In the May 2014 issue of AccessWorld I wrote an article entitled MyFitnessPal: a Guide to an Accessible Fitness Tool. The Fitbit Flex is a higher tech alternative to MyFitnessPal. It is used in conjunction with the Fitbit iOS app, Android app, or Fitbit website. This article will discuss using the Flex with an iOS device, but the website is also accessible. Although I'm not an Android device user, I have been told by users who are blind that the Android app is also accessible.
The Flex is one of several fitness trackers made by Fitbit and costs approximately $99. It is available from Amazon, the Apple online store, Best Buy, and other retailers
The Fitbit Flex can automatically count the number of steps you take in a day. It keeps track of calories burned and active minutes. The website and apps let the user enter information about exercise, weight, and food and water consumed. You can set silent alarms, which prompt the Flex to vibrate, and you can set the Flex to monitor your sleep pattern.
What's in the Box
The Fitbit Flex comes with both a large wristband and a small wristband. The Flex's tracker will already be installed in one of them, along with a metal clasp. If you need the other wristband, the tracker and clasp can easily be moved. The box also contains a USB cable with a little cradle to charge the Flex, and a very tiny dongle that syncs your Flex with the Fitbit website. A small printed manual is included.
The tracker is a small narrow plastic device that fits into the wristband. It's about 1-1/4 inch long, and has a sloped end. Prior to using the Flex tracker for the first time, you will need to charge it. There are five tiny lights on the sloped end that flash as the battery charges. One light indicates a low charge and all the lights blink when the battery is full. If you can't see the lights, just charge the tracker for three hours. Insert the tracker into the cradle in the USB cable. One end of the cradle slopes and the tracker should fit securely without any forcing.
The wristbands are made of a very sturdy rubber. The clasp fits into one end of the band, and there are slots along the other end that the clasp attaches to. In the middle of the band, on the underside, is a slot for inserting the tracker. The tracker will fit only one way. On one side of the wristband is a small plastic ridge, on the top near the end of the tracker. Lights on the tracker are visible through the plastic and can be used by a sighted person to check some functions. The tracker goes into the hole with the sloped end under the ridge. Another way to insure the tracker goes in correctly is to have the sloped end facing the side of the wristband that has the adjustment slots.
Once the Flex tracker is inserted into the wristband, put the band across your wrist, bring the end with the clasp under your wrist, and find the slots that make a comfortable fit for you. Push the clasp into the slots. The Flex is water resistant so it's not necessary to remove it when taking a shower.
Unfortunately, Fitbit does not have telephone tech support at the time of this writing. There is an extensive help section on their website.
There is also e-mail support. I did have an issue where my Flex stopped vibrating. I contacted e- mail support and they gave directions on how to fix the problem. I needed sighted assistance for this, because it involved looking at the unit's lights. Fitbit decided to replace my entire Flex. I received quick responses and was very satisfied with customer service. An e-mail indicated that my new Flex had shipped and also included a link on how to set up a new device with my Fitbit account.
Setting Up Your Flex
iOS and Android
It's important to know that the Bluetooth connection between the Flex and your iOS or Android device will show up in your list of Bluetooth paired devices, but the actual set-up is through the Fitbit app. In other words, it's necessary to do the set-up process through the app even though the device will appear in your Bluetooth pairings.
The first step is to download the free Fitbit app from the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store. Open the app. There are slightly different commands for iOS and Android but the set-up process is basically the same. At some point during the set-up process you'll need to choose your device ("Flex"). You'll be asked to create a profile, user name, and password. Via the app, your Flex will sync wirelessly with the Fitbit website, but there is no need to use the website if you don't want to.
The Fitbit Website
If you don't have an iOS or Android supported device, you can still use the Flex through the Fitbit website. The website has some clutter, so consider using your screen reader's navigation hot keys and find commands to use the site. As with the iOS and Android devices, you will be asked to create an account, including a profile. You will need to download the Fitbit Connect software for either Mac or PC. When you want to sync your Flex, plug the small dongle into a USB port on your computer, open the Fitbit Connect software and choose "Sync Now." The Flex must be physically near the dongle for the sync to occur.
Using the iOS Fitbit App
Although this article describes the iOS app, the same functions are available in the Android app and on the Fitbit website, just presented differently. An iPhone 5 was used for the evaluation.
