Road Test: Fitbit Alta HR

fitbit packaging

As I work in the fitness industry, I’d have to be living under a rock to have not heard of Fitbits. Many of my clients and peers have been using them for a while now, and I’d been toying with the idea of buying one myself.

I loved the slim profile of the Alta model; I didn’t need another large-faced sports watch as I already have one and it tends to dig uncomfortably into my wrist when I’m doing yoga (kind of a big deal when you’re a yoga teacher doing your advanced teacher’s training as it means I’m pretty much doing yoga in all my free time right now…). The only problem was the lack of heart rate monitoring which this new model has addressed.

Fitbit recently provided me with one of their new Fitbit Alta HR trackers to road test it. Get ready for a big review; I wore it daily for three weeks to give you a decent overview of it and there’s a lot of stuff packed into this little watch!

fitbit packaging

The sales pitch

The Fitbit Alta HR is an upgraded version of the Alta. It does everything the older version does, except there are a few key upgrades which include:

  • Longer battery life – The original Alta has a battery life of around 4-5 days while I was advised this newer version does around 6-7 before needing a recharge. After I’d initially fully charged mine, it lasted exactly 6 and a half days so they’re pretty on the mark with it.
  • Heart rate monitoring – I own an old heart rate monitor wristwatch that involved cinching myself into an accompanying chest strap which limited my breathing capability whenever I went for a run. Gone are those days, the Alta HR has the technology built into the back of it with something they call PurePulse technology; continuous automatic heart rate tracking. It uses green LED lights which periodically flash, reflecting off the skin and detecting changes in blood flow.
  • Sleep tracking – This is where things really get interesting. So much that I’m going to talk about it further down this post rather than get into it here.


The look

There are some nice looking fitness trackers out there at the moment but I genuinely feel the aesthetics of Fitbits are unparalleled in the industry at present. The Alta HR classic straps are made of a durable elastomer material and come in a range of colours (black, blue grey, coral – the colour I have – and fuchsia) that can be later swapped out as you can buy alternative wristbands as accessories.

Fitbit know how to appeal to their audience as far as style is concerned; you can even get them in leather. There are also stainless steel, 22k gold-plated and 22k rose gold-plated editions of the watch available.

Both the original Alta and the new Alta HR use the same wristband connector so the bands are interchangeable, however, they do recommend using whichever band is specifically designed for the tracker you’ve purchased to get the most accurate heart rate readings.

In the Fitbit app you can also change the appearance of the clock face and which goals/stats you want visible when swiping across.


Getting it set up

There’s not a whole lot to it when you open up the packaging. There’s a small USB charging cable that clamps onto the back of your Fitbit, the Fitbit watch, warranty info and a website URL to help you with the setup.

Being far too busy and modern to bother reading through the setup process, I just plugged it into the computer until it was fully charged and chucked it on my wrist. I’d previously already downloaded the app on my phone, so I activated my phone’s bluetooth connection and linked it to the Alta HR (unlike other bluetooth accessories it doesn’t show up on my Android phone as being permanently connected, it just shows as linked).

The rest of the setup you can do through the phone app; it’s pretty straightforward and walks you through it. If you don’t have a smartphone you can do it through your PC instead.

My husband looked at me like I was ridiculous because after first putting it on I couldn’t get over that the watch screen turns off when it faces away from you and activates when you roll your wrist inwards to look at it. Good for battery saving, not so great when you’re in a dark room putting the baby to sleep and you shift your wrist by mistake! Alternatively, you can give the screen a double-tap to turn it on, then single taps to swipe through the other screens (heart rate, kilometres travelled, etc.).

It’s pretty comfortable to wear, but I should note that I was initially getting a sore wrist from wearing it until I double-checked and found it’s supposed to be worn about a finger width’s distance from your wrist crease and I had been wearing it almost right on the wrist crease. It should fit fairly snugly but not too tight.


