Sciatica Pain and Sleep Positions

bike
New bike!

I’m going through a weird stage with back pain. It’s not new, but it seems especially magnified in recent months. I’m stronger than I have been in a long time, despite being almost completely unable to run. But almost magically (and not in a good way!) when I lie down in bed, the pain starts with a vengeance. I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but even my usual trick of elevating my legs isn’t helping as much as it used to. Something is definitely shifting when I get in bed, and it’s happening no matter what mattress I try— new, old, foam, springs, etc.

I get sciatica-type symptoms that start with a burning/tingling pain in my right butt cheek and trace down my leg to the hamstring, lateral thigh, and sometimes all the way to the heel. Next comes intense pain in the right front hip, and once it starts, it’s very hard to stop it.

I got a new bike— a cruiser with a very stable seat to keep my SI joints from getting angry— and can ride it without aggravating my back, which is awesome. It’s easy on my neck, too, since I sit upright in the seat rather than leaning over to reach the handlebars. I walk 5 or more miles every day, lift light weights, do a core workout like it’s my religion, and row a mile on our awesome Concept2 machine. For these reasons, I’m pretty strong, although I really want to return to more freedom and running. The lack of comfortable sleep position is maddening, and the pain can be crazy-making. Sometimes I change positions for three hours before I can go to sleep, but other times I get lucky and only move around for about an hour before conking out. It’s very frustrating to go to bed exhausted but unable to sleep because of pain. Lately, I sometimes have no pain at all until I lie down, which is quite bizarre.

No matter how long this shit goes on with chronic pain, I’m never able to get to used to it. There’s still some huge part of me that thinks it’s temporary, or maybe fake, despite making some serious strides toward peace with reality. But when I watch soccer on TV, I still feel the field under my cleans, the ball against my feet, and the rush of adrenaline from scoring a goal. I’m not sure that longing to play sports, to compete, to be free, will ever go away.

Tuft & Needle Mattress Review

I bought a Tuft & Needle mattress last week and it arrived yesterday. I’d heard great things about their mattresses and ordered one to try. I hate the high pressure and high prices in mattress stores and have never felt that lying on a bed in a showroom gave me a realistic impression of how the mattress would perform at home. Tuft & Needle has a great guarantee and their mattresses are made in the US. Their prices seem fair— not dirt-cheap, but they shouldn’t be, since they’re good quality— and they use a patented type of foam that’s supposed to be awesome. The mattress arrived within a few days, as promised, and was tightly rolled in plastic for shipping. It was heavier than I expected, but two of us were able to get it into the house and out of the box.

After we cut away the plastic, the mattress expanded. It was like magic. Not only did it get much bigger than its shipping size, but it quickly took nice, firm shape. Tuft & Needle advises waiting 2-3 hours before lying on it, so I let it air out in the bedroom while I went for a long walk and played with my dogs. The mattress had a bit of an odor, but nothing like the horrific, chemically smell I’ve experienced with other new mattresses. When it was time for bed, the odor was only detectable if I put my nose against the mattress.

I stretched out on the mattress with high but cautious hope. Sleeping—especially getting comfortable at night— is still a major problem for me. I’d done a two-hour private yoga session that morning to try to work on my rigid legs, and my back was aggravated from the new movements. The Tuft & Needle mattress had to be perfect if I was going to get any sleep at all.

And it was perfect. I mean, literally perfect. I still had to stack pillows under my knees to keep my back comfortable, but that’s no fault of any mattress. Once I arranged myself into my usual sleeping position, I laid there and closed my eyes and waited for discomfort that never came. The mattress was absolutely awesome— the best surface I’ve slept on in many years.

I needed to shift to my side once during the night, and because the T&N is quite firm, I had to make sure the fatter part of my cervical pillow was stuffed under my neck just right. Twenty seconds or so of pillow placement yielded good results, and I slept for another two hours without disturbance.

When I woke up this morning, my usual aches and pains weren’t cured (and I didn’t expect them to be), but I’d slept well and actually look forward to going to bed tonight. I haven’t looked forward to going to bed in as long as I can remember, because it’s usually a disappointing battle that leaves me stiff and in pain. Assuming the T&N keeps up its quality, I can see where sleeping on it could be life-changing.

This afternoon, I contacted one of their customer service reps to ask if they make camping versions of their mattresses. They don’t (yet?!), but the rep was not only instantly available via online chat, but extremely helpful and polite. What a relief, and a departure from the norm for a lot of purchases— a good product, good customer service, and made in the United States.