Once your Flex is set up, open the app to load your Dashboard. There are three tabs at the bottom of the screen: Dashboard, Friends, and Account. You can send messages to friends through the Fitbit app. However, in order to do this you need to give permission for Fitbit to search your contacts. It will look for contacts who also have Fitbit devices. The Dashboard and Account tabs are discussed in detail below.
Near the top of the Dashboard screen is the status of your Flex. It will say "Syncing," "Looking for your Flex," or "Connected." Because VoiceOver doesn't automatically announce it, you will need to flick right to hear the status. Double tap once and you hear the word "Connected" and a new screen will open.
Navigate this new screen by flicking right to go forward or left to go backward. The first piece of information will be the last time your Flex was synced with the app. Next you'll hear the firmware version. The third thing you'll hear is battery status. Fitbit will send you an e-mail when the battery is low. The next item is Silent Alarms. If you have any alarms set and active, you'll also hear how many alarms you have. Double tapping on Silent Alarms will open a screen showing the alarms you have set, both inactive and active. You can turn them on and off with the switch button. You can also set alarms here, but this will be discussed in the Account section. Get back to the Flex screen from the Alarm screen by activating the "Flex" button in the upper left.
Next you will be asked to choose your main goal. The options are steps, distance, calories burned, or active minutes. The Flex will vibrate and light up when you reach your daily goal. Double tap on whichever option you want to use.
You then need to choose whether to wear the Flex on your dominant or non-dominant wrist. If you wear it on your dominant wrist, the Flex will be less sensitive to movement. The next option is whether the Flex can be synced throughout the day automatically. Use the switch button to make your choice. The final control is Sync Now. Double tapping on this option will cause the Flex to sync with the app. Once you're done making all your selections, activate the "Dashboard" button in the upper left.
On the Dashboard screen, double tapping an item will usually open a screen where you can edit your information. By flicking left and right you'll discover that, based on your profile, Fitbit has already inserted values for you, for number of steps, active minutes, calories burned, etc.
Re-arranging the Dashboard
You can easily change the order of items on the Dashboard. Double tap the "Edit" button in the upper right corner. Flick through the Dashboard items. There will be a button under the name of each item. If you want to move an item, double tap its button and drag it up or down. VoiceOver will tell you where the item is located as its being moved. When you're finished rearranging the Dashboard, double tap the "Done" button in the upper right corner.
The current and goal weight you entered in your profile will be displayed on the Dashboard. Double tap on the weight and a screen will open where a new weight can be entered. Begin the process by activating the "Add" button in the upper right corner. Once the weight is entered, activate the "Log" button in the upper right corner and then activate the "Dashboard" button to get back to the main screen.
The advantage of entering calories eaten is that the app, based on your profile, will tell you how many calories you have left for the day. The app has a large database of foods plus you can enter your own.
Begin the process by double tapping on "Calories Eaten." A new screen will open and once you start tracking calories, you can flick around the screen to learn what you ate previously. Double tap the "Add" button in the upper right corner to make entries. Once you've selected a food, activate the appropriate button for when you ate it (e.g. breakfast, lunch) and save your entry with the "Save" button in the upper right corner. Once this button is activated, the next screen will show the foods you logged, how many calories you've eaten, and how many you have left.
Once the "Add" button is pressed, the screen will give you several options, including Quick Cal, Bar Code, Search, Frequent, and Custom. Quick Cal lets you add just the number of calories without any additional information. Bar Code accesses a bar code scanner that gives the serving size, number of calories, and a button for more nutrition facts. As with any bar code scanner, the difficulty is in locating the bar code on the product you'd like to scan.
The Frequent tab lists foods you frequently eat. Double tab on an item to begin adding it to your calorie count.
The Search option is a standard search form and keyboard. If your search yields a satisfactory result, double tap on it and it will be added to your list of foods. Then, select when you ate it and activate the Save option. If there is no satisfactory result, you can create an entry. Double tap and a screen will open where you can add information such as calories. Select serving size with two pickers: the first one is for the amount and the second is for unit of measure such as cup, ounce, or teaspoon. There is an edit box to add calories and additional nutritional information can be added. The custom option works the same way except there will be an edit box to type in the food name as soon as the Custom choice is activated.
Double tap on the word Exercise to begin the process of logging your exercise. When running, walking, etc., the Fitbit app can be set to give you distanced completed at regular intervals. It will also tell you the amount of time to get to the interval and your average pace.
On the new screen will be a display of your recent exercise activity. In the upper right corner is a "Run Nav Stopwatch" button. Activating this button will bring you to a screen to begin your exercise.
