Garmin Vivofit fitness tracker review…plus! heartrate and calorie burn of Ashtanga Yoga

[Updated 5/7/2015, one year of wearing the Vivofit.]

You know I’m a gadget whore.  So when I got a chance to play around with a Garmin Vivofit fitness tracker, of course, I got to experimenting, starting with several Ashtanga Primary yoga sessions.  This post will start with the Vivofit review, then move to what I found out about my yoga practice.  Proceed as you see fit.  And if you know Primary, definitely scroll down to see the cool graph.

The Vivofit

The Vivofit tracks your movement with an accelerometer (super cool demo of how an accelerometer works) and your heart-rate if you pair it with an ANT heart-rate monitor—which I happened to already have, yay!  Between the two sensors, the device attempts to give you actionable data about your steps taken, distance walked, your sleep, and your daily calorie burn.  I don’t know how they crunch the numbers to come up with all that, but they give it a fair go.  The Vivofit also has some motivational “Move More!” features, like the Bar O’ Shame, as well as software to connect you up with people you know for competitive challenges, etc.  More about that in a minute.

First Steps. I think the whole concept of “steps” is not so much about the actual number of physical steps you take, but more an attempt to quantify movement. This makes some sense as the majority of people’s daily life centers around walking and sitting.  And in the gamification of fitness—which is think is one of the main goals of fitness trackers—moving more is the goal, the Vivofit is a score keeper, and “steps” are the points.  However “steps” aren’t the best or only way, of course, since, for example, cycling, swimming, and yoga (all my kinds of exercise, boo) use no steps, and so don’t get counted.

But steps are what we’ve got.

Having said that, the Vivofit’s counting of steps seems (1) very accurate if striding in a regular manner, as on a walk (100 steps will read as 99 or 100 or 101, or so), (2) accurate-ish if taken in a general sense over the course of a day, and (3) downright terrible if taken over a few minutes of start-and-stop walking as one does in the house while, say, cleaning up, or grocery shopping.  This is especially true if you have a small house (re: yurt) where you (and by you, I mean me) never really take more than seven or eight steps in a row (before coming to a wall) and often less.

The Vivofit also miss-counts if you are a ninja and sneak around a lot.  It is perfectly possible to take a hundred steps lightly and sneakily, and slip past the notice of the Vivofit.  Wake up, Vivofit!  Pay attention!

I think “steps” are best used as a number compared to itself, as in: did I move more or less than yesterday?  What’s my score?  For this, the Vivofit is pretty fun, as long as you don’t sweat the details.

Speaking of steps, let me jump over to one of the motivational features of the Vivofit that I find surprisingly effective: a red bar that appears over your step count if you haven’t moved (taken a registered step) in the last hour.  Oh the shame of it!  I’m surprised at how compelling this shaming is!  Much more than praising, a la fitness trackers that give you an increasing bar showing you how many steps you’ve taken and how close you are to your goal, like a glass of water being filled up as the day progresses.  I’ve found I have no problem ignoring those pat-on-the-back indicators.  (Tracker: “Come on, Maya, you’ve done so well, just a bit more!” Me: “Buggar off.”) but man, that red bar shows up, and I’m up taking Henry on a walk right away.  AH!  The Red Bar!  Quick, Henry, we’ve got to go!

Henry is so confused lately.  “Why are we walking again?” he says with his big brown eyes.  “Didn’t we just do this?”  “Yes, Henry, sorry to interrupt your nap, but there’s this red bar, you see….”

Distance is, I reckon, the Vivofit making a guess based on average stride length times your “steps” score.  Meh.  It’s kind of fun for a second to say, oh, cool, I walked X.Y miles today!  But I have no idea how close it is to reality and I don’t really care.  As with “steps”, it’s more valuable as a comparative than as an absolute value.  If you really want to know how many miles you actually walked, get a GPS watch.  But it’s nice, a bit of psychological lift, giving a physical distance to all those “steps” to try to make them seem more real.

For Sleep, you tell the Vivofit when you’re going to bed by holding down the button past the SYNCH screen and into the SLEEP screen.  You deactivate sleep-mode when you wake up.  While you sleep it tracks your movements…by which you can infer the depth of your sleep, I guess.  I don’t really get much from any of this.  Perhaps if it was really extreme in one direction or the other, lots of movement (“Oh, yeah, I really tossed and turned last night,”) or very little movement (“Slept like a log…”) it would be corroborative, but who cares?  I don’t see how I would use that information for anything, honestly.

Experiment time!  What happens if I sleep with my heart-rate monitor on?  Yes, I did this.  It was cool as far as it went—my heart-rate bobbed around 70 for about an hour and then zoom! shot up to 100 for about fifteen minutes…then back down.  A dream?

