|

Fitness trackers

Fitness tracker buying guide

Last updated: July 2015

Getting started

If you're looking for a way to fine-tune your workout, monitor the quality of your sleep or simply nudge yourself up off the couch on those lazy Sunday afternoons, a fitness tracker (sometimes also called an "activity tracker") is a valuable tool. According to the market research firm NPD Group, one in 10 American adults already owns one. But keep in mind that the tracker itself is a lot like a gym membership. It can't help you if you don't use it.

That means it's important to choose one that is going to fit into your lifestyle and motivate you in a way that will be effective. It also means you should pick one that you'll enjoy wearing. There are literally dozens of options on the market, ranging from the dead simple to use to the truly sophisticated. They come in enough colors, shapes and sizes to make your head spin.

Before you begin shopping for the ideal option, take a moment to decide on your goals. Are you hoping to propel yourself into a more active lifestyle? Are you looking to raise your game? Or are you planning to attend the Olympics—as a member of the U.S. team?

How they work

Trackers use an array of sensors to monitor your movements, often connecting and syncing wirelessly with a computer and/or smart device to record and store data on your day-to-day activities, including the number of steps taken, calories consumed, hours of sleep, heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration levels. Some offer smartwatch-like alerts to incoming calls, texts, IMs, and e-mail. And they can provide motivational support in the guise of challenges, badges, interaction with online friends and a vibrating alert when it's time to get up and go. They can even share data remotely with your doctor.

Virtually every tracker uses an accelerometer to measure your steps and other up-down, side-to-side and front-to-back movements. Additional sensors may include:

  • Heart-rate monitor to track your pulse during exercise and/or throughout the day 
  • Gyroscope to measure changes in orientation and determine if you’re standing, sitting, reclining, swimming, biking, etc.
  • GPS to track your location
  • Magnetometer to measure your orientation as it relates to the Earth’s magnetic fields (good for detecting specific movements and determining what direction you’re moving in)
  • Barometer to measure atmospheric pressure and determine your altitude, including how many flights of stairs you climbed this morning to get to your desk

Some activity trackers let you sync with external heart monitors, smart bathroom scales, and other devices that offer more precise readings. When paired with the companion software or mobile app (even third-party apps in some cases), trackers can give you new insight into the habits that make up your lifestyle.

Types

Activity trackers are designed to accommodate a sweeping range of skill levels. They can provide data tailored specifically to the routines of avid swimmers, skiers, weight lifters or marathon runners. If you’re just searching for a tool to guide you down the beginner’s trail to 10,000 steps a day, detailed info like that is only going to irritate you.

So let's start with the big question: What are you looking for—a way to monitor your daily activity or a way to fine-tune your workouts? If you just want to know how many steps you took, you're shopping for an all-day tracker. If you want info on the speed, pace, and stride associated with those steps, not to mention the route they traveled, you're hoping for a training tracker.

Here are some examples of the sorts of data that can be compiled:

  • Steps taken
  • Stairways climbed
  • Duration of exercise
  • Calories burned
  • Active minutes
  • Calories consumed (using barcodes collected by your smartphone's camera)
  • Sleep time (divided into regular and REM)

All of the above plus…

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing patterns
  • Miles traveled
  • Speed, pace, route
  • Swimming pool lap times
  • Altitude changes (helpful to skiers, cyclists, etc.)
  • Music controls

You get the picture. Because the market is still relatively new, fitness trackers are always improving and the offerings will vary from one tracker to the next. If you want a device geared to your favorite activity or sport, don't be afraid to ask. Odds are good you'll find one.

Shopping tips

Why not just buy a smartwatch?

That's a good question—especially if you want the ingenuity and added functionality of third-party apps. The Apple Watch, for example, is outfitted with an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and an optical heart rate sensor that allows it to monitor your activity. It can also access Wi-Fi and GPS when paired with your iPhone.

But the watch's extra capabilities come at a steeper price and they require more power, which means the device's battery life is limited to 18 hours. That's why you don’t hear anything about the sleep analysis capabilities of the Apple Watch. It's usually charging while you're snoozing. It's also not waterproof, so you can't take it with you on your morning swim.

Personal preferences

Once you've decided on the functions you want, you can begin to refine your options based on personal taste. Here are some things to consider…

Style

Many activity trackers are designed for the wrist, but some can be worn as pendants or clipped to a pocket, belt, or bra strap. In the past, the devices tended to look purely functional, but manufacturers are now more conscious of style, so you'll find a greater variety of materials, shapes, and colors—and even some models created in collaboration with bona fide fashion designers.

Choose a look you'll feel comfortable wearing every day.

Display

The more advanced trackers reveal their data—using words, numbers and symbols—on a watchface-like display. Some devices, however, share that info via a simple LED light display or only via an app. When you sync the data onto your smartphone or computer, the tracker's companion app not only archives the information, it also helps you interpret and analyze it.

Before you make a final decision, you may want to preview the companion app in the Apple App Store or on Google Play to make sure it lives up to your expectations.

Compatibility

Before you pull out your wallet, make sure the device is sympatico with your cell phone or computer. Some trackers sync only with Apple's iOS. Others only with Android. And most do not work with Windows.

Accuracy

Trackers are not foolproof. They use sensors and algorithms to parse footsteps, punches thrown, stairs climbed, hours slept. That means there's some degree of imprecision.

If you need hard data, you may want to pursue a function-specific device. In general, heart rate monitors that strap to your chest and transmit info to your activity tracker are more precise than the in-device sensors applied to your wrist.

Battery life

When it comes to battery life, you get more say than you might think. Depending on the sophistication of the device, the battery can stretch from one day to several months.

A tracker with a color touchscreen and an armada of sensors, for example, will need to be charged far more frequently than a simple band with a few LED lights on its face.

It's also worth nothing that not all trackers are rechargeable. Some run on the coin cell batteries often used in cameras and calculators.

Water

How often do you encounter water when you work out? That's an important consideration, too. Some trackers are just splash proof. Others can withstand a hardy shower—indoors or out. But if you're going to wear your tracker in the pool, it better be waterproof. There's nothing less useful than a tracker that can’t stand up to your active lifestyle.

   

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News

Connect

and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:

Cars

Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more
left arrow right arrow
See also:
See buying guide down arrow
23 rated down arrow
See buying guide down arrow
See buying guide down arrow
22 rated down arrow