there will be a lot of people eager to improve their fitness with the help of their new device. With that in mind, here are a few tips I’d offer for getting started with your FitBit (or similar) device in the new year. These tips come from my own experience. I’ve used a FitBit Flex almost constantly for the last 2-1/2 years, tracking more than 10 million steps.

1. Spend the first week or two establishing a baseline

A FitBit device doesn’t automatically improve your health or fitness simply by wearing it. What it does do is provide an effortless way of collecting data about your physical activity and sleep behaviors. For me, one of the most difficult challenges in trying to improve myself has always been measuring that improvement. And to measure improvement, you need to set a baseline.

When I first got my FitBit, I spent about 2 weeks, just going about my normal behavior, and trying to forget that I had the new device. This allows you to establish a baseline and from that, you can set realistic goals.

From your baseline, you can see how much walking you do in a day–and even when you do that walking. If you find that your baseline is 4,800 steps per day you might try upping it to something reasonable like, 6,500 or 7,000 steps per day.  The baseline will also tell you when you are not being active during the day, and might help you to plan times when you can be more active. Below is an example of a day’s activity for me.

A typical day's activity


Your baseline will also include an estimate of how many calories you burn throughout the day, and this can help in determining how many calories you should consume.

It is worth spending time that first week or two wearing your device and not worrying about it because the baseline will prove to be a valuable calibration tool in the long run.

2. Identify common milestones

Once I established my baseline and set some goals, I found that it was useful to have a few pieces of information handy to help me meet my goals each day. For instance, since everyone’s stride is different, I thought it would be useful to know how many step it took me to go one mile. I used my FitBit device to help figure this out, and it turned out that I typically take about 2,200 steps in a mile. How is this helpful?

Well, my current goal is 7.5 miles per day. If I happen to be at, say 13,000 steps, and know that I need about 2,000 more to make my goal, I know that all I have to do is walk one mile.

It also helps to know how far a mile is. For instance, I know that one walk around the city block on which my office building resides is just about 1 mile.

If you don’t think in terms of steps or distance, but instead, think of calories, you can identify similar milestones. For instance, you might learn that you burn 600 calories walking one mile a normal pace. I find these milestones useful in helping me make ad hoc adjustments to my activity throughout the day.

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FitBit Milestone: Ten Million Steps!

This morning at around 9:15 am Eastern Standard Time, I surpassed 10 million steps on my FitBit device. Here is what it looked like after I passed this milestone.

10 million steps

For those wondering, 10 million steps comes out to about 4,600 miles.

4600 miles


According to Google Maps, that about the distance from Washington, D.C. to the crater of Vesuvius in Naples, Italy.


The 10 million steps covers 2 FitBit devices spread over more than 2-1/2 years of tracking. I used a FitBit Ultra from early March 2012 until I lost it a year later in March 2013. I went a month and a half without a FitBit device and then I got my FitBit Flex in May 2013, and have been using that ever since. You can see that gap when I was missing my device in the chart below. The chart shows my steps for every day in the 2-1/2 years it took to accumulate 10 million steps. The red line is a 7-day moving average.

Ten Million Steps Over Time
Click to enlarge

I clearly began to pick up the pace when I got my FitBit Flex, going from an average of 10,000 steps per day to 15,000 steps per day. I’ve done fairly well at maintaining that pace, which amounts to about 5.5 million steps per year.

On my single best day, back in May 2014, I walked over 31,000 steps in a single day. It was exhausting.

In any case, it was pretty exciting to see the numbers flip from 7 figures to 8 figures this morning. Of course, at this pace, it will take close to 20 years before the 8 figures flip up to 9 figures and I reach 100 million steps. Stay-tuned…


An Index to My FitBit Posts

My FitBit posts seem to be quite popular. Indeed, 2 of the top 3 posts for 2014 today are posts about FitBit. So I thought I’d collect links to all of the FitBit posts I’d written in one place for easy access. Here they are:

Happy walking!

Automatically Send a Summary of FitBit Activity to Evernote with IFTTT

Yesterday, IFTTT introduced the FitBit Channel. This is something I’ve been waiting for! Now it is easy to trigger IFTTT events based on FitBit activity. As an example, I created a recipe that will automatically send a daily summary of the previous day’s FitBit activity to Evernote.

IFTTT Recipe: Send a daily summary of #FitBit activity to #Evernote connects fitbit to evernote

There’s a ton of other things possible with this IFTTT integration. You could send your data to a Google Spreadsheet, send an email when you get less than a certain amount of sleep, send a text message when you meet a daily goal. Check out the possibilities over at IFTTT.

My First 30,000 Step Day

I‘ve had a FitBit device for more than 2 years now. I average between 15,000 – 20,000 steps/day. I’ve gotten my 25,000 step badge, but the 30,000 step badge has always eluded me. Not anymore.  Yesterday evening, as I turned back onto my street from a long evening walk, this happened:

30K Day

Kelly and the kids were out, and the street outside the house was desolate because it is being repaved this week, so I celebrated my achievement alone:

30K Celebration

As you can see, 30,000 steps is about 14 miles. I only have detailed records going back 2 years, but I think it is safe to say that this is the second best distance I’ve walked in a day in my entire life. I think the top day took place sometime in 1999 or 2000 when I walked what I estimated to be about 15 miles in Manhattan, wandering about for most of the day. Still, I’ll take the 30,000 steps.

