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Everything You Need to Know About Activity Trackers (Like Which One Is Best For You)

people using activity trackers

Is it just me or does everyone have some sort of gadget on their wrist or waist nowadays?

Back in my day, it was only the elite racers who had serious computing power on their wrists (or handlebars) and straps around their chest. Now, it seems that pretty much everyone out for a jog is tracking everything from their mileage and heart rate to sleep patterns and weather conditions, electronically, automatically, and even broadcasting it via Bluetooth and 4G!

This is made possible by the proliferation of smartphones and the abundance of affordable devices collectively known as activity trackers.

What are these things capable of? What makes them different from a regular heart rate monitor? Which one is the best? Why would you want one?

The answers are below…

What is an activity tracker?

For the most part, an activity tracker is a small device that tracks motion and movement (activities, you could say) via an accelerometer. It’s the same type of technology used in Wii video game system controllers and most smartphones. It can tell when you are stationary, and it can tell when you’re moving, and it uses sophisticated software to then determine what activity you’re actually doing, so it can record that activity (sort of like a built-in training log.)

They come in two shapes – a clip-on or a wristband. The clip-on trackers are about the size of a quarter, but thicker. These can clip onto your belt, waistband, pocket, etc.. The wristband ones vary from the size of a bracelet to the size and shape of a wristwatch. The main difference is that the clip-on trackers can be worn discreetly, while everyone is going to see the one on your wrist.

Most track the following activities:

  • Steps taken
  • Workout time/duration
  • Sleep patterns and quality

Some also include:

  • Distance for walks and runs
  • Speed and/or pace for walks and runs
  • Heart rate or pulse
  • Calories burned

Sounds like they track everything, right? Not so fast.

See, these things don’t record a whole lot of data. They record movement, then use sophisticated software to run calculations, so they can estimate what’s actually happening.

Take the sleep tracking capability for example. It doesn’t record your brain waves or anything like that. It just records how much you move around during the night. The less you move, the better quality of sleep you’re getting. (I assume the actual algorithms are a little more complex than that, but you get the point.)

Calories burned is even worse. Some units estimate this based only on your age, weight, and number of steps you take during a day.

Some units do include an optical sensor that will record your pulse (at your wrist.) This will certainly give you a more accurate measure of how many calories you burned, but still, it’s only an estimate.

Don’t confuse activity trackers with real workout monitoring devices. Activity trackers lack GPS capability, so they can’t provide accurate data when it comes to speed and distance. They are nothing like a Garmin Edge or Garmin Forerunner, or even a smartphone running the Strava app.

Activity trackers more closely resemble pedometers. Very fancy pedometers, perhaps worthy of being called “smartpedometers,” but still, pedometers.

Why the rise in popularity?

So, what has made these devices explode in popularity over the past three years?

1. They are affordable.

While these activity trackers sound like fancy devices you’d expect to pay hundreds of dollars for, most of them fall into the $50-100 range.

I actually saw one at WalMart on Black Friday for $30. For that price it’s hard to say no.

2. They are addicting.

Despite concerns surrounding the accuracy of the data, the fact remains, these things show you lots of data. And that gives you something to play with and talk about and (best of all) compare to your friends.

They all have websites or apps where you can analyze your data, creating colorful charts and graphs, and most of them will also sync to your smartphone (and we all know how addicting those can be!)

Connect to popular apps like MyFitnessPal and you have a training log that fills itself in!

3. They are NEAT.

They’re neat, but more importantly, let’s talk about NEAT.

That stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. That’s the energy expended for everything you do that is not sleeping, eating, or sports-like exercise. Stuff like walking around and doing household chores. It all adds up, and it’s an extremely important factor when it comes to weight loss. (Source.)

That’s exactly the type of daily activity that these things track!

After the whole uproar about how sitting is so terrible for your health, everyone should rethink their sedentary lifestyle. Even if you’re running a few days per week and hitting the gym, that’s not an excuse to sit on the couch the rest of the time.

If you’re wearing one of these, it will essentially tell you, “hey buddy, you’ve been sitting still way too long, how about you get off your butt and move!”

Most popular activity trackers:

Here are some popular models to consider:

fitbit charge black

FitBit Charge

FitBit has been at the forefront of activity trackers since it was founded in 2007. (You could say they’ve been leading the charge.) Their newest model, the Charge, is a wristband with activity tracking, sleep monitoring, and wireless sync capabilities. It will track daily stats such as steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, stairs climbed, and active minutes, and you can see it all on the OLED display. It even offers real-time run stats like time, distance, and pace. It monitors your sleep automatically, and offers a silent alarm feature designed to wake you without disturbing anyone else. On top of all that, it syncs wirelessly and automatically to your computer and over 120 leading smartphones.
$130, Fitbit.com

nike fuelband

Nike+ FuelBand SE

The FuelBand is a sporty wristband with LED display, built around the Nike+ platform, which provides an existing user base for the social aspect. You have the possibility of winning trophies and placing in leaderboards as part of the challenges and milestones built into the NikeFuel app (making it almost like a game.) This will be quite inspiring and motivating for some individuals. The band tracks not only how much, but how often and how intensely you move. If you’re not moving, be ready for hourly Move reminders. Unfortunately it lacks any sleep monitoring features.
$99, Nike.com