Unfortunately, the heartrate monitor quit after 90 minutes.  Maybe the contacts didn’t stay connected?  Bummer.  Maybe I’ll try again.  Duct tape?  No, that’s probably going too far….

Calorie Burn comes next.  The Vivofit gives a guess about calorie burn based on age, weight, and “steps.”  But an accelerometer just gives data about motion, it can’t tell anything about effort.  For example, lifting a feather and lifting a twenty pound weight are basically the same motion, even though one takes more work (and presumably uses more calories).   Same with yoga—holding navasana is nearly zero motion, but some serious effort…and the accelerometer alone can’t detect it.  Add the heart rate monitor, however, and the picture improves.  Now it can tell something about how hard my body is working and, presumably, the calories burned number gets more accurate.

There’s no way for me to know how accurate, of course, but, as with “steps,” it’s probably valuable in relation to itself.  The Vivofit told me last night that the hour of easy biking on the trainer while I watched Veronica Mars burned 400ish calories.  That’s a heck of lot more than it’s telling me I’m burning sitting here typing this.  I mean, duh, I already know that, but putting numbers to it gives it heft and weight and lets me put it on colorful, motivating graphs.

I love colorful, motivating graphs!

Which brings me to the Garmin Connect software.  It works, I haven’t had any problems.   Synching is very easy, either with my ipod 5 or directly to my Macbook.  As for the social part, I couldn’t care less about competing with anyone else or posting my “steps” or activities, etc., so that component doesn’t do anything for me.  But the software does make some nice graphs and pie-charts, for example, the heart-rate graph that I post an example of below.  I like me some graphs.

What would make the Vivofit better for me

Biggest one: if there was a way to pair the Vivofit data with something like LoseIt, an app for tracking calories IN, that would be cool, and much more useful than just the calorie OUT info that the Vivofit offers.  Calories expended is, after all, only half the picture.  It’d be compelling if I had both in one place, with more of those colorful graphs.  Maybe they are working on it.

Second, if there was a way to get some “steps,” that is, some “credit,” some POINTS, for swimming in my pond, riding on my trainer, or doing yoga, that would be a big plus. To have a relatively complete picture of my daily activity, it really has to include these things.  Yes, I can put on my heart-rate monitor for improved calorie tracking during these times (except the swimming), but still.  In the game of Vivofit, I want my points, people.

But here’s what I realized:  I already know I’m active during those times.  After a week on the Vivofit, the All Mighty Graphs have shown me that 30% of my time is spent sleeping (or in bed awake), 10% of my time is spent “lightly active” by which I think it means walking around, and 4-5% or so is “highly active” by which I think it means my heart rate is elevated zone 2 or beyond.  It’s the remaining 50freaking% where I’m sitting on my ass, reading, writing, hanging with the kids, and driving, that could use some attention.

I mean, I do all this active stuff….but that still means I’m 50% sedentary.   Crap!  To the rescue comes the Red Bar O’ Shame and walking Henry or something comparable, once an hour to break up the physical inertia.  As a result, I’m definitely moving more.  And possibly upping the amount of low-level daily motion is, in some ways, more valuable than increasing the intensity of the hour or two a day I spend exercising.

A few bits and bobs.  The Vivofit doesn’t need to be charged!  Big Plus!  It runs on a coin battery, which should last a year.  Also, it’s water proof, so you can swim/bathe in it.  These two together mean you really can pretty much put it on and leave it on.  It’s a watch, too, so that’s useful.

It doesn’t have a backlight, which might bother some.  For me it’s irrelevant.  The only time I’m in the dark is when I’m sleeping and I don’t need to know my step count then.

Bottomline: For tracking actual hard-data numbers for various activities, the Vivofit is pretty bad.  But for addressing that sedentary 50% and getting me moving more during those non-exercising, sedentary parts of my day, the Vivofit is pretty good.

Having written that, I can’t help but think of people who do physical labor for subsistence living and I imagine how NUTS this whole thing must seem to them.  Rich, fat Americans wear devices on their wrists to remind them to moveWhaaaat?  Yeah.  We kind of do.  It’s fun, a game we play with ourselves.  I can’t explain it.

Anyway.  ON TO THE YOGA.

Ashtanga on the Vivofit

Having just said that the Vivofit numbers seem relatively iffy to me, I’m still going to give you some.

Context.  I’m a 43 year old, 115 pound woman doing an easy-going, full Primary series with 5 years of Ashtanga experience and conditioning under my belt (so it isn’t killing me to get through it any more, if that makes sense).  I don’t work super hard because I’m concerned about injuries (at my age they take forever to heal)(and I’m also lazy), but I work hard enough to feel tired and a bit rubbery at the end.  I do not do vinyasa on alternate sides (to save my wrists), something I picked up from David Williams.  But still, I have to keep it moving pretty briskly to get through all those asana in 60 minutes.

