Using a Fitbit in a wheelchair:

Using a Fitbit in a wheelchair

So many to chose from, all with good and bad points.

Being in a wheelchair, exercise isn’t as easy as ‘popping’ to the gym and using the treadmill, or going for a morning run. Because the lives of wheelchair users are more sedentary than the average office worker, who at least walk to the car/toilet/lunch, we have to make a bit more of an effort at it. Or so I thought.

Motivation to track my steps:

In an effort to help my wife in her battle in losing weight, I decided to get us an activity tracker for Christmas. I spent two weeks looking into the different types of devices on the market which included the Fitbit family of devices (Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex, Fitbit Force), the Jawbone Up, and the Withings Pulse.  Each device had advantages and disadvantages. My thoughts of the best suitable trackers for me was:

  • A wrist mounted devices so that I’m less likely to lose it.
  • Be able to track my sleep, steps and calories burnt.
  • Connect with the other fitness apps I use.
  • The ability to connect to my phone to sync data and view stats.

In all my research, I couldn’t find any blog post, article or even forum post on all the fitness forums about the use of an activity tracker, like the ones mentioned above, in a wheelchair. The whole ‘raison d’ étre’ for an activity tracker is to track steps, which obviously not something I do a lot of. I can just about hobble around the flat on a good day, but anything beyond my front door is achieved using a wheelchair or mobility scooter. I sent Fitbit, Jawbone and Withings an email asking if it was any use in me buying a device being that I would be in a wheelchair most of the time. Only Fitbit had the decency to reply. Although written from a heavily marketing point of view, they did say that although the device is designed to be to track steps, it would give a reasonable measure of activity, allowing for a slightly larger margin of error than for walking. They reassured me that they were trying their best to make it as compatible with wheelchair users and would work on getting the margin of error down to a more acceptable level. I’d like to think this series of posts will help and maybe encourage other wheelchair or disabled readers to buy a tracker to stay fit and healthy.

Final decision:

After many hours reading all the reviews, comparisons and walk-through, I decided that as this was going to be a present for both me and my wife, I had to ask for her advice, despite ‘ruining’ the surprise.

We both decided that if we were going to get one, we ought to get the same one for compatibility. There wouldn’t be much point in me getting a different device as we wouldn’t be able to link up and compare stats. Lorna looked through all the devices I suggested, and we decided to get the Fitbit Flex tracker.


I can almost hear people making comments saying something like “Why don’t you use [xyz] app which will track your steps, and [xyz] to track your sleep?” or “Wouldn’t a pedometer be cheaper?”. Here is my answer to those comments.

The point of using a wristband format and not a clip on at the waist device is simple: I’m very forgetful, and sooner or later, it would end up in the wash. There are plenty of posts on the internet about people who have forgotten to take off their tracker from their trousers/bra/shirt, and it ends up in the wash. 7 times out of 10, the device is unusable, and they need to buy a new one. Pedometers are no more reliable than the wristband. Most cheap ones can be given a shake, and they add ten steps. Plus, when in the wheelchair, pushing myself along, the pedometer or clip on tracker is less likely to pick up the movement, where as being attached to my arm which is pushing the wheels to get around, it records the activity.

With regards to using phone based apps to track my sleep and steps, I’ve tried them. The step based apps usually do ok, as long as the device is in my pocket. But often, when I’m sitting round at home, it’s on the table, or on the sofa or (more often than not) being charged. Something attached to my wrist is always there, just like my watch.
The phone based sleep tracking apps are usually unsatisfactory because they rely on you having the phone placed on the mattress, and it records the vibration and noise. The problem is, I often move round in my sleep, and will knock the phone off the mattress, therefore rendering the stats null. Furthermore, it means that the phone has to be on and charging all night, which makes it hotter and it’s not recommended to have it under the pillow, which would secure it.

Stay tuned…

This is only the first of many posts to do with the Fitbit use in a wheelchair. I urge you, should you come across this in months to come without a recent update, to send me a message or comment asking for an update, and I will do so ASAP.

Next up: My thoughts on the Fitbit dashboard and phone apps


62 thoughts on “Using a Fitbit in a wheelchair:

      • Connie

        Im in a wheelchair 100 per cent of the day, I need to lose weight would fitbit work for me ?

      • There’s no reason why not, but it must be said that any exercise more than usual will help. What the Fitbit will do is show you how active you are being. This can give you a guideline to how much you need to move.
        Start with a small goal, then steadily increase it.
        Good luck!

