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Networked Body Smackdown: Fitbit vs. DirectLife

An uber-athlete, I'm not. But over the last year I have learned to balance long shifts hunched over a desk with regular time on my yoga mat and I begrudgingly took up running to whittle my waist. So nothing short of dread skipped down my spine when I read the poster hanging up at my gym: Almost three-quarters of annual weight gain happens between Halloween and Valentine's.

Boycotting the holidays isn't an option (we're talking pumpkin pie, people). And putting Wii Fit on my holiday wish list doesn't seem like enough: A recent study by American Council on Exercise and the University of Wisconsin found that the aerobic benefits of the video game are "underwhelming" (duh).

But maybe the next generation of activity monitors could boost my motivation — and maybe even my movement — during the impending eat-fest known as winter. Thanks to the 3D accelerometer, tracking your every step and calorie burned is as easy as strapping on a slim device. I test-drove two new activity monitors for Fast Company — the fitbit and Philips DirectLife — and found innovations and drawbacks in both. But which would win in head-to-head combat?

Round One: The Device

fitbitIn terms of the physical gadget that you carry around, both activity monitors are lightweight and unobtrusive. But the fitbit blows DirectLife away. Built like a clothespin, the fitbit attaches to shirt straps or waistbands and can be moved throughout the day. The DirectLife is a slim square of plastic that I can drop into my pocket (though I lost my first one this way), wear on a strap around my neck, or velcro into a tiny pouch on my belt loop. In other words, on days that I'm bereft of pockets, I need to employ an accessory to attach the DirectLife to my torso. And though I can change where I'm wearing the device each day—I indicate the position on my online profile—for maximum accuracy Philips wants me to be consistent throughout the day. So, when I pull on jeans in the morning and drop the device into my pocket, that means I'm going to be tucking the DirectLife into the waistband of my pocketless yoga pants that afternoon, rather than wearing it around my neck. Winner: Fitbit

Round Two: Display Feedback

Philips directlifeThe fitbit lets me scroll through four screens, so I know calories burned, steps taken and miles traveled throughout the day, along with seeing a flower that grows or shrinks depending on my activity levels. The DirectLife doesn't use any numbers, instead displaying nine dots that light up as I "earn" each one. The amount of activity required to earn each dot rises each week, as the 12-week program pushes me from 620 to 990 calories burned each day. To hit my daily target, I need to get six dots to light up; at nine dots, I'm a rockstar. I'm initially fascinated by the sea of data the fitbit offers, even comparing its calorie-burn computation to the elliptical dashboard and treadmill dashboard at the gym. But it's both too much (1,886 calories, 5893 steps, 2.57 miles—ugh) and too little. The universal goal of 70,000 steps a week seems as blandly helpful as saying I should work out three times a week for 30 minutes. In contrast, the DirectLife's display doesn't require context or analysis. Four dots at the end of the day? Keep moving, fatty. Seven dots? High five (the LED lights even do a jazzy little dance when you overstep your goal). Winner: DirectLife

Round Three: Beyond the Device

DirectLife Graph

The biggest difference between fitbit and DirectLife is what's offered beyond the device. The DirectLife Web site shows your 12-week customized program with daily, weekly, and monthly targets. A (human) personal coach e-mails you initially to learn your goals, is available for questions, and sends follow-up emails if you don't sync your device or miss your goals for a few days in a row. (In the course of five weeks, I exchange five e-mails with my coach, Jen, and take her advice to schedule activity in my calendar at the start of each week.) The fitbit's Web site is far more ambitious, if still a bit clunky. It lets you track your food and compare calories consumed with calories burned. You can also input activities that aren't picked up well by accelerometers, such as weight lifting or yoga (bonus points!). But you're left to interpret that huge sea of data yourself and to set goals and create a program solo. I was primed to give the fitbit extra points for its ability to wirelessly sync data when it's within range of its docking station, but because I use a laptop I never left the docking station plugged in, diminishing that feature. Winner: DirectLife

Round Four: Price

A Benjamin is all the spending power you'll need for both the fitbit and Directlife. That $99 for DirectLife buys you the device plus 12 weeks of life coaching, with each month after costing $10. The fitbit also costs $99 and the company has plans to roll-out a subscription service of life coaching in the future. Winner: DirectLife, by a life coach's hair

A mega-athlete looking to take your workouts to the next level? Uh, you'd probably do better to invest in a high-tech heart monitor. But both the DirectLife and fitbit seem solid fits for a particular demographc: people who want to move more and want to get patted on the back (through blinking dots and blossoming digital flowers) for the accumulation of baby steps. Because, really, aren't you more likely to take the stairs than the elevator when you know someone—or some thing—is counting those steps?