Note: Ashtanga is a meditative practice, a breathing practice, for some a spiritual practice.  For me, too!  But it is also a physical practice and sometimes it can be fun to look at it from that angle.  So don’t get weirded out by me looking at ashtanga as exercise for a few minutes.  I’m not saying it isn’t all those other things.  /end note.

Okay!  Given all of that context….

The Vivofit says the calorie burn for my one hour primary varies from 180 to 240.  (These numbers from four tracked primaries this past week).  (Number does not include basal metabolic burn.)

So low!  Seriously?!  Because if you’ve done Ashtanga, you know it’s an intense freaking practice.  You might be as surprised as I was by these low numbers.  Is this a casualty of the intensity problem, i.e. asana are motion-less, even if you are working very hard, and so don’t read as “high effort” to a tracker?  Maybe.  But this data was gathered while paired with the heart-rate monitor, so it should be more accurate to effort.  (“Steps” are irrelevant, obviously, although the Vivofit registers a hundred or so.)

So what about that heart-rate?  I’ve crudely tracked heart-rate during Primary once before, but that was me writing down my HR at various points as the practice progressed.  Here we can get a continuous line graph….

Heartrate during ashtanga primary

Isn’t this a cool graph?  I find it cool, anyway.

And I can start to see why the calorie burn might be lower than I thought.  During yoga, we see my heart spending some time at 120 (hopping up for each vinyasa, for example), but it spends just as much time below 100 (dropping down for each forward bend).  Let’s compare that to the bike trainer ride I did last night, about 60 minutes at a fairly steady heart-rate of 120 while I watched tv, or twice as much net time at 120 as the yoga practice.  The Vivofit says an hour of 120 bpm cycling on the trainer burns around 400 calories for me.  Twice as much.  Twice the heart-rate, twice the calories?

(And then there are rides where I do intervals that pop me up to 170…haven’t tried one of those on the Vivofit yet.  Maybe tonight…?)

What’s interesting to me is that despite this apparent difference in calorie burn and heart-rate, I get off the bike energized (if sweaty), whereas after my yoga practice, I’m relatively wiped and have to recover.  I wonder what’s going on there?  Are all these numbers bunk?  Or is yoga more exhausting for some obvious reason I’m missing?

So there you have it.  My experiment this week attempting to quantify my yoga practice. I’m going to call it…inconclusive.

Oh no!  Since I’ve been writing this, the RED BAR OF SHAME has popped up!  Come on Henry, quick!

25 thoughts on “Garmin Vivofit fitness tracker review…plus! heartrate and calorie burn of Ashtanga Yoga

  1. Michelle

    I loved the practice heart rate chart. Thanks for sharing and labeling what you were doing at the time! Wonder what dropbacks would have looked like? My husband is a cyclist and I am an ashtangi and I have always wondered about wearing a heart rate monitor to see what it reads. Now I know. I would have thought more calories were burned as well. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      I’m so glad another ashtangi saw the chart! Only someone who knows primary would get it, I think. I wonder if I will every be able to do a drop back? It’s possible that will never happen if I haven’t gotten there by now. Thanks for stopping by, Michelle!

      Reply
  2. susan @ suddenlysusan.com

    I have been looking for reviews on the vivofit because I’m also a little bit of a gadget junkie and that’s one that’s been on my radar but I haven’t quite had a chance to buy and play with yet! thanks for being so thorough. I also agree that sometimes the idea of steps as a whole is just making sure you’re moving and putting in the effort. My band now will sometimes tell me I did 10+ miles. I realize that’s not true, but it does help me see that I moved more than yesterday, at only 7, or something to that extent.

    Reply
  3. Denis

    Thanks for the review! I bought the vivofit as well and am testing it since yesterday. I have one question about something that you mention and what interest me very much. How could you review your heart beat rate during sleep? I slept last night with the strap on me but in reports I just can see the movement during the sleep.

    Thank you very much in Advance!

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hi Denis, thanks for stopping by! Well, I put the heart rate monitor on and clicked the button on the vivofit until it said “heart” then waited while it synced up to the strap. Then I went to sleep. I didn’t set the vivofit to “sleep”. I later discovered that probably why the monitor cut out after an hour and a half was that it crossed midnight, and the whole vivofit resets at midnight each night (or so I understand). I’ve been waiting for a night when I stay up after midnight, and remember to try it, to try the sleep/heartrate thing again. If you do it, let me know how it works out! I’m curious.

