With the widespread promotion of physical activity and exercise, new breeds of fitness tracking devices are hitting the mainstream market every day. Most of these devices can be beneficial for tracking some level of daily activity. Whether or not a single device is best really depends on your personal preferences, lifestyle, and finances. But, regardless of your health and fitness goals, there are certain key features you should look for when choosing a fitness tracking device.
An ideal fitness tracking device is one that estimates the number of calories you burn when performing different types of physical activity. Calories fuel all types of activity from taking a shower to strenuous exercise. The number of calories you burn is a good indication of how intensely you’re performing exercise or any given type of physical activity. Intensity is related to the amount of energy you exert or essentially how hard you work and it directly influences the amount of calories you burn.
Any good fitness tracking device allows you to estimate your calorie burns for different types of activity. Now, no single device is 100% accurate when it comes to measuring calories. However, I’m of the school of thought that tracking something is better than tracking nothing at all. For successful weight loss and long-term weight management, it’s important to monitor the amount of calories you burn (and consume) on a regular basis.
A device that helps you do this is definitely of use and, luckily, most fitness tracking devices inherently have this capability.
A pedometer records the number of steps you take during walking, jogging and/or running. Ideally, you should take a minimum of 10,000 steps a day for weight management or general health benefits. But, for significant weight loss, a minimum of 12,000-15,000 steps a day (or more) is an absolute must. I don’t know of a fitness tracking device that doesn’t contain a built-in pedometer. Any device that’s without is totally useless, as a pedometer is one of the cheapest features to include.
If you’re only interested in counting steps, Omron’s Alvita Ultimate Pedometer is an excellent choice. Ranging in cost from $20-25, this pedometer is very simple to operate, extremely quiet, and surprisingly accurate. If you’re an avid walker, jogger or runner, the Fitbit Zip Wireless Activity Tracker is another great choice. At under $60 this one allows you to track distance and calories burned as well. Now, neither of these fitness trackers will be enough if you’re a more serious fitness enthusiast or athlete so read on.
Fitness tracking devices with accelerometer capabilities provide the best indication of how active you really are. While the traditional pedometer is limited to measuring steps, accelerometers provide real-time estimates of your frequency, intensity, and duration during everyday physical activities that don’t necessarily involve locomotion or steps (sporting activities, aerobics classes, housework, personal grooming, and spontaneous activity in general).
There was a time that a good accelerometer would cost you in excess of $400-500 dollars. Now, there are numerous makes and models that are commercially available and totally affordable ($90-150 dollars depending on the number of features). As an exercise scientist, fitness enthusiast and die-hard fan of Apple products, I’ve been a devoted user of the Apple Watch since its original launch in 2015.
Beyond an accelerometer, the Apple Watch is actually a ‘smart’ watch with an activity tracking app that measures just about everything from steps and pace to distance and calories burned. At the time of its original launch, the price of an Apple Watch was WAY up there so I would never recommend it to the everyday enthusiast. While the newer Apple Watch Nike+ Sportsbands are more affordable, they are still a little up there in price so I generally only recommend them for serious fitness enthusiasts and athletes.
Other great brands with built in accelerometer capabilities include the FitBit Blaze Smart Fitness Watch, Fitbit Alta Fitness Wristband, and the more affordable Garmin Vívofit Fitness Band, which you can get for as low as $50. However, a major flaw with all these devices, including my beloved Apple Watch, is an inherent bias towards activities that involve multiplane arm movements and lower-body locomotion.
This generally isn’t a problem if your regular exercise regimen involves walking, jogging or running, ‘real’ stair climbing or sporting activities like tennis or basketball. But, if you’re one who regularly engages in cycling, stationary stair climbing or some forms of weight lifting your daily activity levels will be severely underestimated. This is annoying, as I perform strenuous bouts of cycling and weight lifting on the days that I don’t run and I never get credit for it!
Heart Rate Monitor
Monitoring your heart rate (the number of heart beats per minute) is one of the best ways to measure how intensely you perform exercise or any given type of physical activity. Higher intensity levels tend to result in greater improvements in body weight, cardiovascular function, and overall fitness. Fitness tracking devices with built in heart rate monitor capabilities are a quick and convenient way to track your intensity.
Heart rate monitors are becoming pretty standard in fitness activity devices, particularly smart watches like the Apple Watch and FitBit Blaze Smart Fitness Watch I mentioned above. But, if you’d rather go with a general heart rate monitor, they can vary in price from as little as $40 to as much as $400 dollars (depending on the number of features).
For the simple purpose of tracking your exercise heart rate and calories, you can purchase a good one for as little as $50-100 dollars. I’ve come across a lot of heart rate monitors in exercise-related research as well as the fitness industry and Polar models are by far my personal favorites. I particularly recommend the Polar FT7 Heart Rate Monitor, as it’s ery affordable ($45) and get’s the job done!
In addition to calorie trackers, pedometers, accelerometers and heart rate monitors, many manufacturers of fitness tracking devices offer other enticing features to get you to buy. For instance, some measure things like skin temperature and sleep, which you may or may not find useful. Skin temperature is often used to estimate calories burned (amongst other things) while tracking sleep hours is supposedly beneficial for understanding sleep quality.
It’s important to understand that these features have not been shown to add any real value so don’t let such offerings make or break your decision.
On top of the features I’ve already discussed, a lot of fitness tracking devices are water-resistant or waterproof making them convenient for wear when swimming or during rainy days. This is definitely worth considering when purchasing a device. Some excellent choices include the Apple Watch Series 2, the Garmin Vívoactive and the Fitbit Flex 2, which is the least costly of the three.
I also recommend taking advantage of any free web and smartphone applications offered by manufacturers as these allow you to track your progress, set goals, and even share your activities with others.
No matter which fitness tracking device you choose, tracking something is always better than tracking nothing at all. The simple act of moving is what’s most important. While a daily exercise bout is great, it’s totally counterproductive if you sit in a chair or lie in bed for the majority of the day. Fitness tracking devices remain to be excellent tools for motivating people to move more and can greatly increase your level of adherence to exercise and other forms of physical activity. Get you one and start moving more!