BodyBugg Review: Novel Gizmo with Notable Flaws
I’ve had the BodyBugg for about 12 weeks now, and have been sitting on my review for a while because I don’t want to discount the fact that several people on the BodyBugg message boards swear this thing saved their lives… But, in my twelve-weeks experience with it, it’s my conclusion that, for the price, the Bugg is a “neat to have,” not a “need to have.” Even then, it’s a novelty that wears off quick.
The basic sales pitch on the Bugg: You strap it to your arm and it tracks your calories burned using a number of measurements, including motion, heat flux, skin moisture, etc. By tracking your food intake alongside, all you have to do to lose weight is have the numbers hit your targets- Get a 500 calorie deficit every day and lose a pound a week, hit 1000 cal deficit per day and lose two.
Let’s start with the cost: It’s not nuthin’. $149 or so for the Bugg itself, and another $100 for the digital display (which most folks will want), or some combo of promotions on one of the other that will net you out paying about $250. You will get a 6 month subscription to the site– but, be aware that you CANNOT use the Bugg without paying for the site (it is the only way to clear data), so you will be paying another $10/month or $80/year in six months to continue using the armband and digital display.
Now, let’s look at the “tangibles” before we get to the important stuff (ie. Whether this is an effective tool for weightloss.)
The Bugg Itself: You are told to wear the Bugg on your upper left arm, behind the tricep, and that the Bugg measures a number of things, including heat flux, skin moisture, etc. The fact of the matter is, you can wear the Bugg pretty much anywhere that it comes in contact with skin and moves a little bit– I tested it on my calf and in the side of my sports bra- and get a reasonably-similar reading. They say it could have up to a 10% error margin, and wherever you wear it you’re unlikely to get more than a 10% difference from the last time you did some similar activity (I tested 10 mile runs against each other).
After putting it through a few tests, I’m also pretty firm in my belief that the Bugg really doesn’t seem to be much more than a really fancy motion sensor (accelerometer). It does not pick up added burn from something like walking up the hill with a 5 pound bag of groceries vs without– in fact, it doesn’t even pick up a difference walking up a hill at all (and I live on a really substantial one) vs a walk on flat ground. Also, it is not “thrown off” by things that increase your body temp like Bikram yoga (even after you go outside, in which case the “heat flux” monitor should think your body temp is hotter than the ambient air and that you are sweating a whole lot) or moisture, as when I wore the Bugg in my bra and the skin under it remained moist even after I stopped moving. It also doesn’t monitor a spike when I have a post-long-run nighttime “hot flash” (again, heat, sweat, increased HR but no motion) or when I have a panic attack (I was metabolically tested with a respirator when having a panic attack– no, it wasn’t planned, but this did let me know that my metabolic rate does about double when having a panic attack.)
I would imagine you’d get similar readings from the less-obtrusive and less-expensive FitBit (which I would LOVE to review– Hello FitBit people!) And, I hear FitBit gives you more ways to slice your data, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
As a marketer by trade, though, I do have to give them kudos– Making users wear the Bugg on their arms vs something like the FitBit which can be worn anywhere is a BRILLIANT marketing move on the part of the BodyBugg folks, because I got asked about mine constantly. Nothing like an army of unpaid viral marketers out spreading your message just by going through their day!
For the number crunchers in the crowd: The readings I get on the Bugg are pretty well in step with what I get on my Garmin405 or by heartrate monitor when I’m running or on the elliptical. For other workouts, including heavy weight workouts and other workouts where the HR gets up there but motion is limited, the HRM read is somewhat higher. (Also of interest: If you do a lot of cycling, you’ll need to wear it on your leg, as it is notoriously off when cycling. IMO, further proof that motion trumps all else with the Bugg.)
There are a few structural problems with the Bugg- the band velcro tends to fall apart, so you’ll need to use the stretch of the band, not the velcro to take in on and off and might find yourself contacting Customer Support for a new band. It seems to be a known problem, though, and they’ll replace them without drama.
I had to send my whole Bugg back because it malfunctioned after 9 weeks. I did some asking around and figured out that it came from the factory with a defect- a section of plastic missing off the back. Several people have also reported the plastic frames snapping and the USB cable crapping out.
The digital display does not stay synced to the Bugg very well, so you will likely find yourself pushing the buttons to link back up often. It became pretty much silly to wear the thing as a watch for as much as I had to resync it, so I just kept it in my purse or next to my computer and checked my data a few times a day. It is also not unusual for the DD to need a new battery right out of the box.
Working With Apex Fitness/Customer Support: Each Bugg comes with one free phone coaching session to show you how to set up your program and a slew of online “research papers” you can read through. My coach was useless (like, REALLY useless), but other than a handful of us, most people seem to have gotten a good session from their coaches. (Additional sessions with a coach are available for a fee- $30 or so, I want to say.) The educational materials are on par with what you can find elsewhere on the internet for free.