      Reply
  4. Denis

    Hi Maya, thanks for your response. You’re right, it resets every day at midnight and it does track your hbr if you’re NOT in sleep mode, that’s why I will return it. If you put it in sleep mode, it just tracks the movement but apparently not the hbr and that was the most important point to me. That’s kind of disappointing as I was quite satisfied with it being a Garmin to line it up with my Garmin FR 350 and to work with my old ant+ strap. I don’t see a reason why it would be able to track my hbr while sleeping. It’s too bad. :/

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hi Denis, So why not just NOT set it in sleep mode? If you want the heart info, then there it is, right?

      Reply
  5. Denis

    It just doesn’t offer me enough improvement or value for the price. I can use my mobile phone to track my movement and even noise for free. And I assume, there’s going to be something new at some point where I can track movement, sleep phase and hbr in one piece and probably without the strap. There’s already the Basis B1 which does this, but that’s a little to big for me and they don’t deliver to Europe so far. Perhaps a vivofit 2? 😉

    Reply
  6. maya Post author

    I see. Well, good luck! It’s true that the wearable field is changing super fast, new things coming out all the time.

    Reply
  7. Denis

    For my last try this night, I did let it track my heart rate but it shuts down due to inactivity after a while! :/

    Reply
  8. maya Post author

    Oh, bummer, I thought it was the midnight thing, but I wasn’t sure. I think there is a review on amazon for the Polar tracker that talks about reading the heartrate during sleep. You should find that one, it didn’t sound like the Polar turned off. Ah, here it is
    http://www.amazon.com/review/R30ACO7YRRQ6IA/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B00FEQ6TVO&nodeID=3407731&store=exercise-and-fitness
    If you get one, let me know how it goes! I really tossed back and forth between the Polar Loop and the Vivofit, but went with the Vivo because I already had an ANT+ heart rate monitor for it, and I liked the display and the red bar. But Polar was in the running….

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hello Colin, Yes, that’s what it does. I can’t speak to the accuracy or anything like that, but yes, for as long as you wear the heart rate monitor it records an “event” and calculates calories for that event based on your age, weight, and heart rate.

      Reply
  9. Wendy

    I’m hoping someone can help me! Just got the Garmin vivofit with heart rate monitor and I’m loving it so far. The Garmin connect app works great on my phone but I’m having an issue with the heart rate chart displaying. On my first wear it tracked my heart rate and displayed the data perfectly. But I’ve worn it twice more and it’s tracking my heart rate but says “this activity does not have any charts.” Am I syncing something incorrectly or possibly there’s a minimum time to display the chart? My first workout was the only one that was over 2 hours. Please provide any input you may have… Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Holmes

    I’m having the same problem Wendy is having. Why can I get heart rate charts? That’s the whole reason I bought this thing…

    Reply
    1. Tanya

      Same issue here. Worked with charts for the first year. I’ve changed all batteries and now it says no charts for this activity. This is frustrating when you have been using the charts to enhance training. HELP!!!!!

      Reply
  11. Pingback: garmin vivofit fitness tracker exit interview after wearing it for a year | mayaland

  12. Joy

    I’m wondering why I burn the same amount of calories sitting down as I do in my hard core workouts!!! So frustrated!!!

    Reply
  13. Vinyasa Health

    Thank you for all that wonderful information.
    I just got a Vivofit 2.5 for my 45 birthday! WOW, what a big number! I was wondering how to use it with Yoga? Do I just press the button that show the man running?? Then vivo tracks my heart rate? I can’t work out how I know what I’ve burned from that? So confusing
    Thanks again for sharing,
    Julie

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Try dcrainmaker.com blog for info on the Vivofit. He does incredibly detailed posts, probably answer your questions. Best of luck!

      Reply
  14. Dermot Murphy

    Hi Maya – congratulations on a very nice article.

    I’m finding it hard to get an answer to what I thought would be a pretty simple question and, after reading this article, I’m thinking you may be able to help…

    If I wear a HRM chest strap 24×7 with my vivofit (3) does that calculate total calories burned more accurately or does the HRM only really work for tracking calories during workouts?

    Thanks for any help,
    Dermot

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hi Dermot, well, I dunno really. From what I recall, I think the HRM thing only works during an “activity” and those can’t be 24/7. I tried wearing the strap at night for heart rate while sleeping and it turned off at midnight, so there’s that. I think there are probably better options for calories burned these days (the vivofit is kind of old). How about the new vivosmart hr that has the heartrate built in? That probably does better 24/7 calorie tracking.

      Reply
  15. Bernadett Szilágyi

    I have the same problem as Wendy and Holmes. I have the new vivofit 3 with a premium heart rate monitor soft stram. During a workout i can see my heart rate on the screen, but after i have issues loading the data to my phone. I cant see the chart, or anything about my heart rate on my phone, in the Garmin Connect app.
    Can anybody help me, how to solve the problem please?

    I cant go to the store where my aunt bought the vivofit for me, cause i live in Hungary, and they brought me this as a present from the US.

    I would be glad if anyone could say some tips about the solution.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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