      • Hello! I would love to have an update on using the fit bit flex while using a wheel chair. We are hoping to find such a device for patients in wheel chairs who suffer from a rare form of muscular dystrophy (LGMD2B). It would help us to know what you ended up thinking of this tracker. Thanks!

  1. DudeOnWheel

    I am very curious and would like to know more. 100% on a wheelchair and working at home, I need something to get me moving! Just saw the Withings Pulse Wireless Activity Tracker on Amazon and wondering if it would work on a Wheelchair.

    • Hi, thanks for reading the blog, I’m glad it’s helping.
      I actually go into this in my next post, which I tried to post by yesterday, but couldnt’ due to a bad day. I find that if you’re in a manual wheelchair, then a wrist mounted tracker would work better, as it will register the motion of pushing the wheels as movement. A hip based tracker, like the Withings Pulse, may not register as much. as sitting down we don’t have the same movement as someone walking (although this is just a theory, I don’t have one to test it).

      I hope that makes sense? I have an idea for an experiment I will carry out to test this though, so stay tuned.

  2. James

    I’m very much interested in the outcome of this too as I’ve been considering some sort of tracker as I’m no stranger to logging exercise & eating to compare under eating, over eating & so on. I previously had used the Fitbit Ultra combined with a couple of iOS apps which were perfect for a couple of years while I weighed in at over 18 stone but I had full use of my whole body to put it through the hammering I did to get down to 10 stone then unfortunately I ended up in a wheelchair paralysed from waist down pretty much with the exception of occasional involuntary movement which wasn’t caused my my extreme & mad exercise regime that the many who followed my journey online & in person first thought as I was often known to run in excess of 50 miles in one go as I was a great fan of Dean Karnaze who was kind enough to give me some guidance along my journey as running appeared to be my thing to achieve my health & fitness goals back then. I too contacted Fitbit with being a user for such a long time & it working perfectly for my needs & got pretty much the same reply as yourself, I actually fully qualified with many health & fitness qualifications after completing my journey purely to see how much I had learnt or self taught along the way which was put to charitable uses only not a career move but not one of my courses covered such a topic in depth at all. Although I can do & have developed exercises for my self & a small group of ex military personnel I work with who are now also in a wheelchair most to all the time I’ve yet to come across a good method of calculating both exercise & eating habits to determine if eating enough, too much or spot on to maintain current weight, the nutritional bit is easy but not being able to combine the exercise criteria is a bit of a failure as the options I’ve tried have been far too much out with their calculations which the exception of a couple of GPS apps which have built in algorithms to calculate self propelling in a wheelchair which is fine if you happen to be out a lot & cover a great distance but not in & around the house. As an Apple developer from home I’m currently following the new iOS & iPhone development that Apple is working on as they have built in impressive tools to most to all of their portable devices for accessibility so to work with & for all so I’m hoping that they will carry this over to their wearables should what their working on actually make it to the real world that is as there doesn’t seem to be any full & accurate device & or app which fits the purpose of a wheelchair user.

  3. Scott

    Hello there. I’m in the same living situation (T12 lower paralysis). Ive been looking at different devices as well, including those still in development (Razer Nabu). I’m also developing a “wheelchair friendly” Android app that uses a certain formula to closely estimate calorie loss while using Google maps, gps, etc.
    It’s tough, huh? Hopefully companies and good developers (not me) step up their game.
    Good Luck!

    • Hi Scott,
      Yes, it’s tough but I like the idea of developing your own app. Good luck with that. Bigger companies really should take people in this situation in to consideration.

      Thanks for getting in touch.

  4. CallieGirl

    This was so helpful and the only one I could fine online that addressed whether a Fitness Bracelet could track activity for someone using a wheelchair. I am looking for a birthday gift for my sister who uses a wheelchair (paraplegic). She is very active and rides a tri-bicycle using her arms. Are you recommending any certain brand of wrist bracelets? Thinking one of the FitBits?

    • Hi CallieGirl, thanks for getting in touch.

      I used Fitbit and therefore can say with 100% assurance that they work. I would imagine that any sports band tracker would do the same, but I can’t guarantee that as I’ve only used the Fitbit. If you wanted to buy another kind, that would be up to you. There are loads out there now, and not just from the big three companies like Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike. Samsung have released three fitness trackers to work with their new range of Android smartphones as well as many other electronic companies such as LG, ASUS, and Sony. Depending on what your sister is after, and what she uses, then I would chose one which would suit all those needs.