Customer Support, on the other hand, is exemplary. I had to have my Bugg hard-reset and the firmware updated almost out-of-the-box, and then had to work with them again to try resetting it before it was determined that it was dead (reading calories WAY high and turning on and off/chiming for no reason) and I needed to return it. They processed my order for a replacement as soon as UPS scanned the package for return, so I had my new Bugg in one week to the day– even with Memorial Day in the middle there.
That being said… yes, I dealt with tech support enough in the 12 week period to have a well-developed opinion of them… Not sure that is a good thing.
The Web Tools: OK, here is where I get miffed and really scratch my head. First, it might be worth mentioning that I worked with online media trailblazer CNET for several years and have vast user experience with FitDay.com, Livestrong (TheDailyPlate) and more. So I have a pretty good idea of what one should expect from a paid service vs a free service, and, more importantly, what users of ANY service, paid or free, expect to see in this “Web 2.0 world.” The online tools are inexcusable.
The food log, while quick and easy to use (especially if you tend to eat the same things every day), gives you very few ways to “split your data.” In Daily Plate, I can see my intake graphed over time, I can see my intake on a number of micronutrients and vitamins- on a daily, weekly and per-meal basis. I can graph for those nutrients over time. With the BodyBugg, I can’t even see my calorie intake for the past week on a bar graph, much less a specific nutrient– the ONLY options I have are to view a day individually, or view a bunch of days averaged together.
And it takes several non-intuitive steps to try to do any research into your diet. For example, I was convinced something in the database was off because my fiber readings on the BodyBugg food site were HUGELY high (60g per day where my goal is about 35), but there was no way for me to reference at-a-glance where that high fiber reading is coming from. I had to check each meal individually to see which one looked high, then check each individual food in that meal individually (a several-clicks and a refresh process) to see what its stand-alone fiber content was. I never did figure it out because, frankly, I tired of the process.
The suggested menus the system will generate for you are some of the worst I have seen– nothing more than an advertisement for Apex supplements (the parent company, also owned by 24 Hour Fitness). It kept on wanting me to have Haagen Dazs frozen yogurt every day for breakfast, and many of the “meals” don’t even make logical sense as to how they would come together in a meal. (There are no accompanying recipes, nor are there any ease-of-use features like batch swap or shopping lists.) If someone knew little about creating their own menus, this one hurdle could render the whole program moot. A quick poll on the user message board showed not a single person who even used the prepared menus.
When examining the calories burned data, you can move the slider to see calories burned during a specific period of time, but you cannot see simple numbers like “Highest calories per minute for the day” or “lowest calories per minute for the day” or how long you were in specific zones or whether you burned more today than you did last Thursday. Say you work out every day from 1-2PM, would it seem like you should be able to compare your 1-2PM over the past week? Again, nope– Your only option is to view a really simplistic “calories per minute” graph for an individual day (with no other data graphing option), or compare several days worth of whole days (again, as an average.)
And, again, no way to access a bar graph showing my cals burned each day for the past week or month. Whether I burned more this week/month than last. Or my top-burn day. And, even if I could see that data, I wouldn’t know how to remember what I did because there is no way to “Diary” a day. That’s right, you can’t even enter a note that says “BBQ at Jimmy’s so missed Spin class, but I walked around the block for an hour to burn it all off” so that you can remember what you did on successful vs. not-successful days.
Instead, I had to write it down with good ol’ pen and paper in a notebook. I’d write the day and date, the cals in, the cals out and then make a note of what I did each day- It was the only way to compare, say, this Thursday to last Thursday with any ease.
And, as for those “other metrics” (heat flux, skin moisture, etc.)- I’m a nerd. I’d like to see a graph of all the metrics being collected over the course of the day, for the dual purpose that I might then believe that the Bugg actually tracks something more than motion… and, I’ll admit it, seeing squiggly little lines on computer screens makes me feel like I am getting my money’s worth.
Here’s the thing: Data is free! You are collecting it from me, so throw a few filters on to let me split that data you are already collecting into any number of fancy graphs or charts so that I can interact with my data enough to feel it’s worth the cost! Heck, if you made the site even a little bit sticky, there are other ways to make money off me– These eyeballs are valuable!
There is a message board on the website, but it is the poorest example of attempted web community I have seen since sometime in 1998. It is about as usable as an oldschool BBS. Except there is no way to search old posts, so you get the same questions over and over. There is no way to PM a user, so all convo has to go on on the board. This means it’s impossible to motivate, provide encouragement, or discuss embarrassing/personal struggles except in public. And, the real kicker, you get logged out- even if active!- after 20 minutes, so you can be in the middle of typing a reply to a post and *bloop!* your well-thought-out reply is gone. Again, it speaks to Apex’s complete lack of understanding that- FAR moreso than the dollars we throw at our subscription- people/eyeballs are valuable! “If you build it…”
But the big question… does it work? I have no doubt, because I have heard from people first-hand, that this thing has worked wonders for many people. I can see how it would be great for someone who is pretty sedentary, since it does tend to make you want to get up and walk around the block to see the numbers go up. It is a great visual and practical aid for someone who has no idea how much they burn in a day or how many calories they are consuming, or who has never had the concept of calories-in-calories-out explained to them.