I have no connection at all to Tuft & Needle. I paid full price for my mattress and only wrote this review because I hope other people will read it and potentially find something that may help them sleep comfortably. Night-night, y’all.

Running, Renewal, and a Pretty Good Month

cheaha sunset
Gorgeous sunset at Cheaha.

I’ve had as good an October so far as I had a bad September, health-wise. It’s been a almost six weeks since I’ve needed a chiropractic adjustment (although I have to twist, roll, and traction myself daily), and I’m back up to running multiple times per week and lifting weights. Until a few days ago, I was sleeping pretty well, too. Chronic health problems are often cyclical, and I was reminded of that a few days ago when my hips and low back felt locked and painful and self-care wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to cause the issue, and I’m hoping a quick trip to my beloved chiropractor will fix my woes.

I bit off more than I can chew with work, and some of that stress is probably contributing to my tight muscles and sore back. The teaching semester will be over in about five weeks— not that I’m counting— and getting down to one job plus writing will be relieving. I don’t know if it’s age, health issues, or what, but I just can’t work as many jobs as I used to without feeling overwhelmed.

I had a business meeting at an office about twenty miles from the state forest, and I knew a good run in the clean air would help clear my mind. I saw an awesome rattlesnake and enjoyed the solitude. I had to stop a few times to try to work the kinks out of my back, but otherwise it was a great run. I hope I can get out there again soon. And speaking of awesome runs– I had a great one at Cheaha State Park in Alabama. The mountain views, the morning mist…it was one of those days when it’s great to be alive and aware.

Stabilizing SI Joints for Air Squats

squat si joint
No, I’m not about to go to the bathroom in my yard. I’m descending into a squat while holding my SI joints!

My re-acquired (or earned!) ability to squat is absolutely awesome. Many years—yes, years—of persistence, hard work, and dedication finally paid off the day I realized I could finally squat again after so much time of squat=excruciating low back pain.

Since the breakthrough day, I’ve slowly added squatting back into my workout routine. The benefits, both psychological and physical, are obvious already. I have more energy because I feel like I’ve accomplished something major. My workouts are more challenging, in a good way, because I can squat. I’m better able to strengthen my body, which helps keep my joints safe and stable. And I’m so, so excited!

My squats come with a caveat. I’m up to sixty air squats in one workout, but I have to do every single one while using my hands to hold my SI joints in place. If that sounds weird, I promise it looks weird, too, but it works for me. I dig my fingers into the divots near the joints that attach my pelvis to my spine, apply pressure, and squat without pain. I can’t go beyond parallel without sacral nerve irritation, but I can squat! I can squat!

Did I mention I can squat again? J My newfound squatting ability has injected life into my strength-training workouts. I’ve recommitted myself to doing as many resistance exercises as my body will allow, and I feel great. My posture is already improved, and I can hold my puppy with more confidence when she pulls on her leash. I’ve been doing a good core workout plus basic arm weights for quite some time, but squatting has really reminded me of how much a strong body can protect itself—even when it needs to protect itself from itself (thanks, autoimmune issues).

I can’t add weight to my squats since my hands are busy holding my SI joints in alignment, but I have faith that one day I’ll progress. Just the fact that I can do the basic movement again is a huge victory. Every time I squat, I smile. It’s a great feeling to be able to squat, and I’ve worked hard and long to earn it.

Earlier Mornings and Organization

I’m making a major effort to organize and restructure my life. The reasons are varied, but the bottom line is I need to be more productive if I’m going to have a shot at accomplishing my major life goals. Lately I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to what I want my life to look like, and I realized (no shock) that my lack of Type-A tendencies hold me back from getting the most from my days. My brain is scattered, my workspace is scattered, and there’s no way I’m maxing out my potential in the midst of chaos. I could make excuses, some of which are legitimate (like how exhausting it is to fight chronic health issues), but the crux of the problem remains the same—I have goals, and I can’t accomplish them if I don’t get organized.

inspirational quotes
I put together some inspiration to hang over my newly organized desk. These are just simple notecards I wrote on and laid out before tacking them onto a cork board.

