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If you're someone who needs constant reminders about appointments, tasks to complete, and birthdays, consumer tech has come to the rescue. You can set up a computer or smartphone to remember these things for you and provide alerts.
Tech has come to the rescue for exercisers, too. A fitness tracker monitors your movements throughout the day, measuring your activity level.mIf you aren’t reaching your goals, the tracker provides a reminder. This “nudge” in the right direction doesn’t guarantee weight loss, but it certainly does help.
At BestReviews, we want to help you find the best products for your needs. If you’re ready to buy a fitness tracker now, please see our product recommendation matrix, above, for our top five recommendations.
We select these products by conducting consumer research, interviewing experts, and testing products in the BestReviews lab.
In order to avoid bias, we never accept free samples from manufacturers. Rather, we buy products off of store shelves or online, just as you do.
If you’d like to learn more about fitness trackers and how to select the best one for your particular situation, please continue reading this shopping guide.
As fitness trackers have evolved, they’ve become stylish pieces of tech. You can wear a tracker that looks like a typical wristwatch. Or, you can opt for the common wristband design, which is available in numerous colors.
Some designs offer display screens; others do not. If you plan to wear your tracker all day — including at work — consider a stylish design that fits with your business attire. Both of the Fitbit trackers in our product matrix look great; the Alta bands are available in a number of appealing colors for work and play.
Some high-end fitness trackers contain internal storage memory. You could store music on the tracker, playing it through bluetooth headphones.
Fitness trackers with display screens are becoming more common. Some look like wristwatches, but the common wristband designs sometimes sport a narrow screen, too. These are touch screen units, as the fitness trackers rarely have buttons.
If you’re looking for more precise feedback and training targets, a screen is helpful. But it will drive up the cost of the unit in the end.
Most trackers fit around the wrist. Other options exist, however, including a clip-on tracker for a collar or pocket. Even necklace designs are available, as are units that clip to a shoe or ankle.
Look for a fit that corresponds to the type of exercise you perform most often.
Most fitness trackers can withstand any exercise environment you encounter. Neither cold nor hot weather should affect them. But if you want a tracker for swimming, you’ll need a specific model that works underwater. Some fitness trackers can withstand water submersion, but most cannot.
The 2 digits of a tracker's IP measurement show dust and water resistance. Higher digits are better.
If you use a smartphone app now to track your exercise routine, understand that a fitness tracker device works a little differently. A tracker measures certain aspects of your movement. It then pairs with an app to determine whether you’re meeting your goals. Fitness trackers can track some interesting aspects of your movement, including the following —
A fitness tracker on your wrist won’t track heart rate as accurately as a medical monitor strapped to your chest.
Fitness trackers provide the data listed above thanks to a variety of internal components.
Much of a fitness tracker’s data collection occurs courtesy of its motion-sensing components. For example, here’s a look at how a tracker uses motion-sensing technology to monitor your sleep: a three-axis accelerometer determines which direction you’re moving, and a gyroscope measures the rotation of the fitness tracker. Using these technologies, the tracker measures your wrist movement during sleep, judging the frequency and force behind the moves. Software in the app then determines whether you’re moving often enough during the night to cause you to sleep poorly.
Some trackers can display messages and notifications. The Alta shows texts when within 15 ft of your smartphone. The Surge displays text and call notifications.
Having a GPS unit in the fitness tracker is great for runners and bikers. This feature allows the unit to measure the distance you’ve traveled, even if you’re running or riding in a rural location. The Fitbit Surge offers this feature, but many trackers that cost less than the Surge do not.
If your fitness tracker has a GPS built into it, its battery life probably will be less than average.
Mid-range and high-end fitness trackers sometimes contain optical sensors. The unit uses these to shine a light on your skin, which allows the tracker to “see” your pulse (heart rate). It will measure the way blood moves through your capillaries.
Rather than optical sensors, some fitness trackers place tiny electrodes against your skin. The tracker is then able to measure your pulse with these electrodes. A fitness tracker with bioimpedance sensors should be more accurate than one with optical sensors.
Some mid-range and high-end fitness trackers include an altimeter, a device that measures your current altitude. This measurement is helpful for distance runners who work out in the mountains. If stair climbing is part of your workout routine, the altimeter can also determine how high you climbed.