But, I would propose that there are tools online that are FREE that will give you all that and more. Here’s the thing– losing weight is going to come first-and-foremost from tracking your food, not knowing exactly (to within 10%, of course) how many calories you burned per day. Frankly, once you’ve got about a week’s worth of BodyBugg data, you know about how much you burn at various types of activities. I know that I never burn less than 1600 calories per day, even if I sit on the couch. Great, so if I keep my intake at 1500, I will lose… it’s the “keeping intake at 1500 calories” that most of us need a fancy trinket to help with- in fact, if I could invent one for $250, I’d be rich! In my opinion, the Bugg puts the emphasis on what is, for most folks, the lesser-important of variables.
Case in point: I purchased the Bugg because I wanted to slow down my weight loss while training for the San Francisco Marathon. (For what it’s worth, I have only 4 pounds to go to the bottom of my BMI range, so I am working with pretty slim margins here.) Like many average-sized women, 1500 calories is my sweet-spot. If I eat 1500 calories per day and then do my workouts on top of that, I lose a really consistent 1.5 lbs per week, so I wanted to slim that loss down to .5 pound a week and got the Bugg to help balance that slimmer margin.
Since getting the Bugg, though, I’ve been scaling my calories based on my activity levels, as many pundits will tell you that you need to do, or you’ll go into the oft-touted but totally-scientifically-insignificant “starvation mode.” After all, if I’ve only eaten 1700 calories but burned 2500 that means I can have 300 more and still end up under calories for my deficit, right? Well, not really.
Tracking calories IN is a monumental crapshoot– even if you weigh and measure everything, studies show even trained professionals can underestimate by up to 20%. Add to that the stated margin of error on the Bugg for estimating calories OUT and you can see how it’s all tossing wet cats at a basketball hoop from ten feet out– In this case, 10% margin of error on 2500 would be 250 extra calories, plus 20% margin of error on the 1700 calories could be another 340 calories and then I’ve pretty much negated that deficit I thought I was at. At some point I realized I’m really just paying $249 to make a huge guestimate. I ended up at pretty much a stall for the 12 weeks (OK, I think I dropped like 3 pounds or something, but… again… nothing remotely mathematically predictable based on the numbers this thing was churning out.) Much better would have been to just stick with paying attention to the calories-in side and say, “OK, I lose 1.5 a week on 1500 calories, so I go up to 1750 and bet I’ll slow to something just under 1 pound.” But that doesn’t scratch the gadget geek itch nearly as much, now does it?
Many people on the message boards come on saying, “I’m hitting my 1000 calorie deficit and have been for weeks, and I’m not losing weight!” The (correct) answer is always “well then, now you know that you need to eat less or move more.” You don’t need a piece of metal and plastic to tell you that, it’s the law of thermodynamics.
Here’s the thing… Can’t afford a BodyBugg? Drop me a note with your weight, height, gender and age and I’d be happy to tell you your resting metabolic rate, cut 500 calories from that, then get yourself a heartrate monitor (infinitely cheaper and way more of a multitasker) and be sure to burn 500 calories each day. Voila, 1000-cals-per-day deficit and 2 lbs predicted loss per week. Easy to track and graph on The Daily Plate. No ugly armband. The heartrate monitor will cost you $40-$50 and you can use the set-up indefinitely…
And, if you don’t lose on those numbers? Well, you need to increase your cals out, decrease your cals in, or both– because there is an error in the numbers somewhere… just like you would if you had the Bugg. Now, PayPal me $249.
The Rebuttal: I am hoping this doesn’t sound like a Bugg-bashing session. More than anything, I am just disappointed and frustrated that there are SO many easy fixes that could make this an infinitely more valuable product. (And, OK, the level of production on their for-pay website really does just feel like such a slap in the face that I might have a little anger about it.)
BUT– If you are sedentary and need the motivation of seeing this thing rack up calories, it is totally worth it! (Though one could argue a $15 pedometer provides much the same motivation.)
If having this thing strapped to your arm will keep you accountable or remind you day-to-day to make the right choices, then GREAT! (Though one could argue that any of the wonderful completely free support communities like SparkPeople would provide the same accountability.)
If you are the type who is motivated by making a significant investment in something to force yourself to use it and get your money’s worth, then it might be for you! Although.. you could either buy an entire two-year membership to 24 Hour Fitness ($299) for the cost of a Bugg ($249 + shipping and18 month subscription) , or you could buy the Bugg. Which is the better investment? Depends which is going to get you off your duff. And only you really know that.
At the end of the day, the Bugg is just a tool to help you balance a simple calories-in-calories-out plan. And there are plenty of other online tools that let you do the same or better for FREE.
Postscript: As for me? I’ll probably go back to experimenting with the Bugg just to see what other ways you can wear it and still get consistent results, but I won’t get caught up in the numbers it gives me as far scaling my intake, and I was giddy with numerical and graphular stimuli heading back over to The Daily Plate today to log my food! I might also put my Bugg on loan to see how other people with different needs find the experience.
The name of the game for me: 1600 cals and extra fueling during/after long runs. Keep it Simple, FTW!