Philips DirectLife Review: A Tamagotchi for Calorie Counters

Philips' DirectLife

My fitness regime just got a whole lot easier to manage. Or at least that's the promise implicit in Philips' DirectLife program. The idea seems simple enough: Carry around a small piece of plastic every day for the next 12 weeks, and Philips will show me how many calories I burned doing everything from walking down the street to cleaning my apartment to running 3 miles. The more I know, the more encouraged I'll be to keep moving, the more likely I'll continue to build the habits of a healthy, active lifestyle. Sign me up! It costs $99 to start, plus $10/month for access to the Web site and coaching after the initial 12-week program ends.

The Device
Philips clearly takes its design cues from Apple (who doesn't these days?). The gadget is lightweight and unfussy, with only a series of dots that light up each time you knock off 15% of your preset goal. The software is a cinch to install, and I set up a profile in about 10 minutes, entering my height, weight, age, and goals I wanted to achieve. After a few hours to charge the device, the gadget is live in my pocket for an eight-day assessment period.

My Take
This device turns me into one of those Tamagotchi toys that were popular in the 1990s! I'm all about the green dots. Seeing them light up is like getting a virtual pat on the back.

The Plan
An assessment period measures how many calories I burn per day. Then DirectLife uses that data to come up with a plan to improve that number during the course of 12 weeks. By syncing up the device to the computer, I can monitor my progress as often as I'd like, and compare my progress to others in the program.

During the assessment period, I go about my regular, when-I-have-nothing-going-on fitness routine, which consists of running every other day and walking to the subway. As I wear the device, I imagine that it's tracking my every move, quickly crunching the data that will deem me a fit, active member of society. Eight days later, I am shocked. My profile, it turns out, is similar to "David," a thirty-something computer programmer who drives to work every day and watches a lot of television. First off, for all the customization Philips promises with this device, why not give me a woman for my profile type? Second, and this one's important, since when did running 3 miles three days a week become not a big deal?

DirectLife achievement

Looking further into the data, Philips DirectLife tells me I burn an average of 645 calories a day per week, and this figure puts me in the "less active" end of its fitness spectrum, the lowest category. This seems odd since the AARP says a 150-pound administrative assistant burns roughly 800 calories during an eight-hour day. What about the basal metabolic rate, which calculates the number of calories your body burns without physical exercise, after factoring in your height, weight, gender, and age? Mine, according to this site, is 1,323 calories a day. Even if I stayed in bed all day, I would still burn more calories than Philips' number.

Clearly, Philips has its own equation for counting calories burned. And that brings me back to its definition of "less active," which Philips has illustrated with an icon of a human silhouette sitting down. So, according to Philips, I'm not even bipedal. The next level up is healthy, followed by fit, active, and sporty. The graph labels 1,057 calories burned under fit. Jeez. By that logic, if I want to be considered sporty, I have to be this guy. In a past interview, he said he ran an average of 120 miles a week, consuming about 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day to do so. For runners, a good rule of thumb is that you burn 100 calories for every mile run. If Jurek ran 17 miles a day, he'd burn 1,700 calories; add that number to the estimated 1,841 calories the 6-foot-2-inch, 165-pound ultramarathoner burned at rest back in 2002, when he was 28, and well, the takeaway is that most of us are leagues away from Philips' fitness apex of "sporty."

My Take
There's something not quite right about my "less active" assessment.

The Goal
Philips says my goal should be to burn 823 calories a day over a 12-week period. Doesn't sound too hard. Except, around the same time, I land new assignments at work, which mean longer hours tethered to my desk. (To wit: On the day the Philips rep visits Fast Company to explain how all of this works, I can't attend the presentation because I'm under deadline. Noah, my online editor, fills me in later: it's an accelerometer that uses algorithms. Which clarifies nothing. He might as well have said dark magic.) By week two, my running days dwindle to twice a week. When I do go, I'm lighting up eight dots out of nine, which is more than 100%. On the off days, I average about 30% to 40% calories burned.

I sync my device every few days and can see how other colleagues do, the idea being I should use their progress to spur my own. Not really interested. But there is someone in my group, Lindsay, whom I don't recognize. On October 11, she clocked in 586% for calories burned. For real? How is that possible? What is she doing?

Perhaps I am not trying hard enough. I email my fitness coach, Jen, asking for ways to burn more calories on the days I don't go running. Also, is there such a thing as rollover calories?

DirectLife plan

Jen answers me back two days later. The extra calories burned do get figured into the weekly average, so it's not wasted. (Yay!) Then she suggests small changes to "break up my sitting time" at work, including "making several trips to the printer instead of saving it for one trip" (ridiculous, since the printer is about 10 feet away from my desk) and taking a "20-minute walk at lunch" (just plain impractical most days). But her larger point is not lost. On one day, I can't fit in a run, but I resolve to walk from my apartment to a restaurant, about 2 miles, to meet a friend for dinner (it earns me two dots). On the weekends, I make it a point to walk to where I need to go. The gains are small but encouraging: Last night, at the gym, I weigh myself and find I have lost 2 pounds since this whole experiment started. Which inspires another small change: For my daily commute, I should start using the subway station that's 10 blocks away instead of the one that's only 2 blocks away.

My Take
I still don't fully understand how the device works, but it's hard to argue with those 2 pounds.

The Follow-through
Three weeks later, the green dots continue to bring small thrills of accomplishment. The data stopped being sexy by about week two. Also, I can't shake this feeling that I'm being cheated when it comes to counting calories burned. Upon Noah and Kate's suggestion, I switch the setting from necklace to pocket, with the hope of a more accurate reading.

My Take
I'm skeptical that the novelty will last, but I'm still on board. How much of a difference will switching the setting from necklace to pocket make?

Read Kate's DirectLife Review: Test-Driving the Networked Body: Philips DirectLife

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