There is a good chance that a new fitness tracker will have been released between the time you begin reading this sentence and when you finish it. At least that's what it seems like. You've never had so many choices before, or such capable devices to help you exercise and monitor your progress. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you consider all that a fitness tracker can do for you.
Fitness watches are not only faster and more powerful than ever before, they're also so feature-rich that older terminology is no longer appropriate. Heart rate monitors, activity trackers, pedometers, and GPS watches used to be separate devices. A single wrist-mounted gadget, which we'll call a "fitness tracker" in this article, can now do most or all of what those separate units did before.
What Do You Want from a Fitness Tracker?
Being able to use a device that does everything is great, but knowing which of those "everythings" are most important to you will help you narrow down your choices. You might also benefit from being a tech guru and loving devices with unlimited possibilities.
When a Basic or Dedicated Device Makes More Sense than a Fitness Tracker
Old-school fitness tech like a pedometer or a running watch can count your steps or time your run at a fraction of the cost of fitness trackers.
In addition, a fitness tracker that does it all won't be as effective as a device that is specifically designed for an activity. Look into handheld GPS units, for example, if navigation while hiking is your main focus. (How to Choose a GPS offers buying tips.) If you're a cyclist, look into bike computers. (How to Choose a Bike Computer offers buying tips.)
Using Your Smartphone as a Fitness Tracker
GPS-equipped phones can run third-party apps such as Strava and Mapmyrun, which track fitness metrics, log your progress, and allow you to navigate. Additionally, you can download data to study and share results and routes with your friends. Many apps offer a free version, but it usually only offers basic functions like logging mileage and courses. A subscription is often required to access an app's full features.
You already own your phone, so the only additional expenses might be for an app subscription and perhaps an armband for running, or a handlebar mount for riding. Another benefit is the larger screen size for navigation. The downside is that the battery lasts shorter than most trackers and that fitness monitoring drains your phone's battery, reducing your ability to communicate in an emergency.
Fitness Tracker Functions and Pricing
In general, paying more gets you more powerful processing, a more sophisticated user interface, and more features (sometimes more features than you can possibly use). Fitness trackers can have the following features:
GPS functions:With GPS monitoring, fitness trackers provide information like your speed, location, elevation, and mileage. Those units that connect to multiple GPS satellite systems provide the fastest, most precise data and location tracking.
Navigation:Affordable units provide basic tracking and alert you when you veer off course. A more sophisticated unit can program routes and tell you which fork in the trail to take. Some devices allow you to mark waypoints or create a breadcrumb trail. Navigation base maps vary, with the best maps found on top-tier units.
Battery features:The battery life of trackers is generally impressive. Battery-saving modes reduce the rate at which GPS satellites are connected to the device. (The tradeoff is slightly less data precision.) Some premium price trackers offer solar recharging.
Activity monitoring:These features provide data such as the number of steps taken, minutes of activity, or frequency of activity. In addition, many offer challenges, badges for accomplishments, and alerts to gently encourage you toward your fitness goals.
Sleep monitoring: Monitoring inactivity? Due to the importance of sleep for health, many trackers provide sleep feedback. This can range from how long you slept to how long you spent in different stages of sleep.
Heart-rate monitor (HRM) functions:Cardio and training data such as heart rate, heart-rate zones, VO2 max and more are provided by these. Most trackers collect heart rate data from a wrist sensor, which is more comfortable than a chest strap. Wrist sensors have improved, but chest straps remain more accurate.
Activity-specific modes: Runners, cyclists (road and trail), swimmers, triathletes, and skiers (alpine and cross-country) may be options. You can access a range of metrics related to a particular mode by selecting it.
Water resistance: Over the years, trackers have become more shock- and water-resistant. Most are water resistant to 30 meters or more, but few are designed for diving.
Phone notifications:Fitness trackers can be paired with your smartphone to display notifications about an incoming call or text.
Music functions: You can download music and pair headphones with some fitness trackers.
Fitness Tracker Shopping and Usage Tips
Check out brand apps. Apps from certain brands are easier to use for some people. You use apps to set up your tracker, customize its display, and analyze fitness data. In addition to training plans, these apps offer community features like route and results sharing. Apps from many brands also integrate with third-party apps like Strava.
Play with your tracker when you first get it:It's a lot to get used to with all that functionality. Start by learning how the basics work and how to set it up at home. Don't wait to figure everything out until your first walk, ride, or run.
Update your software: Keeping tracker software updated fixes bugs, improves functionality, and can even add new features. Trackers function like smartphones, where you get upgrade notifications and then install the upgrades using a wireless connection.