      Good luck,

      • CallieGirl

        So thankful for your timely response. Great information and recommendations.

  5. Danielle

    Thank you so much for these posts. I’m an OT that works at a long term care facility for people with physical disabilities. I’m looking to start a weight loss group and am looking for feedback tools that will help keep people motivated. Many of those that I work with are pretty physically involved with little ability for rigorous exercise. Many are in power wheelchairs which also cuts down activity significantly. I’ll keep monitoring your posts with hopes that one of these products will suit our needs. Thanks!

  6. Dalia

    Hi there, I’m a wheelchair user and I’m wondering, do you still use your fitbit tracker? Is there a better fitbit option available now that it is almost 2015? I’m wanting to purchase a fitbit soon, so any advice you could offer me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    • Hi Dalia,
      Yes, I do still use my Fitbit. There is a new option, it’s called the Fitbit Force. It has a full screen which shows you the amount of steps you have taken rather than just the LED’s of the Flex. However, I don’t know if there will be a new one out soon. The Force launched in the UK earlier this year, so whether there will be a new one some time next year, I don’t know. Best advice is, contact Fitbit. Their customer service is second to none, and if they know something, they can tell you.
      Otherwise, good luck!

  7. Connie

    I have Fitbit Flex it is sync with my tablet and smartphone, its worked fine till 2 days ago. It will update my tablet , but not my phone. What can I do ?

    • Hi Connie,
      I would suggest you contact Fitbit support either through their twitter feed (they are very active and helpful) or via their website. I wouldn’t want to suggest something that wipes your data. I’d feel awful!
      Good luck!

    • Connie

      Does the Fitbit Flex automatically change your weight on the Dashboard based on the calories in /calories out or is this something I must do manually.

      • Hi Connie,
        You can track your weight through the Fitbit app or on the online dashboard. It won’t automatically change the weight depending on your calories in/out because there are so many other variables to take into consideration. However, it’s as simple as entering the weight into the correct field to keep track of it.
        Another way of doing it would be to buy a pair of Aria scales which are made by fitbit and wirelessly update your weight to your account. You can find these for sale in the FItbit Store.

  8. I just found your blog while looking for reviews from those with disabilities as I’m looking at getting a Fitbit and have Muscular Dystrophy and don’t/can’t walk far without stopping/getting tired etc but want to try and boost my fitness a bit and push myself to get more active rather than sit around. I’m also looking at it from the sleep side of things too as I feel I’ve not slept well and it would be helpful to see if I have etc. thank you for your post as its great to know that they should be suitable

    • Hello Sara,
      I’m glad you found the review useful. Just to give you a bit more information to make a better choice, Fitbit are due to release some new models soon. They have much the same usability, but are, obviously, more up to date.
      Good luck in your efforts to get fitter. I hope it doesn’t cause you too much pain.

  9. Steve

    Thank you for posting about the disabled wheelchair user — a forgotten person! It has been great reading and advice.

    • Thank you Steve!
      That’s why I wrote the post. I figured if I had the questions, others would to, and as they say, if you can’t find what you want to read, write it!
      PS:(sorry it took so long to find your comment)

  10. Great blog post but you said that you were going to do one on the phone apps and dashboard but I could not find it. You are in the UK yes? I am an above the knee amputee that chooses to use a wheelchair. I have put on 100 lbs. since being in the chair. I don’t exactly understand how a fitbit (or any other) helps? I need to know how many calories I burn wheeling (like how many miles I wheel in a day.) so I can compensate for overeating. I think your work is awesome. Keep it up!

    • Thank you Carl, glad you liked it.
      When you said one of the phone Apps, did you mean pictures of the Fitbit app, or an app that measures your activity without any peripheral devices?
      The use of a gadget to track my activity is mainly for motivation. At the end of a day, when I see I’ve only done, say, 1000 steps, then it encourages me to move more the next day. Of course, this is all dependant on my pain levels. If I haven’t moved because I’ve been bed ridden due to pain, then I can be a little easier on myself. If, however, I just spent the day lounging in front of the TV doing nothing on a lower pain day, then I can mentally encourage myself to try harder.

      I will endeavour to write a full follow up soon, time and pain permitting.
      Thanks again for taking time to read my post, and good luck!

      • I’ve been following this blog for a while. I still don’t own an activity tracker. I honestly don’t understand how they could be accurate for someone in a wheelchair. Correct me if I’m wrong; please.

