Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Click here for more info.
With so many wearables on the market, it can be difficult to choose a fitness tracker that will suit you best. The right device will be based on your individual needs – whether it’s step counting, sleep tracking or 24/7 heart rate tracking – there is something for everyone. No one product does it all, but some come closer than others.
Essential reading: Best fitness trackers and health gadgets
We have seen the launch of many new devices in recent months. Most of these have focused on style and improving functionality. Going forward we expect there will be more emphasis on better interpretation of data, integrating new sensors, and moving away from the wrist (think smart shoes, clothes, biometric headphones, etc.).
The truth is, not every tracker is for everybody. You’ll find wearables aimed at everyone from workout newbies to gym junkies, from runners to swimmers. So, how do you find the perfect tracker for your life? Here are some things to consider.
Fitness trackers vary greatly in price. The latest generation of devices offers a wide range of different features to choose from at very reasonable prices. Also, with so many companies releasing 2nd and 3rd generation devices, their earlier generation devices are becoming cheaper. While these wearables may not track everything, with some shopping around you may be able to find one that fits your needs.
Essential reading: Wearables that won’t break the bank
Most fitness trackers keep tabs on steps, distance, calories and activity. They will also give you a little buzz if you’ve been sedentary for a specific period of time, which is helpful to keep you moving throughout the day.
The more advanced ones will also feature a GPS for more precise measuring of distance. If your primary activity is walking, hiking or running, pretty much any brand will do. Not so if you get most of your activity by cycling, working an elliptical, walking on a treadmill, swimming or mountain climbing. Be sure to select a tracker that can capture data for the specific activity or sport you do most.
Sleep tracking is also becoming a common feature. Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Wearables vary greatly in terms of information they provide, ranging from simply monitoring total time to providing details on various stages of sleep such as light, deep and REM sleep. Many devices also have silent alarms that vibrate on your wrist to wake you up without disturbing your partner.
Essential reading: Best devices for advanced sleep monitoring
Beyond these fairly standard metrics, some fitness trackers can keep tabs on a number of other things. This includes your heart rate, body temperature, galvanic skin response and UV exposure. The Fitbit Charge 2 and Vivosmart 3, for example, can tell you where you stand in terms of your VO2Max, a measure of your maximal aerobic capacity. For the most part, the more tracking features you are after, the more you will pay for your device.
Essential reading: Fitness coaching from the wrist
There are also activity trackers that do not include many sensors, but offer coaching. Moov Now, for example, actively monitors your activity and advises you in real time how to get the most from your workout. Expect more more meaningful analysis of our vitals data in the coming years. That is the future.
Trackers come in different shapes, styles and sizes. Design is a subjective topic, but a very important one. Activity trackers started off as chunky and unattractive devices aimed at fitness freaks and technology buffs. The tech community has, however, grasped the importance of designing wearable technology that is both functional and attractive.
Most fitness trackers are meant to be worn constantly, so you will need to like the thing strapped to your wrist. If you have the opportunity to try one on before you actually buy, it is a good idea to do so.
In terms of the design, we can separate activity trackers into three distinct groups. The first category are the sporty band type. These are typically rubberised and often simple in appearance. Fitbits, Polar Loop, Garmin fitness bands are all good examples. The next category are the smartwatch looking ones. These are fitness trackers include the Polar A360 and Fitbit Blaze and Ionic. The last category are trackers that look like a quality analogue watch or a piece of jewelry, such as the Misfit Phase, Garmin Vivomove HR, Nokia Steel and the Misfit Swarovski Shine.
It is clear that at the moment, wearable technology is still more popular with men than women. According to Fitbit data, around 70% of their devices are sold to men. This is slowly changing, however, and more and more trackers are being designed with female fitness enthusiasts in mind.
Essential reading: Best activity trackers for women
Whichever tracker you choose, be sure that you are absolutely comfortable with it.
This is again, a subjective topic.
The first view is that you want a display in order to see your progress throughout the day. Whether this means a fully featured color display, a black and white display, or just a set of LED lights, there are many options to choose from. Another thing to consider is that more sophisticated screen real-estate will typically drain the battery more. And your wallet…
The second view is that you are better off without a display so that you don’t become addicted to checking the numbers on your wrist — the device in that case becomes less of a distraction. This, however, means that you will be entirely dependent on your smartphone or web interface to check on your progress.
You will want a seamless users experience when it comes to your tracker. There are technical issues to consider such as the set-up, how you keep the device charged and how it stores your data. Does it sync automatically (the most convenient devices sync automatically and wirelessly)? Is activity tracking and sleep tracking automatic or manual? Is it water-resistant? These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself.
