Activity trackers, also known as activity monitors, are like pedometers, but upgraded for this century. They count not only steps taken but also calories burned—and many measure sleep quality, compute calorie intake, and serve as alarm clocks or watches. Some display your progress in real time; all can show it later on a smart phone, tablet, or computer.
Trackers provide insight about habits and health, but using one might also help you shed a few pounds. Neil Busis, M.D., a Pittsburgh neurologist who lost 40 pounds in less than a year after undergoing heart-bypass surgery, credits a “personal health network” that includes an activity tracker, a calorie-counting app, a scale that interacts with the tracker, and a blood pressure monitor.
We measured how accurate six trackers were at counting steps and calories, checked how easy each was to use, and assessed their features. For our step-count test, four men and four women wore the trackers as they walked on a treadmill, used an elliptical exerciser, went up and down stairs, and picked up toys. We compared each device’s step count against the actual counts we had recorded.
For our calorie-count test, the panelists used a treadmill and an elliptical exerciser while wearing the trackers. Then an instrument measured the actual calories panelists burned. We compared tracker counts with actual counts.
Bottom line. A basic pedometer tracks daily steps, but for more versatility, consider the Fitbit One, Nike+ FuelBand, or Up by Jawbone. There’s a learning curve with activity trackers, but most offer instructions online.
Pros. Shows progress as a flower that “grows.” Encourages: “Faster, Ed!” Tracks calorie intake. Syncs with apps like MyFitnessPal and SparkPeople. Tracks how long you slept and how often you woke during night. Clips on waistband, bra, or pocket.
Cons. Hard to read in sunlight. USB dongle enabling wireless hookup is tiny and could be lost.
iHealth Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker
Pros. Frog “leaps” as you near 10,000 steps. Tracks sleep and calorie intake (with use of compatible Apple products).
Cons. Looks bulky on wrist and was less accurate on the wrist than when clipped on. Hardest to read in sunlight.
BodyMedia Fit Link Armband
Pros. Works with other apps, tracks sleep, and has a food log feature.
Cons. Most panelists didn’t like how it felt on their arms. Doesn’t give instant feedback. Has to be synced with a smart phone or computer.
Up by Jawbone
Pros. Tracks calorie intake and connects to apps including RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal. Tracks sleep, provides health tips, and can be worn in the shower.
Cons. Doesn’t provide instant feedback or sync wirelessly; must be plugged into a smart phone or an Apple tablet.
Pros. Lights show progress toward daily goal. Tracks calorie intake, logs food you eat, and tracks sleep. You can swim and shower with it (but it won’t track swimming as an activity).
Cons. No instant results are shown; must be synced with a computer or smart phone. USB dongle enabling wireless hookup is tiny—could be lost.
Pros. Displays progress as a “fuel number” and has lights that turn green when you reach a daily goal. Easiest of those tested to read in sunlight. You can shower with it.
Cons. No food logging. Doesn’t track sleep.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.