More than 39.5 million Americans (that’s 1 out of 5!) — and 3 of every 10 Americans in families earning more than $75,000, and a full quarter of women — regularly wear a smart watch or wearable fitness tracker, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The use of these devices has skyrocketed in the last several years.
Fitness-minded individuals turn to technology to help them do things previously inconceivable, such as tracking daily steps, measuring heart rate, helping with exercise hacks, or finding like-minded fitness aficionados for support.
But do they work to help you become more active? (A new study below sheds some light.) Do you really need to spend money on one of these gadgets? And if you do, how do you go about choosing the right one with so many on the market?
What Is A Fitness Tracker?
There are several types of wearable technology.
Pedometers count the amount of steps you take a day and convert them into miles, telling you how far you’ve gone each day.
Sports or GPS watches are geared toward specific sports, like running, cycling or swimming. They usually include a stop watch, functions to calculate distance and features like timers, lap counters and training logs.
Heart rate monitors measure your heart rate in real time, usually through a chest strap or a strapless model. Some GPS watches have monitoring capabilities as well.
Of course, the most common are fitness tracker watches or bracelets. These gadgets usually monitor different actions you take throughout the day, like how much you’ve moved or how long and deeply you slept. Instead of using a different electronic for every activity, like a pedometer and a sports watch and a sleeping app, a smart fitness tracker bundles many of these functions in just one piece of tech.
Fitness trackers have an edge over other types of wearable technology because they’re usually wear and go: There’s often no need to hit a start timer or turn them off after activity (though you’ll want to make sure it’s waterproof before stepping into the shower!).
Fitness Trackers Health Benefits
Using wearable devices like fitness trackers can have great consequences for your health. A recent British Medical Journal study examined the effectiveness of physical activity monitors in adults.
Looking at data from 121 randomized control trials and 141 study comparisons, it was concluded that using fitness trackers helped increase daily physical activity by around 1,235 steps per day. Meanwhile, these activity trackers helped increase moderate and vigorous physical activity by 48.5 minutes per week. Interestingly, it didn’t have much of an effect on sedentary behavior. (Clearly, many folks are ignoring the prompt to stand!)
Nonetheless, these are impressive results, as seemingly those without a fitness watch or device would be less prone to hitting these marks. The benefits of walking are well proven and properly planned 10-minute workouts can still do wonders, so that extra 48 minutes per week could literally be life-changing.
Here are two recent articles that show exactly this:
- 10 Minutes of Exercise a Day Could Save Your Life If You’re 40+
- Walking 10 Minutes a Day Linked to Longer Life
Meanwhile, one review of 26 studies that examined pedometer use of U.S. adults found that those who used a pedometer increased their daily activity by 2,419 steps, or over a mile!
Overall, those tracking their physical activity did 27 percent more than those who didn’t use a pedometer — plus, they succeeded in naturally reducing blood pressure as well as their percentage of fat. Having a specific goal to reach, such as 10,000 steps in a day, motivated people to keep moving, researchers concluded.
Even if you’re already a fairly active person, a fitness tracker might help you squeeze in extra opportunities to get your move on throughout the day. You might just as easily benefit from a low-cost smartphone app that provides similar functions. But keep in mind that wearing a fitness tracker that doubles as a watch on your arm is a lot easier to carry around than always keeping your smartphone on you.
How to Choose the Right Tracker
1. Determine what features you need
If you’re a fitness newbie or in the market for a tracker that covers the basics, like counting steps, calories and movement, almost any will do.
But if you’re already quite active, you might want to invest in a tracker that goes past the basics. Features like GPS allow your tracker to map out where you’ve been and measure things like elevation.
Heart rate monitors can be a useful feature for the more advanced exercisers. In the past, options were limited to trackers that synced up with chest straps but nearly all new models can gauge your heart rate from even wristbands.
And if you’re partial to an activity, like running or swimming, make sure your tracker is designed to track it. After all, if your main source of exercise isn’t trackable, your gadget is much less useful. (Also, make sure it’s water resistant to 50 meters if you’re a swimmer.)
If you’re a serious athlete, you’ll likely want a lot more bells and whistles than the average Jane or Joe. A more professional tracker might be the answer. Brands like Garmin and Fitbit have a wide range of these; they tend to combine fitness tracker features with sports watch capabilities.
Also, many new smart watches also have mobile payments, which can be quite handy.
Fancier models also may even store music or give you access to a streaming service like Spotify. If that’s the case, these options would also have a bluetooth earphone connection.
Lastly, the best fitness-tracking smartwatch for iPhone users remains the Apple Watch, which comes with many of the above features. Plus it can take phone calls, text, etc.
2. Decide how much you’re willing to spend
Fitness trackers can range from moderately priced below $100 to models that hit $500+. It’s important to examine options in your price range and the features each offers — plus, be honest with yourself about what you will, and won’t, use.
If you’re expecting to graduate to more advanced features, then keep that in mind as you look at pricing. While a $75 fitness tracker might do the trick now, in a few months you might want more capabilities. In that case, it might be more cost-effective to swing for the more expensive model at the onset.
Also, be aware of any “extras” that require a separate purchase. When totaled together, that might make your inexpensive tracker pricier than you’d bargained for.
3. Choose a design that suits your lifestyle
Since you’ll be wearing this tracker for most of your day, you want to make sure it looks and feels good! Do you prefer something you can wear around your wrist or a fitness tracker that clips on to your shoe or clothing, preferably in your color of choice?
If you want to see your progress throughout the day on some type of display, a watch might be best. If you’re content with uploading and viewing your data at your leisure, a simple wristband design should suffice. And do you need something waterproof, so you can shower and swim with your tracker on, or will you remember to remove it each time?
4. Opt for software that works with your other technology
You will be interacting with your fitness tracker’s built-in app frequently; does it have the features you want? You’ll want to be sure that the app is easy to use or at least easy to learn. Some software also comes with built-in social features, allowing you to compete with (or support) real and virtual friends. If encouragement is something that’s important in your fitness journey, this is worth seeking out.
Because fitness trackers are designed to sync with your smartphone, you’ll want to be sure that the tracker is compatible with your phone’s operating system. Most devices will work on Android and iOS systems, but there are exceptions. An Apple watch, for instance, won’t work on your Samsung device. And if you have a BlackBerry or Windows phone, many trackers won’t sync at all.
If you already use a fitness app like Map My Run, a fitness tracker that easily integrates with your favorite apps will make combining information a cinch.
Finally, if possible, check out devices in-store or order from an online retailer with a generous return policy to get a real feel for how the tracker fits into your lifestyle.
Who knew keeping track of fitness is not only fun, but actually can encourage you to keep it up?
However, if the thought of wearing a tracker brings up feelings of anxiety more than excitement or possibly lead to overtraining, it might be wise to skip altogether.
Because while fitness trackers are a good way to evaluate our baseline activity levels (remember, they shouldn’t stand in for a real-life health professional), if using one is causing stress, it might be best to track your activity the old-fashioned way instead.