I printed a simple Excel spreadsheet to itemize my days and times, and started yesterday by filling in what I did with each time block. My ultimate plan is to write myself a schedule and adhere to it come hell or high water, but for now I’m just feeling out what a truly organized life will be like. I spent three hours going through stacks of paper, drawers of random stuff, and bins with pens that don’t write anymore. I chose to work meticulously rather than just tidying my space, and the task definitely started to drag. However, when I was done, I had a usable, organized desk. A large paper grocery bag full of recyclables proved just how much crap I’d kept for years.

I also confirmed what I suspected—I’ve let my health problems dictate too much of my days. There are times when that can’t be helped, but overall, even attention to a health crisis can be scheduled in a spreadsheet. I’ve been nearly killing myself by running too late in the mornings. By the time I get around to running, it’s usually 92-95 degrees in the shade. I struggle with getting comfortable at night, which means I often don’t sleep well, which, in turn, means I don’t move very efficiently in the morning. When I do get up, I take a lot of time to traction and stretch my back, rub Cryoderm on my neck, and/or do whatever else my body demands. It’s sometimes 10 a.m. before I run, and that’s not the smartest routine in the summer in the Deep South. It’s also a productivity-killer.

Fix number one was definitely organizing my desk. I’m not entirely sure if it’s true that a cluttered space equals a cluttered mind, but I feel better when I look at my newly arranged workspace. It’s been a source of embarrassment for years, and the piles of junk on it have definitely hindered my productivity. Now it’s a place that signifies pride in myself and my work and dedication to my future. Seriously, it seems that important.

Fix number two is saying to hell with my health problems and insomnia and getting up early anyway. (I used to work the 5 a.m. – 5 p.m. shift, so it’s not like I’ve never had to get up early.) I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., but when I still couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep at 1 a.m., I grabbed my phone and changed the alarm to 7. It felt a little like defeat, but I respect my body enough not to punish myself too much for my pain. Guilt over health conditions is absolutely counter-productive. At 6:57, I woke up anyway and turned off the alarm before it could blare. That small action empowered me, and I headed to the kitchen to wake the dogs and put them out to do their business.

Side note—as far as “doing business,” like many runners, I much prefer to do mine before I run. I knew there was a possibility that last night’s dinner wouldn’t get moving at such an early hour, and I was right. Luckily, nothing catastrophic happened, although it was a little weird to head out the door to run before using the bathroom.

I drank ½ a cup of coffee and ate a Larabar, rubbed sunscreen on my face, and put on the running clothes I’d laid out the night before. I paced around the house as a preliminary warm-up, and played with our puppy for some dynamic movement. I sat on the porch stairs for a minute and self-tractioned my back, then knocked my SI joints into alignment against the tiled steps. So far, so good, and I was out the door before 8 a.m. to start my warm-up walk.

5.15 miles run
Electronic proof of a solid run. I used my refurbished iPod Nano and the Nike+ app to track my route, and the nice background pic belongs to the app.

The run wasn’t glorious or amazing or any of those other words I’d hoped would apply, but it was pretty damn good. The sun was still low enough that the mature trees in our neighborhood blocked it from directly cooking me, and the asphalt hadn’t heated up to the point of steam and odor yet. The bayou looked peaceful, almost like it was just waking up, too. I was covered in sweat by the end of my five-mile route, but not completely drenched like I am when I run later. The best part was, I wasn’t exhausted. I came home completely sold on running early in the morning and determined to back that alarm up to 6:30 and eventually to 6.

So far, my time log looks a lot better than yesterday’s. I couldn’t sleep two nights ago, partly because a nasty outbreak of psoriasis itched so bad that it kept me up. The skin calamity was the main reason I didn’t get up until almost 9 yesterday, but it had a strong effect on my productivity. What I’ve also realized is, staying in bed later doesn’t make me any less tired or any less itchy or really affect my pain and discomfort at all. In fact, I was less stiff this morning than usual after less time in bed.

Today’s To Do list is long, and it’s a good feeling to be partway through it at only 10:25 in the morning. I’m figuring out that I thrive off the sense of control I get from being extremely organized. Chronic pain demands so much attention, and it’s nice to fight back by telling my body that it’ll still get the help it needs, but that it’ll have to be helped efficiently and within my schedule. I truly feel empowered (also somewhat due to being able to squat again, which I’m sure makes me mentally and physically stronger!), and “empowerment” is something I haven’t really experienced in years. It’s a damn good feeling.

Squatting with Sacroiliac Joint Instability

air squat
Imperfect form, but I can squat! Victory!

