FitBit for Wheelchair Users? Yes

Fitness trackers such as the Nike Fuel Band and the FitBit have been all the rage in the past year or two. Interested in “stepping up my game” (no pun intended), I considered purchasing one of these products. As my awesome, against-the-grain little brother said to me when I came home with my FitBit Charge HR at the beginning of April… “Oh my God Brenna, you’re so mainstream”. Well yes, bro, maybe I am– but after having the device for a little under two months, I will defend and support the popularity of the product. As a wheelchair user, I originally had no idea whether the device would be usable and effective for me. But now, although I haven’t taken a “step” in 5 years, I’m happy to say that I love my FitBit.

When I began thinking about purchasing a fitness tracker, I sought the help of the know-it-all internet, hoping to find information from fellow wheelchair fitness friends who had advice on which trackers worked best (if any worked at all). The results I discovered were pretty slim, with the exception of one post here (turns out, we have a lot of the same positive opinions on the topic). Sadly though, I came up clean otherwise. However, despite my futile wheelchair-specific research, I found and considered a handful of information that helped me pick my device.

First of all, if I wanted a fitness tracker, I knew that it needed to be a bracelet style tracker. I wasn’t going to be able to record activity with a pedometer stuck in my back pocket all day. Duh, my bum is seated 24/7, so that just wouldn’t have cut it for me. I have friends that swear by certain phone apps, and even the new(ish) “Health” dock on iOS tracks steps and miles, but I simply don’t take steps, so having my phone in my lap all day still wouldn’t work. (Today, my iPhone tells me I’ve taken 933 steps and traveled .93 miles….. but I did a 7 mile bike ride this morning with my phone tucked into my sports bra, so there’s the proof of that inaccuracy). I knew I needed a wrist-mounted tracker that would measure the propulsions of my wheelchair. I wasn’t exactly sure how accurately the FitBit would measure these propulsions in comparison to steps, but I knew that the bracelet style was my best option regardless.

Once I knew I wanted a wrist-based tracker, I begin looking into FitBit because it had been one of the more popular models I had heard of and seen amongst my friends and acquaintances. In my internet research, I read reviews in which people preached the accuracy of the FitBit. Then again, I ready articles that completely tore FitBit and other trackers apart and I took this into consideration as well (as any educated researcher should do). FitBit themselves answered some of my general questions about the device’s accuracy (check it out). In a journal article from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers noted 2 different FitBit products in the top 3 most accurate trackers with about a 10% error rate. I expected that for wheelchair users the error could be slightly higher, but being amongst the best helped convince me of FitBit’s credibility despite this.

Once I had decided on the FitBit brand, I needed to decide which model would be best for me. I was most interested in the Flex or the Charge HR, with the main differences being that #1 the Charge HR monitors heart rate, unlike the Flex and #2 the Flex does not provide any information directly on the tracker (only on the bluetooth synced phone or computer app), whereas the Charge has a small display that will reveal steps, miles, calories, HR, and time while wrapped around your wrist throughout the day. For me, personally, I knew that it would be more beneficial and motivating for me to see my progress throughout the day at the touch of a button, without having to open up an app. Plus, my spinal cord injury has contributed to somewhat of a strange, irregular, tachycardic heart rate, and I was interested in discovering my vital patterns. And of course, I know that heart rate is another measure of physical fitness, so I opted for the slightly more expensive, but likely more useful option.


Following the purchase of my Charge HR, I can truly say that I have found no detrimental flaws and I’m very happy with my decision to purchase this fitness tracker.

So what is it really like using a FitBit while in a wheelchair?

First of all, it really is more of an ACTIVITY tracker. Since I’m not walking, it obviously is not counting steps, but rather arm movement, and it is unrealistic to assume that one step and one wheelchair propulsion are equal in all aspects. Essentially, the only way that they are equal is that they are both physical movements. Still, that’s a plus! If the FitBit motivates you to push you chair an extra mile, or 2,000 more “steps” a day… Bravo!

The first week of FitBit, for anyone, but especially chair users I would imagine, is very exploratory. Understanding how much distance equals how many steps, establishing an average step count per day, recognizing when you are more active than not, etc. However, once you have established this baseline, FitBit becomes a much more useful tool. After about a week, you may look at your data and say “okay, on average I take 14,000 ‘steps’ a day”. From there, you are able to gage your activity and fitness based on your own norms. Who cares if a “step” is not really a step… my FitBit tells me if I’m totally smashing my daily average activity or if I’m being a complete lazy bum. I’m not always honest with myself… but my FitBit doesn’t lie to me.