jawbone up 24

Jawbone UP 24

The Jawbone UP 24 wristband, which looks more like a fashion statement than a fitness device, will track your steps, exercise, overall calories burned, hours slept and quality of sleep. When it’s time to wake up, the silent alarm works very well and offers a key feature – a “smart alarm” option where you can set it to wake you during light sleep at the most ideal time within a 10, 20 or 30-minute window. The UP system has Smart Coach, which turns the data it collects into actionable insights and uniquely personalized guidance just for you. The wristband itself is splash resistant, but not waterproof, and uses LED indicator lights, but not a real display. Finally, keep in mind that it requires pairing with a mobile device (Android or iOS) because it can’t sync with your computer.
$130, Jawbone.com

garmin vivofit gray

Garmin Vivofit

With Garmin’s familiar name, this one is sure to be a hit with the endurance sports crowd. The Vivofit will track your calories and monitor your sleep, and it’s heart rate compatible (with purchase of an optional chest strap.) The water-resistant wristband offers an easy-to-read display which will stay on for more than a year without you having to change the battery! It integrates with Garmin Connect, has social features where you can earn virtual badges, and the Move Bar (a red alert bar on the display) builds up when you’re inactive for an hour to encourage you to move.
$130, Garmin.com

misfit shine wristband

Misfit Shine

The Misfit Shine promises to track walking, running, swimming, cycling, soccer, tennis, basketball and more. It has a sleek look but does not have a display – which means you can’t check your stats on the go (it’s been described as more like jewelry than tech.) On the bright side, it’s waterproof to 50m and has a battery life of up to 6 months. It is iOS and Android compatible, and the social features will show your friends’ accomplishments in your news feed to inspire some competition.
$80, Misfit.com

striiv fusion red

Striiv Fusion Smartwatch & Fitness Tracker

Blending fitness tracking with smartwatch features, the Striiv Fusion sounds quite impressive. It tracks your daily activities – steps taken, calories burned, distance traveled and active minutes – as well as sleep quality and duration. It also syncs to your phone so it can give you phone call alerts, and even shows the caller ID and text messages right on the display. There are 3 colored bands included so it can match your outfit. Though fairly new and perhaps not as reliable as more established brands, it’s close to being a smartwatch, at the price of an activity tracker.
$100, Striiv.com

basis peak white

Basis Peak

The Basis Peak is one of the more advanced activity trackers I’ve seen. It looks more like a watch. The list of high-tech sensors includes Optical Heart Rate Sensor, Galvanic Skin Response, Skin Temperature, and 3-Axis Accelerometer. And it’s water resistant to 50 meters, so you can wear it swimming. It will track just about everything you do – runs, walks, bike rides, and sleep – automatically. It measures your heart rate, no chest strap required. Unfortunately, it lacks GPS support for accurate distance tracking. It seems like this is a device that does a lot, but misses the basic, important features that matter most. An iOS or Android device is required to wirelessly sync data.
$200, MyBasis.com

polar loop black

Polar Loop

Another well-known brand among athletes, Polar has launched their own device called the Loop. This one shows daily activity, calories burned, steps taken, time of day, and activity feedback on the LED display. It also monitors your sleep patterns. It is water resistant and OK for swimming. Like Garmin’s offering, the heart rate strap is sold separately. What it lacks in social features, it makes up for with personalized recommendations: the Smart Coaching software provides guidance and motivation to reach your activity goals and get in shape faster.
$110, Polar.com

Which one is the best?

The best one for you is not necessarily the best one for your neighbor. Here are my suggestions on which one is best for which person.

Pick what you want from this list:

 

fitbit charge black

The best for runners:

Most of these will be perfectly acceptable for runners, since they all can record step-based activities. But I really like the FitBit Charge, which offers real-time run stats, like distance and pace, plus a silent alarm as part of the sleep tracking – an excellent feature if you like 5am runs but your partner does not!

Best price: $120.37 at Amazon.com

 

misfit shine clip

The best for cyclists:

Cycling is a tough activity for these things to track, since you’re not taking any steps. The Misfit Shine is one of the better options since it can be clipped to your shoe, which will be in motion (unlike your wrist.) You can sync it to your handlebar-mounted smartphone, too. It’s iOS, Android, and Windows phone compatible.

Best price: $73.88 at Amazon.com

 

polar loop black

The best for triathletes and swimmers:

Very few of these trackers are waterproof – most can’t even handle a shower – so if you’re going to be swimming, I suggest going with a trusted brand that knows a thing or two about the outdoors. That means the Polar Loop is the one for you. It’s the only one I’ve seen that claims to track swimming as a workout.

Best price: $74.56 at Amazon.com

 

garmin vivofit blue

The best for someone lacking motivation:

If you want a device that’s going to remind you to move, check out the Garmin Vivofit, which lights up a bright red bar on the display when you’ve been sitting still for too long.