By the time I went to bed last night, I had amassed 31,194 steps for the day, which is my new record, and will likely remain so for some time to come. It is really hard to get 30,000 steps packed into a day.

FitBit emailed me a note of congratulations, letting me know that I’d received my 30,000 step badge. But there was also a little hint of challenge in that note:

30K Badge

Really? Another 5,000 steps? I’m going to be happy with my 31,194 steps and leave it at that.

Fun with FitBit Data: Seasonal Activity on Weekdays and Weekends

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at all of my steps in the last year or so, but breaking them down into seasons and weekends vs. weekdays. I’ve done just that in the charts below. These charts1 are not composites of my daily walking. They are total steps for the seasons on weekdays and weekends. Each bar represents a 5-minute interval, and when you see one such interval with 4,000 steps, that is across the entire season, not a single day. Still, provides some insight into daily patterns, and especially differences between those patterns on weekdays and weekends, as well as seasonal differences.

Summer 2013


Summer 2013 - Weekday


Summer 2013 - Weekend

Fall 2013


Fall 2013 - Weekday


Fall 2013 - Weekend

Winter 2014


Winter 2014 - Weekday


Winter 2014, Weekends

I did not include the spring of 2014 as we are only partway through the spring and the without a complete set of data, there is no means for comparisons with other seasons.

A few observations:

  1. While summer and fall are relatively close on weekdays, there is a big difference between summer and winter.  On peak summer days, my morning walks totaled more than 4,500 steps in each 5-minute interval over the course of the summer. For that same time in winter, the number was barely 3,500 steps, a thousands steps less in each 5-minute interval. The weather plays a big factor in how much walking I do between summer and winter.
  2. The patterns in the weekday data is consistent, even though the numbers vary from season to season. I am creature of habit when it comes to my walking.
  3. Patterns are virtually nonexistent on weekends. About the only consistency I see is a low step count around 3 pm across all seasons. I suspect this is because we’re typically home at this time, and the kids are napping.

I’ll try to remember to post a follow-up when I have a complete data set for the spring. Although I suspect the patterns for weekdays will look much like the Summer and Fall.


  1. The data comes from some Google App scripts I have that pull by minute-by-minute steps data from FitBit using their API. The data was crunched and the charts were generated using Mathematic.

FitBit Experiment: Measuring Battery Life from Low-To-Empty

Yesterday, I performed a little experiment with my FitBit Flex. When I arrived at the office, I received an email alert that my FitBit Flex battery was low. My charger was at home, and I certainly didn’t want my Flex to miss counting any of my steps, but I decided that this was an opportunity for an interesting trial. I would see how many steps (and how many hours) the Flex would last before giving up the rest of its stored power and shutting down. I received my email “low battery” alert at 7:59 am and had just 1,275 steps so far that day.

FitBit Battery 1

I decided that I would not alter my routine at all, but go through my normal process, getting my daily walks and periodically checking to see how the battery was doing. And that is exactly what I did.

Just before 3 pm, 7 hours after the low battery notice, the FitBit app started showing my battery as “empty.” At this point, I had just about 9,000 steps total.

FitBit Battery 2

I resigned myself to eventually losing some steps, but figured it was worth the sacrifice in the name of science in order to find out just how long the battery lasted after the initial “low battery” email notification. So I continued with my day.

By the time I finally went to bed last night, my Flex had not yet died. The battery still showed up as “empty” despite the fact that I had put a total of 17,450 steps in.

FitBit Battery 3

That was enough for me. Rather than put it into “sleep” mode only to have the device quit on my sometime in the night, I decided to charge it overnight. I had enough data to answer the important question.

The results of my little experiment can be summed up as follows:

  • Time from low-battery message to “empty” battery indicator: <= 7 hours
  • Steps from low-battery message to “empty” battery indicator: ~7,200
  • Time from initial “empty” battery indicator to when I decided to charge: ~7 hours
  • Steps from initial “empty” battery indicator to when I decided to charge: ~8,000

And here is the answer to the question that I was really trying to get in the first place: If I receive a low battery message, how long can I use my Flex before it will lose power?

The answer, based on yesterday’s experiment, is

  • At least 14 hours
  • At least 15,500 steps

Seems to me that is useful information. Next time I get one of those alerts, I know I don’t have to rush back home to grab my charger. I can go virtually all day and the Flex will continue to work, despite showing the “empty” battery level on the iPhone app.

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2 Useful Insights I’ve Gained from Personal Analytics Data: Sleep and Productivity

In writing about personal analytics and data collection, one question I get more frequently than most is: what do you get out of it? Today I thought I’d share 4 insights I’ve gained into my own behavior from scrutinizing the data that I collect.