I’m able to squat again! That probably sounds like a weird thing to celebrate, but I’m absolutely ecstatic. The recovery from my back pain/sacroiliac joint dysfunction has been long and complicated. I still believe that exercise with an emphasis on functional movement is the closest thing to a cure. I stick to my core workout like a religion. That said, it’s a tough road and sometimes I’m exhausted from the dedication it takes to heal myself. My three major holdouts in the battle against back pain have been sleeping, sitting, and squatting.

Sleeping is a night-by-night ordeal. Sometimes I can get comfortable and sleep 3 or 4 hours without even changing positions. Other times I spend almost all night turning, getting up to stretch, stacking and re-stacking pillows under my legs, and generally feeling like shit. Overall, my sleep situation is vastly improved, but if my SI joints are misaligned and put pressure on a nerve or two, I have a miserable night.

Sitting, too, is much improved, although I still can’t tolerate a soft surface like a couch or recliner. I do a lot of computer work while sitting on a wooden piano bench and am grateful I can sit half an hour on my butt. There was a time, not that long ago, when half a minute was torture.

Squatting is a bigger deal than I first realized. For starters, picking anything up with good body mechanics almost always requires squatting, especially if something heavy needs lifting. Petting small dogs requires squatting. Tying shoes requires squatting. You get the idea. I’ve made several adaptations, including training my puppy to get on a chair so I can pet her without squatting (no kidding!), but of course I want to be able to squat. My fitness has somewhat plateaued due to the lack of squatting, since lots of major weightlifting and core exercises require a squat.

A few days ago, after trying some new kneeling exercises to open my hips, I decided to advance to a wide-stance squat. I needed to lift a piece of landscaping concrete and didn’t want to ask for help. Living with chronic pain means frequently asking for help, and I hate asking people to do things for me. I took a deep breath and separated my feet well beyond the width of my hips, then squatted slowly. I waited for the usual searing pain to shoot through my right SI and into my right buttock, but all I felt was a slight twinge. I held the squat for a few seconds and got tears in my eyes. That may sound crazy, but anyone who’s had a physical limitation will understand. When that limitation is lifted—even if only partially—it feels like a personal miracle.

I’m very, very careful with my newfound squatting ability. As much as I’d like to do air squats until I drop (seriously, that’s my idea of fun), I’m only doing ten per day until I’m sure my back can handle more. I’m also resisting the urge to add weight to my squats. Just being able to squat is a huge accomplishment and I don’t want to take it for granted and end up hurt worse than ever.

I don’t keep a gratitude journal, although I probably should. If I did, one of the first things on my list this week would be “ability to squat.” Sometimes the simple things really are the best.

Impromptu Camping Trip

blackbird marsh trail
The Blackbird Marsh Trail connects to the Florida Trail.

Our midweek camping trip at the beach was the perfect impromptu escape. Luckily the National Seashore had a cancelation and we were able to make a last-minute reservation on our favorite camping loop near the Gulf of Mexico.

The weather was almost perfect—seventies in the day, sixties at night—but the wind was incredible. Our tent almost took off several times while we pitched it, and the rainfly stood up like a parachute. We finally got everything secured and set off for a two-hour hike on the Florida Trail. We usually hike 4+ hours, but my wife is still in recovery from a hoverboard accident and two hours on her feet was a major victory.

armadillo florida trail
Armadillos are common along the National Seashore section of the Florida Trail.

At the turtle bridge near the northern terminus of the Florida Trail, we saw one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen—a large snake swimming across the water. The snake was incredibly fluid and silent along the top of the water, and as city-dwellers, we were mind-blown.

We finished our hike and made lunch, and my back suddenly started to hurt. Pain shot down my right leg almost to my foot. I worried I’d have a sleepless night, but decided to put my shoes back on and go for a trail run. It doesn’t make sense within normal parameters, but often a run makes my back feel much better, almost like the pounding helps return everything to where it’s supposed to be.

The wind was so stiff that I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but it was a great 45-minute run. I saw a thru-hiker finishing his walk and a mile or so later I was charged by an armadillo who didn’t realize I was on the trail. He took off to root through the remnants of a fallen tree before we played a full game of chicken, and it was fun to watch his short legs propel his oval body toward me.

