More singularly focused than smartwatches, dedicated fitness trackers are wearable devices that can help you move more, sleep better, and improve your overall health. Here’s what you need to know to pick the right one for you, as well as the best fitness trackers we’ve tested.
Find your “why” and go from there
Fitness instructors love to bang on about “finding your why,” but it’s also the first thing you should ask yourself when buying a tracker. Why do you want a fitness tracker to begin with? To lose weight? Train for a marathon? Improve your sleeping habits? Fitness trackers are a motivational tool, but they can’t help if you’re unclear about your goals.
Once you’ve got your why, it’s easier to figure out what specs and features you should prioritize. For example, say your big why is to train for a marathon. Regardless of skill level, that means you’re going to need something that can track GPS distance, monitor heart rate, and comes with long battery life. But if your ultimate goal is to improve your sleep, you may not need a tracker with built-in GPS at all. You’ll want long battery life, perhaps a SpO2 sensor, and a tracker that’s capable of providing detailed sleep insights.
How to Get Started Tracking Your Fitness
If you want to give fitness tracking a try (but without a wearable), start by using a mobile app that counts your steps. This method requires little to no investment and could be of interest if you’re a beginner. Our top recommendation for people just getting started with exercise is Map My Fitness. It has hundreds of activities you can track, from vacuuming to rock climbing.
If you run or bicycle, we recommend tracking your runs or rides with an app before going whole-hog and splurging on a tracker. Why? With some trackers, you still need to carry your phone to get accurate pacing, distance, and mapping, so you’ll want to know before you make a purchase if you’re OK with carrying your phone, or if you’d prefer a tracker with built-in GPS so you don’t have to. A few apps we recommend are Runkeeper (for running), Cyclemeter (for bicycling), and Strava (for both running and cycling).
How we tested
We paid close attention to battery life, comfort, ease of menu navigation, customizability, and app intuitiveness.
We wore each device for two days straight, comparing step-count data to that of a pedometer we know to be precise.
We walked, ran, and biked with each fitness tracker to see how well it documented workout data.
We performed two tests with each device using a chest-strap heart-rate monitor as a comparative control.
Understanding sensors and fitness jargon
Spec sheets and fitness buzzwords can be overwhelming. But no matter what fancy marketing a company might use, they all boil down to the same basic sensors and metrics.
First off, all fitness trackers have a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect motion. Some will add altimeters and barometers to measure elevation or how many stairs you’ve climbed in a day.
For health tracking, nearly all modern trackers have a photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor. These are green LEDs that shine light through your skin to measure heart rate. There are also an increasing number of trackers that include red LEDs or SpO2 sensors to measure blood oxygen levels.
The Best Fitness Trackers for Monitoring Your Heart Rate
Training intelligently means using heart rate data to guide your workouts. Sometimes you might want to keep your heart rate relatively low to burn fat or pace yourself for a longer workout, whereas other times you want to push it higher for different health benefits, like building stamina.
Keeping it juiced
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’ll get gaps in data.
Battery life can vary quite a bit. Depending on the tracker you buy, you’ll get anywhere from up to a day or two out of your device (Apple Watch and most WearOS devices) to an average of about a week (most Fitbit and Garmin fitness bands). Some can go longer and a few even have advertised battery life of a month – but that’s with reduced functionality.
Trackers using disposable watch batteries last longer, but they require a replacement every few months to up to a year. They are also slimmer on features. Rechargeable batteries, on the other hand, are built to spec for each device.
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.
Don’t forget about comfort
When browsing your options, don’t forget to check the size and thickness of the watch, as well as the materials it’s made from. If your fitness tracker isn’t comfortable, you’re not going to wear it. End of story.
Comfort is especially important if sleep tracking is a priority. You don’t want to buy a big hulking tracker, only to wake up in the middle of the night determined to take it off. Many people often have trouble sleeping with wrist-based trackers, so you might also want to look into non-wrist-based sleep gadgets like the Oura Ring. (They’re not as common, however.)