The Fitbit app

fitbitscreenshotDownloadable for Android, Apple and Windows, the Fitbit app gives you a dashboard to help you monitor your progress to date. The basic startup screen (which can be edited depending on what you want to view) shows your step count, kilometres travelled, calories used up, and how many minutes you’ve spent in purposeful exercise activity.

Other options include exercise goals (how many days per week you want to exercise), your previous night’s sleep analysis, hourly activity (a start target of 250+ steps per hour), your heart rate, weight loss progress, water intake, and food intake. The food intake connects to a database of pre-entered foods so that you can track your diet for a more holistic approach – while this database isn’t as good as that of some other apps, you can add your own options into it and scan barcodes from food products (though this function still hasn’t worked for me yet).

There are also challenges you can create or take on which are great if you want to compete against your friends, family or work colleagues, sample workouts to up your fitness level and step count, a place to add your friends who also use Fitbits, and a settings area to change what appears on your watch screen along with various other functions including the silent vibrating alarm.

Heart rate awareness

It’s easy to become a little obsessed with your heart rate which I suppose could be a pro or a con. Dog barks at random stuff and won’t be quiet: 85bpm. Baby cries after waking from her nap: 85bpm. Resting heart rate: 55bpm. It’s interesting to see how stress causes your heart rate to react. But I don’t feel this is a bad thing – rather something to be aware of.

I’ll often talk about this awareness of heart rate in yoga classes during moments of stillness, however sometimes when you’re busy and going about your daily activities it can be difficult to ‘listen’ to what its doing. My neighbour owns a Fitbit and actually uses the heart rate function when she’s feeling stressed out. She keeps an eye on it and slowly deepens her breathing until she can see her heart rate come back down.

Although it’s not a medical device, interestingly there has been at least one instance noted in the media where a Fitbit user even discovered she had an abnormal heart rhythm and it made her go get it checked out by her doctor. I’ve taken my radial pulse (on the wrist just below the thumb) on a number of occasions during the trial and it’s always been spot on.

The sleep tracking function

If you wear your Fitbit at night while you sleep, it uses your heart rate to detect how long you’ve slept and breaks it down into the cycles of key sleep stages: awake time (when you randomly wake up during the night), REM (important for memory and mood), light sleep (promotes mental and physical restoration), and deep sleep (helps with physical recovery and aspects of memory and learning).

This can help you figure out if you’re getting enough sleep, how good the quality of your sleep is and whether something is triggering you to wake up at certain times.

It helped me figure out that if I work on my writing or personal training programming right before I go to sleep, I tend to have less REM and deep sleep which leaves me feeling pretty rough when I wake up. It also helped me realise that my average overall sleep time is 5 hours and 52 minutes when adults are recommended to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Eeek. The Fitbit team advised that New Zealanders actually sleep more than any people on the planet with an average of 7 hours and 25 minutes, so I guess I have some catching up to do!

As a yoga teacher I’m particularly interested in what the sleep tracking function might show during periods of meditation. Yoga teachers will often talk about how meditation can provide rest for your physical body, brain and nervous system while you remain conscious.

As the Fitbit Alta HR only appears to record your evening sleep cycles in detail, I haven’t been able to test additional ‘sleep’ periods by adding my meditation sessions in the middle of the day (it doesn’t properly track your sleep cycles during daytime naps either, although they are still recognised and added to your sleep totals).

However, several guided Yoga Nidra relaxation sessions I have done just after waking up in the morning have shown the cycles added onto the end of my previous night’s sleep record and show constant fluctuations between ‘Awake’ and ‘REM’, or ‘Awake’ and ‘Deep Sleep’ (see the screenshot below). REM and deep sleep are typically cycle stages that only occur when you are well and truly amidst the sleep process. So if you’ve previously thought that meditation is a bit too ‘out there’ for you, this may be something to consider if you’re feeling sluggish and have been experiencing poor sleep quality.