Running through the campground proved no less entertaining. It’s normal to see dogs tied up at campsites, but someone in a truck camper had their cat tied to their rig. The cat was quite fat and seemed immensely happy. He wore a collar with a bell and was attached to the camper by a harness and retractable leash. I love random animal sightings while running.

altra intuition
My Altra Intuitions got in some good trail miles.

When I got back to our tent, my back pain had greatly receded and was down to a dull ache. I did a few more exercises from my core routine (I’d done the others earlier) and stretched a few key muscles, and even after cooling down my back pain stayed very low. I am a wholehearted believer in using exercise as a weapon against chronic pain.

I cooked fresh salmon, dill, and white quinoa for dinner (we eat healthily even while camping!) and we got into our tent at eight o’clock because bugs were eating up our ankles. I hesitantly stretched out on my camping mattress and was pleasantly surprised to find all the radiating pain completely gone from my leg and even the centralized pain in my back was barely there. The wind blew so hard all night that we thought the tent might collapse, but we both got some sleep and awoke to the sounds of Gulf waves crashing on a beautiful morning.

Sprained Ankle and Sore Achilles Tendon

ice sprained ankle
I wrapped my ankle with a soft icepack and a bandage, then elevated it while Otis watched from the couch.

I don’t often have a so-called normal injury, but when I do, it’s a tough battle to force myself to take care of it. I worked on some posts about chronic pain and insomnia this weekend (which I’ll publish soon), then ironically got a relatively great night of sleep. I woke up Sunday morning ready to run. The weather was beautiful, I’d actually gotten some rest, and my back and neck were behaving pretty well. I decided to go 9-10 miles, depending on how I felt on the road.

I took off on terrain I’ve run on for years and was quickly bored with the usual sights and sounds. On a whim, I ducked behind some fenced-off private property (no location details here, but don’t try this at home, kids) and discovered a network of hidden trails in the middle of suburbia. Birds sung loudly, the air felt fresher, and all I could see were trees—real, hardwood trees! I had no idea how long the trails would last, but I hoped for at least five minutes of traffic-free running.

As I rounded a corner under a canopy of oaks, I realized I’d been in the woods for at least a mile. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I stopped paying close attention to the leaf-covered ground ahead. I ran at a 7:30 per mile pace, fast for me on a long run, and felt carefree. My feet landed on soft ground and I couldn’t smell smog or see any cars. I looked up at a cardinal in a tree and my right foot came down on a small stump. My ankle rolled so badly that I felt my fibula slam into the ground. I heard and felt a “pop” but instinctively kept running. Continuing to move was my way of assessing damage.

A few steps later I decided, despite the pop and severity of the roll, nothing was badly damaged. Pain shot up from my ankle to my knee on initial impact, but the sharpness dulled to an ache as I kept running. “Stupid,” I said aloud. “Watch where you’re going.” I was lucky, for sure, but I also make a habit of running in grassy medians and through debris-strewn parks as much as possible to help keep my ankles strong. I’m pretty sure Sunday’s outcome would’ve been a lot worse if I hadn’t spent lots of time strengthening my ankles.

I managed another eight miles after the trail ended and returned home full of excitement, energy and nagging concern for my ankle. I drank coconut water and described the trails to my wife, who smiled but expressed her disapproval at my adventure. She was right—I should at least tell her where I’m going if I decide to cover new ground. Oh, well. Live to die another day.

I spent the rest of the day like normal, throwing toys for the dogs, reading magazines, and stretching my tired body. My Achilles tendon ached, but my ankle didn’t show any swelling. I pinched along the margins of the tendon and it was sore, but everything seemed relatively in order. Then, as is the case with many sports injuries, nightfall brought pain and stiffness.

By the next morning my ankle and Achilles throbbed. My foot, ankle, and knee were stiff, and I tried everything I could think of to remain in denial about the injury (although I ordered some K Tape, so I wasn’t in complete denial). I have chronic pain—not normal injuries! I don’t have time for normal injuries! A sprained ankle and a sore tendon seem so alien.

The ankle felt unstable, so I bought a cheap drugstore compression sleeve to add support. I was able to walk around the neighborhood, but that was probably stupid. I felt worse after the walk. I hoped to run this morning—not quite two days after the initial injury—but when I woke up (yes, I slept again!) I knew it would be a very dumb idea to run. I probably could, but what if I turned the ankle again? I’ve seen friends with horrific Achilles injuries, and I don’t ever want one of my own. I put the compression sleeve on and set out for a walk. Too much pain. Time for plan B.