For those who haven’t been following along, I am fascinated by what data about our everyday lives can tell us about our behaviors. The data is often referred to as “personal analytics” and the movement behind this kind of data collection and analysis is called the “quantified self” movement. I collect data in four major areas:

Areas of Tracking

I collect data in other areas, too, but the key point about these four areas is that the process is entirely automated. I just go about my day, and this data is collected without any intervention or action on my part. I’ve already written extensively about my walking and writing insights so today I’ll focus on what I’ve learned about my behavior when it comes to sleeping and overall productivity.

1. Restless nights and sleep efficiency

You know those nights where you feel like you are tossing and turning all night long, getting very little sleep? Turns out, I do sleep on those nights, at least according to my FitBit, but my “sleep efficiency” is down below 90%. Here is a one recent example:

Sleep Efficiency

I’ve been capturing this type of data for almost two years now and I’ve learned a few useful things about my sleep habits by looking closely at the data.

  1. When my sleep efficiency is >= 95%, it feels like a restful night’s sleep. This is true for me almost independent of the number of hours I actually sleep. If I only get 5 hours of sleep, but my sleep efficiency is, say, 97%, I still wake up feeling like I had a good night’s sleep.
  2. When my sleep efficiency is between 90-95%, it’s a pretty good night, but the number of hours is more of a factor. If I get, say 7 hours of sleep with a sleep efficiency of 92%, I feel pretty good in the morning. On the other hand, if I get 5-1/2 hours of sleep with a 92% efficiency, then I don’t feel nearly as well-rested. According to the data, the time threshold is around 6 hours.
  3. When my sleep efficiency is less than 90%, I feel like I had a restless night’s sleep, regardless of hours actually slept.

I’ve been able to take this data and put together a chart of my sleep quality, based on two variables, sleep efficiency, and hours of actual sleep (vs. hours in bed).

Sleep Quality

I should not that I do not track how I feel each morning when I wake up. But on mornings when I felt particularly good or poor, I’ve checked it against the data from my FitBit and it is fairly consistent. For me, therefore, the above chart is a good representation of the quality of my sleep based on the two inputs.

How does this help?

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Does a FitBit Flex Accurately Track Your Steps if You Walk with Your Hands in Your Pockets?

It was bitterly cold here the last few days, making my lunchtime walks a little more challenging. I normally walk 3 times around the large block where my office is located, which amounts to about 3 miles, or roughly 6,000 steps on my FitBit Flex. With the weather as cold as it was, I was a little concerned about how my FitBit Flex would behave if I shoved my hands in my pockets. Earlier in the spring, I discovered how pushing a stroller skews the number of steps you take. How would shoving my hands in my pockets to keep them warm affect the way the Flex counts my steps?

In the interest of science and discovery, I decided to perform an experiment yesterday. I would walk each of my 3 laps at lunch in a slightly different manner:

  1. First, I’d walk the entire lap without putting my hands in my pocket.
  2. Next, I’d walk the second lap with my hands in my pocket the entire time.
  3. Finally, I’d walk the third lap as I always do, with a kind of hybrid mix of the first two.

I used the activity-tracking feature of the FitBit Flex to capture the data from each lap independently. When the experiment was concluded, here is how things looks:

Winter Walking
Click to enlarge

Let me examine each lap independently.

The first lap – hands out of pockets

On the first lap, I walked with my hands out of my pockets for the entire lap. I walked just about 1,800 steps in 14 minutes. The first thing you’ll note is that this is two minutes faster than the other two laps, each of which took me 16 minutes. I think there is a very good explanation for this. With the windchill, the temperatures were below freezing. I was walking ungloved with my hands outside my pockets. It was cold and I therefore walked faster.

The second lap – hands in pockets

On the second lap, I walked with my hands in my pockets the entire lap. I walked just over 1,900 steps in 16 minutes. I have already explained why this lap was longer by 2 minutes (with my hands in my pockets, I wasn’t as cold and my pace was slower). The same walk took about 100 more steps with my hands in my pockets. 100 steps is roughly 5% of the total, which one could argue is within a margin of error of +/- 5%. But I think there are 2 other possible explanations:

  1. Putting my hands in my pockets alters my stride, making it a little shorter. Over the course of 2,000 steps, this adds about 100 steps to make up the distance.
  2. I didn’t walk the exact same course. Each time around is a little different, weaving this way or that to avoid obstacles, detour around people, etc.

Each of these I think easily explains an extra hundred steps. The good news, for me at least, is that the step count did not drop with my hands in my pockets, the way it does when I push a stroller.

The third lap – hybrid

The third lap is closer to how I normally walk in cold weather, shoving my hands in my pockets for a little while, and then taking them out for a little while. As you can see from the data, it is almost identical to the second lap. This tells me 2 things:

  1. The first lap was an outlier, the numbers altered more because I was cold and wanted to rush through the lap.
  2. The 3rd lap differed from the 2nd by only 36 steps. This tells me that whether or not my hands are in my pocket, my FitBit Flex is recording my steps the same.


It seems, based on my simple experiment, that walking with your hands in your pockets in cold weather does not affect how the FitBit Flex records your steps. You don’t have to worry about “losing” steps in the way you lose them when pushing a stroller. As winter approaches and cold weather becomes more common, you can rest assured knowing that the Flex is capturing your steps accurately, whether you walk with your hands in your pockets, or outside them.