I have discovered that one wheelchair propulsion usually syncs to approximately two or three steps. Well, “that seems unfair!”, an able-bodied FitBit friend might say (especially if we are involved in a challenge, racing to see who can get the most “steps” per day). However, it really evens out. One propulsion of my wheelchair moves me much farther than one step by an able-bodied walker. Also, consider things such as ramps and hills: a wheelchair user registers essentially no “steps” while going down slope, but an able-bodied friend would still be adding to their step count. Therefor, it’s my opinion that, “step” for step, in terms of distance and activity, FitBit is still a fairly accurate and equal measure for wheelchair users, once you know what you’re looking for.

In addition to it’s activity tracking properties, I have enjoyed the ability to monitor my sleep patterns, as well as utilize the silent alarms that FitBit offers. My vibrating FitBit is a MUCH nicer wake-up call than my obnoxious alarm clock, and the sleep tracking is shockingly accurate. With the addition of the heart monitoring feature, the FitBit has given me great insight into my general daily health and has pushed me to incorporate more active pursuits into my life, even outside of my specific workouts and athletic endeavors.

I will also praise FitBit for their excellent customer service skills, which has nothing to do with my use of the product as a wheelchair user, but further enforces my contentment with the tracker and the company. About two weeks following my purchase of the FitBit Charge HR, I noticed a small rip in the band, which continued to get bigger and bigger. Online, I searched for replacement bands (I knew they sold them for the Flex), but came up short; apparently FitBit does not make replacement bands for the Charge. So, I sent an email to FitBit support. They asked me to send a picture of my receipt and a picture of the ripped product, which I did. Within 4 days there was a brand new FitBit charge delivered directly to my house, without the hassle of waiting and sending the old one back. I was extremely impressed and satisfied.

The one disclaimer I find important to note for wheelchair users, however, is that the calorie measurement is certainly not accurate. As wheelchair users, those of us with spinal cord injuries at least, we naturally burn less calories on average, simply because we have lost the use of certain muscles in our bodies. Muscle, at rest, still expends energy (burns calories), though paralysis often leads to muscle atrophy (loss), which lowers our metabolism. Then, when we are active, we must still consider that the muscle groups in our arms are smaller than those in a typical person’s legs, which further means less calories are being consumed by our muscles. This is not in any way meant to belittle the recreation, sport, and fitness endeavors of wheelchair users, but is something to keep in mind and consider when tracking calories. When I have pushed 22,000 “steps”, it is highly unlikely that I have actually burned 3,200 calories, as my FitBit has revealed to me before. I am not a scientist nor a dietician, so I can’t tell you how many calories you actually have burned, and it would be different for everybody anyways, but just note that the FitBit calorie count is certainly not a wheelchair user’s most truthful friend.

Overall, my experience with FitBit has been a very positive one. Looking forward, I would love to see FitBit (or another similar company) design a product specific for wheelchair users, but in the meantime I believe that the “step” based trackers still estimate competent activity measurements for wheelchair users interested in tracking their fitness.

More questions? Let me know.

Fitness & My Spinal Cord Injury (Recovery)


I’ve been athletic all of my life, but it’s been just about a year now since I’ve started getting more serious about fitness, post spinal cord injury. I mean, I haven’t been sitting around on my lazy butt the entire past five years, but I feel like I kicked it up a notch in the last 12 months in a lot of ways. My cocky, small-town, state sectional track & field winning, 18-year old self would have said that I was at my peak fitness level when I was taking my second Western Massachusetts pole vaulting championship, getting ready to vault in college. I never would have thought that, in reality, I’d be in the best shape of my life at 23, five years post spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the chest down… even with a little extra belly fat. But I am.

In the past year I’ve had a lot of firsts and have done a lot of new things with relation to my fitness: I started lifting weights (thank god) and not just cycling on the horribly boring and limited arm ergometers at the gym for hours– probably my biggest fitness blessing of them all; I started playing wheelchair basketball, which I’m loving even though I never imagined I would, and I committed to play on the wheelchair basketball team at Arizona State University this upcoming season; I took my first (and then many consecutive) group exercise class since I’ve been in a wheelchair– and again, loved it; I became a certified Krankcycle group fitness instructor; I completed my first wheelchair-5k about a year ago, and now registered for my first triathlon this fall; and I did my first pull-up! Just some of the major things that stand out 🙂 It’s been a great year, really. I could continue… but more stories for a different time.

