It’s well known that fitness trackers don’t just track your exercise, they motivate you to do more of it, which is probably how I recently found myself marching uphill through fresh snow at dawn on a weekday, the crystalline silence of the forest punctuated only by the crunch of soft powder underfoot. Part meditation and part exercise, I find a quiet and lonely walk to be a deeply healthful and life-affirming activity, and I’ve been doing a lot more of it lately.
This all began more or less as soon as I first strapped on my new Withings Steel HR Sport fitness tracker. I’ve always tried to spend as much time as I could in the Maine woods around my home, but when life’s obligations pile up, it can be difficult to set aside the hour or two needed to plunge into the wilderness, work my muscles, and clear my head.
Me: “Do you mind if I go for a walk right now? I feel like I need to stretch my legs.”
Wife: “This is because of that new watch. You’re just trying to get 10,000 steps in.”
Me: “… so what?”
Fitness trackers are not novel, and I’ve had Fitbit-inspired bouts of exercise enthusiasm before. But the Withings Steel HR Sport has a unique value proposition, which is that it does fitness tracker things, but it doesn’t look like a fitness tracker. It actually looks good:
At a quick glance, nobody would know that it was anything other than a nicely-styled, sporty watch. The design is clean and sleek and doesn’t call attention to itself. The digital screen is small, and the watch’s single button is disguised as a watch’s crown, as if for winding. The watch works in concert with the free Health Mate app on your smartphone, which presents your fitness data in a very user-friendly form.
My favorite element of the design is the small dial with the red hand set in the bottom half of the watch face. This is an analog step counter. The user sets a personal goal in the app, and then observes the small hand wind clockwise toward that goal: the 12 o’clock position represents 100%. It was nice being able to check my activity progress without having to press a single button, with just a quick unassuming glance at my wrist.
If you do press that one small button, a compact digital screen lights up at the top of the watch face. It’s easy to cycle through different displays: calendar, heart rate, step count, mileage, calories, and alarm settings.
I really appreciated the classic style of the watch. There’s something faintly ridiculous about checking your Fitbit during a dinner party or work meeting, or putting on a Garmin tracker on a day when you know that your chief exercise may well be shambling between your desk and the coffee maker. And wearing a new activity tracker to work might as well shout to the whole office that you’ve just started a new exercise regimen. But I felt absolutely comfortable wearing my handsome Withings watch at all times, which helped break down an unhealthy and artificial mental partition between exercise and non-exercise.
And so I found myself deciding time and time again to get myself out into the forest, where I love to be. “Well,” I thought, “this fitness data isn’t just going to generate itself.” Wind and snow were no competition for that constant little red hand, perpetually reminding me that it was time to get moving.
Counting steps is one thing, but you can really unleash the capability of the tech by engaging an exercise session. Pressing that one button down for a few seconds activates the continuous heart rate mode and causes the Health Mate app on your smartphone to leap into action, tracing your route with the phone’s GPS. End the exercise session, and you enjoy a full report on what you’ve accomplished, with a map, mileage, and a heart rate graph. It works for biking and swimming (yep, it’s rated to work water up to 50m depth), among other activities.
As a very amateur athlete, I’m fairly new to heart rate tracking, but the numbers seemed accurate when checked against my pulse, which opens up a whole new world of ways to structure my training. And I’d never before tracked my pulse overnight, but the data was much appreciated, as resting heart rate is an underrated indicator of overall health.
When you go for a run outdoors, the app combines your pace and your heart rate with your baseline characteristics to generate an estimated VO2 max. This allows the app to rate your ‘Fitness Level,’ a user-friendly score of your aerobic health. As with every bit of data that the system tracks, the score is presented attractively and it’s easy to see your progress (or lack thereof). The temptation to improve your fitness level is just another way that the Withings fitness tracker might push you into your running shoes.
The watch also works a sleep tracker. I’ve got some doubts about the precision of this feature – it doesn’t seem sophisticated enough to distinguish actual sleep from the minutes or hours spent awake but motionless in bed – but it’s still useful. 8 hours at rest in bed is likely to be better than 6 hours, even if the Health Mate app is a bit fuzzy on the details.
For a few days I was dismayed that my new watch counted fewer steps than my iPhone’s native step tracking device did, and this despite the fact that my iPhone wasn’t in my pocket every second of the day (it does work with Android too). Suddenly it was harder to reach 10,000 steps. Was my Withings Steel HR Sport undercounting my steps?
I put it to the test the only way I knew how, by taking a several thousand step walk, keeping a running step count in my brain, and comparing the two. The Withings aced the test. (This doesn’t bode well, by the way, for my 7-year old daughter’s cheap knockoff fitness tracker, which regularly reports that she’s taken 15,000+ steps over the course of an average day.)
Withings claims that the Steel HR has a battery life that goes 25 days, and after two weeks of continuous use mine is still going strong at about half full. My Withings fitness tracker has proved a constant companion – whether walking in the woods, running at the gym, or trekking about town.
*Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. The author received a fitness tracker for review. Opinions are his own.