Best price: $81.99 at Amazon.com

 

jawbone up 24 blue

The best for someone not yet active:

If you’re new to this whole fitness thing (welcome, thanks for joining us!) consider the Jawbone UP 24 because it has a built-in Smart Coach to guide you along each day.

Best price: $98.82 at Amazon.com

 

nike fuelband

The best for someone competitive:

Do you work out more than your friends and want to make sure they know it? Then you have the type of personality that would enjoy the extra features found with the Nike+ FuelBand. The app has leaderboards ranking the most active people, and you can also create groups and then compete with your friends in challenges.

Best price: $99.00 at Amazon.com

 

misfit flash

The best budget tracker:

Though not listed above, most of these brands offer a basic activity tracker for about $50 (rather than $100.) At this price point, beating out the Jawbone UP Move and the Fitbit Zip, is the Misfit Flash. The Flash can function as both a clip and a wristband, and it’s suitable for running, cycling, and swimming.

Best price: $44.36 at Amazon.com

 

jawbone up 24

The best looking:

While the Misfit Shine looks like jewelry and is easily hidden, the Jawbone UP 24 makes a bold statement (especially if you get a red one.) It looks like a futuristic bracelet.

Best price: $98.82 at Amazon.com

 

garmin vivofit gray

The least hassle:

Want one that just plain works? The Garmin Vivofit is for you. It’s reliable, water resistant, and the battery lasts a year. You won’t spend hours configuring it, you don’t have to remove it when you get in the pool, and you don’t have to plug it in to recharge every 3-5 days. Just put it on and use it.

Best price: $81.99 at Amazon.com

 

basis peak white

The one if you really wanted a smartwatch:

The Basis Peak looks like a smartwatch and has the fanciest fitness features. At least until the Apple Watch is released.

Best price: $199.99 at Amazon.com

 

fitbit one

The best for everyday use:

Again, I’m going with the number one name in activity trackers, and saying the FitBit One. It’s tried and true and has tons of features that everyone can appreciate. (Buying as a gift? You can’t go wrong with this one.)

Best price: $94.00 at Amazon.com

Do you really, positively need one?

Anytime a new device comes along, people think they absolutely must have one immediately. Do you need an activity tracker? No, certainly not.

You don’t need an activity tracker, power meter, or even a heart rate monitor. You don’t need a new bike either.

But there are plenty of reasons to want one!

As we talked about earlier, when you consider how important it is for your general health to be consistently active (not just during a workout,) anything that helps you do that is going to be useful and worthy of consideration.

I think the best thing these devices do is serve as a reminder to move around and do something. It would be a great tool if you’re just starting to take your health and fitness routine seriously and need some help making it a habit.

I know if I was wearing one each day, it would make me more aware of how little I’m moving. I’m aware of it now (I’m sitting as I write this,) but without a device shoving it in my face, it’s easier to (purposely) forget about it.

My main concern is that…

garmin forerunner 15

The $100 could be better spent elsewhere. A lot of these trackers aren’t much more than fancy pedometers, and many of the other features are already available through free smartphone apps. And we all know the calories burned estimates will be off, and the sleep tracking is not to be taken seriously. You could put the money towards a Garmin Edge 500 bicycle computer or PowerTap power meter.

You also have to consider that the new Garmin Forerunner 15 is only $140 (and the older but still super awesome Forerunner 10 can be found for $100.) These are GPS-enabled running watches and heart rate monitors with tons of features aimed at athletes. And they’re in the same price range as the activity trackers (which look like children’s toys by comparison!)

The Forerunner 15 even counts your steps, if that happens to be a required feature.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to enjoy the activity for the sheer enjoyment of moving!

 

Do you use an activity tracker? Which one?

 

Photo credit: Health Gauge

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6 Comments
  1. How does the Polar Loop track swimming? What’s it actually like in the water?

    • @Shelly

      Definitely take all the claims surrounding these devices with a grain of salt. They mainly track that you are being active, not the specific details of your chosen activity. Swimming is difficult to track, so when Polar says it tracks swimming, it does not mean that it counts your strokes, laps, pace, etc. It just means that it can tell you are moving. It’s going to count your strokes as “steps.”

      It’s a good choice if you’re trying to track all your activity and you happen to be a frequent swimmer and want that counted. It’s no Garmin Swim Watch!

  2. Is that a typo? The Basis unit is $200 and does NOT have GPS?!

    • @Captain O

      You would think so, right? But I guess they packed the device with so many other sensors and transmitters that there was no room for a GPS chip!

  3. These things make absolutely no sense for an active person.

    • @Steve

      I do agree with you that people who are already active, especially if they are runners or cyclists, would be better served by something else. Like the Forerunner units I mentioned. These trackers are probably better for people just beginning to get active.

      If you need to count your steps though, perhaps for a “challenge” at work, these will do that! And the silent alarms are pretty darn useful for those of us getting up earlier than most other people! So these devices do make sense in some cases!

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Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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