So about my SCI…

In my experience with my own injury which happened in 2010, there has been a sort of progression of my thoughts on “recovery”, and what “recovery” meant. Immediately after my injury, there were about two weeks, give or take, that I didn’t even know that I was paralyzed. Much thanks to the hospital for keeping me heavily dosed up on drugs at that time! Then, for about a week, because of my lack of full awareness and a misunderstanding of what SCI was (and thanks, in part, to my good friend Morphine), I essentially thought I would go to rehab where they would help me reconnect my wires and my recovery would end there– I’d be up walking again by the time I went home. It didn’t take long for me to understand that I was wrong about that; which that was okay. I spent that time learning what my injury meant and had an amazing rehab experience. I spent probably another year with that false inkling of hope that my spinal shock was going to wear off and I’d start wiggling toes. I was continuously connected to spinal cord injury recovery research, Project Walk websites, etc. etc. Mind you, I was by no means uphappy with my new, paralyzed self, there was just a phase when I spent time internalizing that “recovery” meant I was going to gain function back, and that it was a viable option. Well, in reality, I had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills to pay, not hundreds of thousands of dollars to blow on experimental research studies or specialized “recovery” programs. This phase passed and I moved into what I thought was the more long-lasting stage– acceptance with exactly who I was and what I could or could not do. Again, this isn’t a sad, somber acceptance, but a simple fact of my life. I was, and still am, a paralyzed young woman and I can’t walk, can’t wiggle my toes, will never have a six pack like my skinny teenage self because I literally just can’t do a sit up– but I was, and am, 99.9% content with that. I reached a point when I realized that I would MUCH rather focus my life on living and doing what I CAN do, instead of spending my time waiting on a fantasized “recovery” or “cure”. My life is exceptional– who cares if I use a wheelchair?

Fast forward back to my fitness journey…

When I started dedicating more of my life to fitness, here’s what I found out: there IS such a thing as recovery, and no I don’t have to be up and walking to experience it. It doesn’t mean that I’m “gaining function back”, it doesn’t mean that if I spend hours and hours and hours at the gym I will start wiggling my toes, it doesn’t mean that I will ever lose my little para-belly and get that six pack back, but it DOES mean that because I have started testing my body and strengthening all of the muscles that still function by my demand, I can do things now that I’ve never been able to do before (since my injury).

Being a T3-T4 paraplegic means I have no motor function below, essentially, my nipple-line. For the past 5 years I wasn’t able to sit up straight and raise both of my hands, simultaneously, above about my shoulder height. My lack of core couldn’t hold my upper body, and even shoulder height was wobbly. I could barely even do it with a weight belt around my trunk, securing me to the backrest of my chair. Now, I can bilaterally lift both hands simultaneously above my head, with 15-pound weights in each one.

Before, I couldn’t lean over to one side of the other without bracing myself with one hand on my wheelchair for support. Now, i can raise both my hands out to the side, and lean from left to right about 10 inches from the center of my body without flopping over sideways and falling to catch myself on the ground.

When you have a spinal cord injury, people are commonly asking what level your injury is. To me, it is honestly such a nice compliment when people tell me that they never would have guessed my injury was at T4. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I love knowing that I’ve been able to build my core strength to a point that is no longer stereotypical. I like to exceed expectations whenever possible– I consider this no exception!

Plus– I’ve found that stretching is the best medicine for spasms. I get horrible spasms that will literally flip me over in my chair if I don’t tame them. Baclofen kinda works but puts me straight to sleep. Tizanidine, same deal. Vicodin, same deal. Some other drugs that I can’t remember– also horrible side effects. Getting on the floor and stretching is the miracle cure. 20 minutes of stretching, twice a day, and all of my problems are gone.

My fitness and spinal cord injury “recovery” is certainly not completed. I still have so many goals to reach, and I think that my body, paralyzed on not, is capable of so much more than I am even aware of right now. Even looking back over the past year, I never would have imagined I would be at the point I am at now, so I know there is always more that I can achieve. I think sometimes, at the gym, it is too easy to look at the number on the weights you are lifting, and too often use that as a measurement of progress.  For me, I know it goes so much further than that though. The weight I lift may barely change, but what is important is the control with which I am able to lift it with, for example. The fact that I can lift a weight without falling over, the fact that I can raise my arms above my head– things like that are what show both progress and recovery.

To talk about my spinal cord injury with relation to my fitness journey, what I’ve learned is that “recovery” doesn’t mean that you are returning to an identical state or condition. Rather, you are leaning how to maximize your own ability, build upon your strengths, and use that new strength to achieve things that you did not know you were capable of.