Near the top of the page will be several options. The first option is to run or walk. My Flex was set to Run by default. Double tapping on this gave me the option to also choose walk. If you make any changes, activate the "Back" button in the upper left corner. The next option is Cues. This is where you select what information the app tells you during your run or walk. Once selections are made, activate the "Back" button. If you keep the same options you won't need to perform these selections again. When you've customized the options, it's time to start. Using this feature drains the battery so make sure you have enough power. During a 25 minute walk, my iPhone battery went from 50 percent to 20 percent. Also, there is a "GPS" button which will give you the layout of the streets around you, but this does not update once the "Start" button is activated.
Do a one-finger double tap on the "Start" button. If you need to pause during the activity, activate the "Pause" button. Once you've finished your activity, activate the Finish button. VoiceOver will then say "Finish Button Empty." Double tap and hold on the button. After a few seconds you'll hear a sound and your run or walk will be logged. Occasionally the app locked up, but Fitbit saved my data from my walk.
Another way to track your exercise is to activate the "Log" button in the upper right corner of the screen which opened after the "Run Nav Stopwatch" button was activated. There is a standard search form, where you can enter the name of an exercise. If you find a satisfactory result, double tap on it and a form will open to add the necessary information such as time exercising and when you started and ended. The app will calculate the calories burned, but you can add them manually if you prefer. The form uses edit boxes and pickers. Remember to activate the "Log It" button, once all the information is added. Once the particular activity is entered, you can find it again on the screen that had the search form. Just double tap on it and make any necessary changes such as length of time.
If you want to keep track of how much water you've consumed, double tap on Water. The next screen will give you some options or you can enter an amount.
The Flex can also track your sleep pattern. On the Dashboard, double tap "How did you sleep?" and a new screen will open. Activate the "Add" button in the upper right corner. There will then be a button to begin sleep or cancel. When you wake up you need to activate the button that tells the app that you're awake. Then there will be a display of your sleep cycle. Remember to wear the Fitbit to bed and remember to leave the app open.
The Account Tab
The Account tab is the third tab at the bottom of the screen. This is where you can make changes to some items on the Dashboard, set alarms, track exercise, and choose units of measure. When the Account tab is opened, your name and the date you started using your Flex will be at the top of the screen. Next will be the status of your Flex such as Connected or Syncing.
Here is where you'll choose your daily goals for steps, active minutes, calories burned, and more. Once Goals is selected, flick through the categories and you'll discover that the numbers match the information on your Dashboard. For example, to change the number of active minutes, first open the app and go to the Account tab. Next, double tap on Goals. Next flick right till you get to Active Minutes. Each category has the name followed by an edit box. For this demonstration, double tap on the edit box for Active Minutes. A keyboard will appear to enter the information. Edit more than one category by double tapping on additional edit boxes and changing the information. Once all desired changes have been entered, activate the "Account" button in the upper left corner.
You can set up to eight silent alarms. Your Flex will vibrate when the alarm goes off; it does not make any additional noise.
Double tap on Silent Alarms and when the new screen loads, double tap on Set a New Alarm. When the next screen loads, set the hour, minutes and a.m. or p.m. using pickers. The next control says Repeat. If you just want the alarm(s) to occur for one time don't do anything with this option. If you want an alarm to go off on specific days, double tap on the "Repeat" button to open a list of days for the alarm. Next, activate the "New Alarm" button in the upper left and when the new screen loads, activate the "Save" button in the upper right. Then activate the "Account" button in the upper left corner if you want to continue in that tab or activate either the Dashboard or Friends tab.
The final settings option in the Account tab is Advanced. Here you will choose country, time zone, food database, and units of measure. For example, you can measure weight in pounds, kilograms, or stones.
The final option in the Account tab is Help. The first choice in the Help category is Help Articles—double tapping will load Safari where you'll be presented with links to many help articles relating to your Flex and the iOS app.
The next two choices are iOS Help Forum and Flex Help Forum. Activating either of these options will load Safari. The last option is E-mail Support. Activating this option brings up your e- mail program with the e-mail address already entered in the "To" field and the subject line already filled in with "iOS Support Request."
The Fitbit Flex is a very good and easy way to keep track of your step count, active minutes, and calories burned. Since the Flex also lets you input additional information, it's a convenient way to keep track of your exercise and calories consumed. I have found it to be a very good motivator.
Although Fitbit does not offer live tech support, their knowledge base is large and they do answer e-mails.
Product: Fitbit Flex
Available from Fitbit and other retailers