I ended up riding my bike around the neighborhood, but if I put the bike into a gear that offered much resistance, my Achilles screamed at me. I managed 25 minutes and headed for home. I couldn’t believe that all of my chronic pain issues were finally, blessedly feeling under control, but I was sidelined by an avoidable, normal injury.

As soon as I finish typing I’ll wrap my ankle in ice and elevate it for 15-20 minutes. I’m trying not to jump out of my skin about being unable to run. My perspective is weird—on one hand, I’ve dealt with horrific health issues that kept me from running (or doing much of anything) for a long time, so a few days off for a sprained ankle shouldn’t be a big deal. But, because of those stolen years when pain and bad health kept me down, I don’t want to lay off another day. More down time seems unbearable.

The reality is, those of us with chronic pain still get routine injuries, too, and we have to treat them with respect. Time to ice my ankle, dammit.

Running, Progress, and a Plastic Pony

I woke up at 7:59 this morning with my back in alignment and my neck mostly mobile. My wife and dogs snored lightly in rhythm, and as I took stock of my body and nothing hurt, I knew it would be a great day.

I decided to go for eight miles instead of ten, partly because I’d recently fought a sinus infection and partly because I wanted to get back home ASAP and deal with my visions of waffles and bacon (although I eventually ate roasted chicken and mixed greens).

The air was colder and windier than I’d hoped, but the sun made my goose bumps lie flat, and by the fourth mile, I was actually sweating while wearing shorts in February.

plastic pony
My new friend.

I rounded a corner near a cemetery and the bright yellow butt of a plastic pony stuck out of the dirt like a beacon. I didn’t know how badly she was wounded, but I knew we needed each other. I tugged on her back legs and plucked her like a mushroom out of the dirt. Dirt dulled her sheen and filled the swoop between her pink hair and yellow face. The turquoise paint that colored her eyes was partly worn away and she had linear cuts through her plastic flesh. One of her ears was almost shorn off. She’d obviously been hit by a mower, but she was beautiful.

I ran with the little plastic pony in my palm, the space between her legs and belly perfectly suited for my fingers to grip her securely. I resisted the urge to talk to her as the miles ticked by. I didn’t just feel good—I felt great, like I didn’t really have chronic pain anymore. I felt like a normal, healthy runner, and I smiled with every footfall. A real, entire night of sleep is rare for me, but last night I’d scored one, and the difference in my body and mind was incredible.

I dodged potholes and broken sidewalks and thought about the last couple of years of rebuilding my writing career that I threw away for a long list of stupid reasons. I thought about how those same years haven’t been good to my body, despite my addiction to health food and exercise. I’ve busted my ass and scored new writing and editing jobs, but I still work in healthcare to pay my bills. I used to obsess over wanting to rewind my life to that moment when I walked away from a potentially awesome book contract, but recently I realized that the anxiety over what could have been was literally killing me. My body hurt anyway, but when I thought about what I’d given up, my muscles went into lockdown and I slipped into misery. My fingers curled around the plastic pony and I realized I’d buried myself headfirst in dirt and hit myself with a mower. You dumbass, I thought, not for the first time.

Of course I’d known for years (and beaten myself up for it daily) that I’d made poor choices and possibly squandered the rest of my life as a writer, but only recently did I understand that I have to move on. Not just want to move on—I have to move on. Maybe a combination of friends’ Facebook-posted internet memes—I particularly like the ones that tell you to go after what you want no matter what—and my erratic health helped me see the light. While I may never forgive myself for some of my questionable choices, the worst choice of all would be to give up again just as I start to rebuild.

8 mile run
Fun run!

I stared into the shabby eye of my new pony as I rounded out the eighth mile of the morning run. I realized I’d pulled my own head out of the sand when I decided to reclaim my health and writing career. Lots of days I feel like I’ve been hit by a mower, but so what? Life is short whether I feel well or not, so I might as well live it wide open.

Review: Fitbit Flex

I don’t worry about my activity level—it’s always high when I’m well enough to exercise—but I’m a sucker for data. I have an awesome, old Garmin Forerunner for tracking runs, and my iPod Nano can track runs with its built-in Nike+ app, but I wanted something more basic that I could wear all the time. I’m interested in knowing how active I am throughout the day, not just during exercise. My mom has a Fitbit Flex and likes it a lot, so when I saw a decent sale I got one for myself. I chose bright pink because it was $10 cheaper than the other colors.

fitbit flex
The smaller sized wristband clipped at midway leaves me lots of breathing room.