Hitting your 10,000 step target

Since the 1960’s, the 10,000 steps target has been used for a variety of pedometers and fitness trackers which suggest this should be the minimum we should be doing for general health. The idea actually has non-scientific origins, however a number of more modern research studies have used it as benchmark and seem to think it’s a good idea.

As I’m a personal trainer and yoga instructor who also has to run around after a toddler all day, you’d think I would be pretty active, right? Here’s food for thought – even I struggle to hit that 10,000 step target if I don’t go out for a purposeful walk for at least 20 minutes each day. Not all activities will help you contribute to your target. From three weeks of trialling the Fitbit Alta HR, here are some rough step counts to give you an idea:

  • 10 to 200 steps – A 60-minute yoga class
  • 600-900 steps – A 45-minute spin class
  • 5,000 steps – A 50-minute brisk walk around the suburbs
  • 6,000 steps – A whole day’s step count from sitting down on a mat most of the day at a yoga course studying, only going for walks at break times
  • 6,000 steps – A whole day’s step count from being indoors on a rainy day chasing around a toddler
  • 16,500 steps – A full day trip walking around the zoo plus a spin class
Other stuff

Some additional useful things include:

  • Vibration alert notifications via bluetooth connection when you receive a phone call, calendar alert or a text message on your cellphone. Single text messages will scroll across the screen. This is particularly useful when you’re out walking or running and don’t frequently check your phone, or if you’re like me and always have your phone on silent.
  • Left on its default settings, it will periodically remind you to get moving with a vibration alert. Some alerts will also pop up as push notifications on your phone from the app.
  • The previously mentioned silent alarm. Great if you need to get up early but don’t want to wake the person sleeping next to you.
  • You can earn badges and trophies for personal triumph or online fame and glory amongst your friends. These can be for individual achievements (15,000 steps in a day, 112 lifetime kilometres etc.) or goal and challenge achievements (winning a challenge).
  • If you have your Fitbit set up with your email address, you’ll get things sent helpful stuff to your inbox. Over the past three weeks for me these have included setup instructions, tips on different Fitbit functions, weekly progress reports on my stats, and congratulations messages for achieving badges and trophies.
  • Most goals can be edited (i.e. you can set your target sleep time to be less, or aim for 8,000 steps per day rather than 10,000).
The cons

Not really a whole lot to be honest! If you want to get the most out of it, you really need to be wearing it constantly apart from taking it off when showering or swimming etc. as it’s water resistant but not waterproof. Removing it every now and then obviously needs to be done as it’s good for your wrist to have a break and your Fitbit needs to be recharged at some point, but it’s a pain in the bum if you’re in the middle of a step challenge and you forget to put it back on again!

Warning: If you’ve got friends doing the step challenges with you it can be super addictive. I’ve been in battles with my neighbour and her friends to the point where she’s been taunting me, and my husband has been egging me on to go for a walk so that she doesn’t beat me.

Remember that the step challenges are only for steps taken! This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to feel a little cheated if you’ve been doing a 90-minute yoga class that leaves you sweating profusely and only shows you’ve taken 20 steps…


To sum up

The Fitbit Alta HR is a great tool for making you more aware of what your body is doing as you go about your day regardless of whether you’re an exercise novice or an experienced athlete; a manual way of tuning in to your activity level. If you have health goals around getting moving or improving your sleep quality and want to keep track of it on a daily basis, this will help you monitor your progress and keep you motivated. It’s even better if you have friends with Fitbits as the social element and competition challenges take it to the next level.

From my work as a personal trainer I know that sleep quantity and quality is a real difficulty for many people in modern society, so the sleep tracker may be a very useful tool for you to help monitor this and make changes. Sleep affects mood, emotions, mental alertness, physical stamina and even hormone production. Given its importance, sleep is often highly underrated as a key player in health and wellbeing. If you take advantage of all its functions, this health tracker helps provide a decent holistic overview of your health by looking at the big picture – your activities, food and water intake.

For more information on Fitbits, visit www.fitbit.com/nz/home.

Product provided for review by Fitbit

Images / NZ Real Health

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