You’ll also want to look at how easy it is to interact with the tracker you are considering. Some have fully featured touch screens, while others are more minimalistic and triggered by tapping on the device.
Wearing a fitness tracker is, however, only half the story. The other equally important part is understanding and using your data to live a healthy life. Different activity trackers have different ways of displaying the data. It is therefore important that the smartphone app and any website interface are attractive and simple to use, and provide you with information that you are most interested in.
Regardless of which fitness tracker you choose, eventually you are going to have to take it off to recharge or change the battery. When this is occuring, the device will obviously stop tracking your activity, so you will get gaps in data.
The battery life can vary quite a bit. Depending on the tracker you buy, you’ll get anywhere from up to a day of battery life (Apple Watch) to an average of four to seven days (most Fitbit and Garmin fitness bands) to 6 months or more (Moov, Misfit, Nokia).
Trackers using disposable watch batteries last longer, but they require a replacement every few months to up to a year. Rechargeable batteries, on the other hand, are built to spec for each device. Both of these options have advantages and disadvantages.
As for charging up the batteries, most require nothing more than a standard USB port. Some will charge faster than others, but factor in on at least a few hours for a full refuel.
Fitness trackers with built in GPS are a bit more expensive then the more run of the mill variety. This is partly because they need to have a color screen and a display big enough so that you can actually read the information. Maps are only useful if you can read them without a magnifying glass!
If you are, for example, an avid runner, you will want to know every detail about your training sessions. You will want to know when you moved fastest, when you struggled and what kind of terrain you were having trouble with. When you combine GPS with a fitness tracker, all of this information is at your fingertips. Also, if you are worried about getting lost a GPS may be a useful option.
GPS is great, but only if you really need it. Some fitness trackers, such as the Charge 2, can pair with your smartphone to extract GPS information. This, however, means that you need to carry your smartphone with you. If you walk the same trail every day, then a GPS monitor isn’t going to do all that much for you. If you hit the gym primarily, the results will be entirely uninteresting!
When it comes to buying the right fitness tracker, the characteristic of water-resistance can often be a deciding factor for shoppers.
Essential reading: Explaining water resistance ratings
There are no waterproof wearables. Regulation prohibits watches and fitness wearables from being marked as waterproof. This is because, there is always a certain level of water pressure at which a wearable will begin to leak. Wearables can therefore only be marked as water-resistant.
Essential reading: Head off to the pool with these gadgets
You should always check the markings on your device or the manufacturers website before taking a wearable into a shower or a pool.
A recent study suggests that resting heart rate can be used to predict your longevity. Researchers found that the risk of dying from any illness or health condition raises by around 9% for every 10 bpm. The chance of suffering a fatal heart attack or stroke rises 8%.
Resting heart rate can also be used to assess fatigue levels. If you find that your readings are elevated from their normal average (more than 7 bpm), that could be a sign that you’re not fully recovered from a hard workout. You should then consider taking a few days or a week to allow your body time to recover.
There are a number of activity trackers that will automatically track your resting heart-rate. They will also provide you with a historical record which you can tap into to see how your readings are changing over time.
Essential reading: Importance of following your resting heart rate readings
Heart rate monitors are also important when it comes to training. Your body has 5 heart rate zones. Not many people however know what their heart rate is, or where it should really be. This means that often, they are not training in the most efficient way to achieve their goals. All top athlete’s heart rate train, as they know this will help them to reach their top potential in the shortest amount of time possible.
Essential reading: Heart rate zone training with wearables
Advanced heart rate monitors that are used for performance training such as triathlons or marathons can cost several hundreds of dollars. But luckily, heart rate monitoring is fast becoming a standard offering for new fitness devices. These range from devices that offer 24/7 heart rate monitoring such as Fitbit Charge 2, Vivosmart HR to those that track heart rate only during training sessions such as the Mio Alpha 2.
Don’t expect perfect heart rate readings, though, from a wrist based heart rate monitor. Particularly when you engage in high intensity activity. If you are really serious about heart-rate zone training, you will be better off with a chest strap.
An increasing number of fitness trackers can do more than just track activity. Some, for example, sync with your smartphone to notify you when you receive a new voicemail, text message or social media notification. They can be used to remind you of important events of calendar appointments. Others offer contactless payments.
Many wearables also offer some kind of positive feedback often in the form of virtual rewards – called badges, or congratulatory e-mails – when people meet their daily goals. Having your hard work acknowledged can make you feel good. Some trackers are better at this than others. Is this important to you?
Like this article? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and never miss out!
*Disclosure: We are a review site that receives a small commission from sales of certain items, but the price is the same for you. We are independently owned and all opinions expressed here are our own. See our affiliate disclosure page for more details.