  11. Mousa

    Hey Man,

    This is an awesome post, I am in an automatic chair and I wanted to get a FitBit, I’m on MyFitnessPal and I want to sink it in order to track my caloric intake. Any comments for automatic users, is there any particular model better for that? Also I noticed this was over a year ago, any updates that’s are better for disability??

  12. Beverly

    My husband also bought me a Fitbit charge HR. He is in a wheelchair so we are going to test it on him to see if it works. It seemed like the heart rate feature would be important since he doesn’t ‘step’. That is one reason we wanted to get the HR -better chance that we could use the same type of device. Also that it syncs to your phone and shows caller id – is a nice feature.

    Thank you for the article- looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  13. Catherine Bowles

    Hi. Thanks for this blog. I’ve also trawled the internet for info on whether pedometers and such like work for someone in a wheelchair. The problem is, I’ve never really known how they work. I had always assumed that they measured movement in the legs (not useful to me !), but people wear them on their hips ??!! It would seem that there is a huge gap in the market that someone should be filling ! Obviously, a lot of these companies don’t think we’re really worth the bother since hardly anyone bothered to reply to your emails ! Fitness tracking for disabled people could make somebody a lot of money, guys. If common decency doesn’t speak to them, I’m sure the lure of cold, hard cash should…..

    • Catherine Bowles

      Update: I emailed Fitbit and they came back to me to say that they were not practical for wheelchair use at the moment, but would pass my email on to their engineers for possible future implementation. Perhaps if enough of us contact them, they’ll pull their finger out !

      • absinthia

        i’ve been a T-6 paraplegic since 1980 and have used a fitbit since 2009. i don’t go by the exact amount of steps, i just compete against myself. knowing the exact number of steps or distance traveled is really irrelevant. if i don’t feel i’m exercising enough, i just push to do more than previously. they can’t say that’s it’s “for” people in wheelchairs, because obviously they aren’t, but they work fine. i love mine.

  14. katie

    Hey I have a quick question I’m a power wheelchair user and I’m just trying to get an estimate of maybe how many steps I walk because I can walk short distances and just a general idea of my activity level during the day do you have any suggestions on a fitness tracker that might work for me Even while I’m in the power wheelchair Thanks

    • Hi Katie, sorry for the late reply. Any of the activity trackers on the market would do. If you don’t want to spend money on something you’re not likely to use all that much and have a smartphone, you can find hundreds of apps in the Apple App Store or Google Play store that will do the same thing.

      Good luck!

  15. John Chiesa

    Just purchased my Fitbit charge. I’m a T-7 para.

    A few interesting comments.

    1) it somehow registered that I did two flights of stairs. Truly amazing! 😉
    2) the mileage was considerably wrong, however, Fitbit allows you to “tune” your steps. My Fitbit app (not the Fitbit device) registered 2.18 miles and 2874 steps. My Fitbit device had the same number of steps, but less than 1.5 miles. When synced, the device updated to show the correct miles.
    3) my particular “tuning” when like this: 2.18 miles X 5,280 ft/mile = 11,510.4 feet. Since I took 2,874 “steps”, 11,510.4 ft / 2,874 steps = 4.005 feet per step.
    By adjusting my stride to 4 feet, it should give me an accurate distance FOR THAT PARTICULAR RUN. Keep in mind that I will have many more punches per mile going uphill, practically non going downhill, so don’t be good disappointed in a wide error range. If you are going on the same route, the repeatability is pretty good.

    All in all, I’m keeping the Fitbit. It nags me into “a little more” action, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

    Best wishes to all,
    John Chiesa

    • absinthia

      john, re: the altimeter reading: i have had to travel by stretcher the last couple of months and my stair reading gets up to 9 flights a day. i guess it has something to do with the lifting up and down. i’ve noticed it also measures inclines, to some extent, just not always. it’s pretty funny to me, though. 🙂

  16. debra

    can this be used for someone not in a wheelchair but is hampered by not being able to go outside due to disease?

    • Hi Debra,
      Of course! The Fitbit isn’t really designed for use in a wheelchair, but it still works. It is generally designed to be used by ‘able bodied’ people, so just walking round the house will record activity.
      I also often have problems leaving the house due to my illness, but I can still sometimes record over 1000 steps on an average day.

  17. Thanks it’s useful information. I was doing a test in my manual chair with the Fitbit Zip. It seemed to work pretty well until I had to push up a reasonably Steephill and the device popped out of its flimsy rubber holder. The flex definitely is from her and stays closer to the hand so it won’t get caught on the tire.