Some high-end fitness trackers include a temperature sensor that rests against your skin. This measurement can help determine if you’re overheating during an especially tough workout.
To determine calorie burn, the software applies a formula to the fitness tracker data. Because each unit’s formulas are different, you could feasibly receive two different calorie burn results from two trackers worn at the same time.
Because fitness trackers are such simple devices, they can’t analyze your exercise results on their own. Instead, these units rely on a smartphone app to show you your activity results. If at all possible, you will want to look at the app before you pick a fitness tracker. Make sure it has all of the features you need. And make sure it will work with your iOS or Android smartphone before you buy it, as some apps are limited to one type of smartphone operating system.
The fitness tracker will make a wireless connection with the app at various points during the day. It will then upload any tracking data it has collected.
Some fitness trackers need to be charged every few days. Others can run a few months on a watch battery. The Garmin is purported to run for a year on its included battery, although some owners state otherwise.
Make sure the app can track your favorite types of exercise. If you’re a swimmer, the app should be able to time your laps and measure distance. If you’re a runner, you may want it to take notes about the type of weather you encountered on a particular run.
And, of course, the more data the fitness tracker can send to the app related to your favorite exercise, the better. You don’t want to spend a lot of time entering your own information. After all, that's the point of wearing the fitness tracker: it measures and records your activity for you.
If your tracker’s app doesn’t meet your needs, download a third-party app that’s compatible with the unit.
Each fitness tracker is a little different in terms of the feature set it offers. However, you can generally expect the following features in each price point:
Fitness trackers can start as low as $15. Just don’t expect these basic models to generate a huge amount of data. You might receive information about steps taken and calories burned with these inexpensive trackers, and some can even measure the quality of your sleep. However, you’re not likely to find a fitness tracker with a touch screen display among low-end units. These inexpensive trackers typically use LED indicator lights instead.
The Polar FT4 falls inside this price bracket. Specifically, this tracker monitors heart rate but not steps taken. The unit’s “Smart Calorie” feature helps the wearer track calories burned.
Cheap fitness trackers tend to run on watch battery power rather than the power gained from a handy USB charger.
You may find some-water resistant models in this price range. Most units in this price category will measure movement during sleep, along with steps taken and calories burned. For example, the Withings Go monitors your sleep cycles and is water-resistant up to 165 feet.
And a few units near $100 may even have GPS built into them or may offer touch screens.
Nearly all of the trackers in the $100+ price range have touch screens. They may also give you notifications about when you should start exercising. Some even offer tips about when you should take a rest during a period of particularly tough exercise.
Nearly all of these units will have built-in GPS. This includes the Fitbit Surge, which sells for $240, but not the Fitbit Alta, which sells for $99.
Some of the best units in this price range are also waterproof.
Q: Why doesn’t the fitness tracker tell me if my exercise routine is working?
A: Fitness trackers aren’t sophisticated enough to measure results from specific exercise routines. Most of them track heart rate and the amount of time spent moving. They typically cannot tell you if you are becoming more efficient in your daily exercise routine. Pairing the tracker with a good app can help you judge your success in an exercise program.
Q: Will the fitness tracker provide data on my running pace and distance?
A: Only certain fitness trackers offer such advanced metrics. Inexpensive models like the Fitbit Alta don’t have a built-in GPS, for example, leaving them unable to track distance.
Q: How accurate are the calorie burn counts on a fitness tracker?
A: Again, it depends on the model you have. Basic, inexpensive models that don’t have a lot of features often won’t be precise in tracking calorie burning. For example, lack of precision is a fairly common complaint with the inexpensive Withings Go — although most owners say their counts are “close enough” to be satisfactory.
Generally, the more statistics a particular fitness tracker collects and measures, the more accurately it will measure calorie burn.
Q: What is the biggest benefit of a fitness tracker?
A: A fitness tracker helps you set simple goals and measure your progress toward them. You may want to take 8,000 steps per day, for example. Nearly all tracker units can help you figure out how close you come to this goal each day.
If you have a more complex goal, such as preparing for a half-marathon, you’ll probably need a high-end fitness tracker paired with a smartphone app that specializes in running.
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At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.