When my Fitbit Flex box arrived, I found a small black tracker, two sizes of pink bands, a tiny wireless dongle, and a small USB charger inside the package. I have a prepaid iPhone 4 and can’t use much data, so I opted out of the Fitbit phone app and instead chose Fitbit’s MacBook-compatible program. The interface is user-friendly and easily customizable, and I checked it out while my new Fitbit charged.

From what I can tell, the Fitbit Flex works like a basic pedometer by detecting movement and translating that movement into an estimate of how many steps the wearer takes throughout the day. You can calculate your stride length and input your numbers for better accuracy, and add which arm you wear the tracker on to avoid dominant-hand movements counting as steps. From Fitbit’s website: “Changing this setting to “Dominant” will decrease the sensitivity of step counting and should reduce any over counting of steps when your body is not moving. The “Non Dominant” setting will increase the sensitivity of step counting, and we recommend this setting if your Flex is not counting enough steps.”

The sleep-tracking feature on the Flex intrigued me, since chronic pain often leaves me sleepless. My back pain has majorly decreased lately, which means I’m sleeping a lot more, but I still don’t sleep as well as I should. I hoped the Flex would help me analyze how often I stir around and disturb my sleep, but it didn’t work out for me. The first night that I put my tracker into sleep mode, I obsessed so much on having something around my wrist that I couldn’t go to sleep. Even without neuroses (yes, I can be a bit obsessive to say the least), the sleep tracking feature isn’t particularly sophisticated and can be prone to flaws, but I still wish it would’ve worked for me. It’s possible to lie still while wide awake and have the tracker register that you’re sleeping soundly, but when I’m in pain I don’t lie still, so that wouldn’t have been a problem for me.

If any of the Fitbit features are something I don’t want to use, I can easily remove them from my dashboard so I don’t have to look at them daily. I took off the sleep box to avoid reminders that I didn’t track my sleep. Another one I removed was the weight information and food tracking. I don’t have any desire to track my calories. The water-tracking feature can be helpful, though, especially since I’m prone to dehydration. It’s a serious concern for athletes in Florida.

My major gripe about the Flex so far is its sensitivity. It’s supposed to be compatible with an active lifestyle, but I’ve found that a lot of my daily movements put it into sleep mode. Sleep mode activates when you tap rapidly on the tracker for a few seconds. For me, it also activates when I mow the grass (vibration from the mower, I guess), pat the dog’s belly, or ride over bumpy terrain on my bicycle. I’m an old drummer and still have a habit of drumming my hands on the counter or my thighs, and that, too, sends the Flex into sleep mode. Not cool.

I saw a Black Friday sale that would’ve made it a lot cheaper than what I paid (even though I got mine on sale), and of course that was aggravating. I have concerns about the durability of the bands, and the expense of name-brand replacement bands is ridiculous. The bright pink has already gotten a bit dull after a couple of weeks, so I ordered a few off-brand (read: way cheaper) replacement bands, but I don’t appreciate having to do that. Can you imagine if we had to buy new watchbands every month? Fitbit needs to work on durability for sure.

I’ve worn the Flex while running several times, and it’s been fine. The tracker and band are lightweight and comfortable. Sweat sometimes collects inside the band, so I always take out the tracker after a run and make sure it’s dry. The Flex is water-resistant but not waterproof, which is annoying, but so far I haven’t had problems with sweat or shower water ruining it.

Despite some drawbacks, I like the Flex. It’s a great reminder if I’m working on the computer to get up and move around instead of melting into my chair. My mom and I are “friends” on Fitbit’s online program, and we can see each other’s step counts and cheer each other on if so inclined. I upped my goal to 15,000 steps per day from the stock 10,000, and I’ve found it pretty easy to reach 15,000, but the tracking software allows me to see my most active hours of the day rather than just displaying my number of steps. Which reminds me—it’s time to conclude this review and do my lower back a favor and go for a walk.

Nutshell Review

Pros: lightweight; choice of colors; easy and user-friendly online tracking program; comes with two sizes of bands; creates a good reminder to get up and move around throughout the day.

Cons: too sensitive—can go into sleep mode accidentally; bands aren’t durable and color doesn’t stay fresh; replacement bands are expensive; can be hard to snap onto wrist.