  18. John Chiesa

    I’ve been using a wheelchair since an auto accident in 1979. I decided on the Fitbit Charge. I set my “stride length ” based on an average number of steps per mile (in my case, 3’10” makes the strides match the distance.)
    It works extremely well for me. Aside from some interesting data (I climbed 15 fights of stairs to get to mid span of the Golden Gate Bridge), it gives a great indication of exercise.
    One thing to watch out for. The push type latch can come loose. I found some aftermarket rubber bands that solved the problem.

    • SusanH

      I am considering buying my son, who is a paraplegic, a Fitbit Charge HR. I would be interested in hearing from other para’s of their experiences with this device.

  19. I have just bought a Fitbit hr, and as I`m in the UK and also wheelchair due to brittle bones your blog was so helpful in my decision, so thank you!
    I`m not getting any younger, fitter or thinner, so this`ll push my goals for two out of three!

  20. Haley

    I just got a fitbit charge hr and it counts arm movements as steps, so manual chair users couod count propulsions

  21. Juan

    Hi, I am pretty active, I commute to/from office in my bike I can track disrance/speed/rate. But most of the time I am in the wheelchair, and would like to continue tracking motion/exercise, a friend uses fitbit and asked “why not this”, besides this I’ve found no good reviews of Fitbit in wheelchair, any new findings?

  22. Miss Loki

    Hello I’ve recently bought a fitbit charge hr and am a wheelchair user. I was wondering how accurate the tracker was as very few steps are being taken, and I am mainly self propelling. Is great to know that you spoke to somebody and they gave to an idea of what to expect and thank you for sharing the reply. It makes the expense seem a little less when you know it is actually being vaguely accurate! I hope all is going well with yours, thank you.

  23. Miss Loki

    Hello I’ve recently bought a fitbit charge hr and am a wheelchair user. I was wondering how accurate the tracker was as very few steps are being taken, and I am mainly self propelling. Is great to know that you spoke to somebody and they gave to an idea of what to expect and thank you for sharing the reply. It makes the expense seem a little less when you know it is actually being vaguely accurate! I hope all is going well with yours, thank you.

  24. Sean Barrett

    So glad I found this! Here is my challenge, much like those posted above.

    I use a scooter to get around most of the time. I’ve looked into the Fitbit.

    Steps are wildly inaccurate. I’m happy to use things like activity time and calories burned as a health indicator, something to track over time. The problem is that as far as I can tell steps taken and distance traveled (GPS) are part of the calculations for calories and/or activity minutes. Is this correct?

    Are there devices that would work?


  25. Hi mate. I recently landed myself in a wheelchair after a surfing accident left me with a broken neck. I’m keen to get something to monitor my exercise and am thinking about going down the fitbit route. Now youve had a bit of time using it would you still recomend purchasing one?
    Any help or advice you can give would be much appreciated.
    Thanks mate

  26. Tavish

    I’m a T6 paraplegic and use a Manuel wheelchair. The app Runkeeper is the best app I’ve found to use. It has a setting for Wheelchairs. It’s been months since I’ve tried anyother apps like that but when I tried several in the past Runkeeper was the only one that offered the Wheelchair setting.

  27. Was thrilled to see your write-up on fitbits for wheelchair users as i was contemplating getting one. I was a tad annoyed that there wasnt one around aswell surprised in this day and age…but not surprised as well! I look forward to seeing your progress on this.

  28. David Matkin

    Hi, I was wondering if you were going to be writing any more on this? I need to loose some weight and am a wheelchair user so hoping to find an activity tracker that will work for me. I use a chair for work and outside the house, but use a stick at home.

    All the best Dave Matkin

  29. Andi

    Hello! I am also a person of limited mobility (due to Tethered Cord Syndrome and all the surgeries I’ve had to “correct” it) and I’ve been trying to look into fitness trackers for myself, and as you clearly found, yourself, the internets doesn’t offer a ton of direction for tracker shoppers with disabilities! So I simply wanted to say THANK YOU for posting about this! I’ve been trying to do research for several days, each time getting frustrated, feeling like I have no idea which tracker to buy, or if it was even worth it since I don’t move the same way as “normal” able-bodied people. But thanks to your post I have finally settled on the Fitbit Flex 2!

    So that’s it really, I just wanted to say thank you for your post! It has proven most helpful, and most encouraging! 🙂

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