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Congratulations! You’ve decided you want to live a better, healthier life, and use the power of wearable technology to help go about it. The next step is finding the best fitness tracker that works for you, but the market is so crowded—each one with its own specs, apps, and specific features—it’s easy to get lost. Don’t sweat it, though—we’re here to help you make sense of the fitness tracker maze.
Knowing a little bit about what you want—like the specific activities you’re going to track—will help you, but if you’d rather just see what devices are out there first, that’s fine, too.
All fitness trackers on the market—and even your smartphone—cover basic functions like tracking your steps and calories burned. But after that, don’t take anything for granted. You can find fitness trackers with all kinds of differing features, all the way up to smartwatches that are basically mini computers on your wrist.
Fitness tracker 101
Most fitness trackers will slip around your wrist to measure your activities, but there are other options that allow you to keep your wrists free. One alternative is the Bellabeat Leaf Urban ($117), a pendant-style tracker you can wear around your neck or clip to your clothing.
When you’ve decided where you want to wear your tracker, think about the information you want it to show, and where you want it displayed. At first, these devices were simpler—just sensors that fed your data to an app that displayed it on your phone. But now, most fitness trackers have some kind of screen of their own, and some even come close to being smartwatches. The Fitbit Charge 3 ($150) displays the time and some phone notifications, whereas the Galaxy Fit ($80) does the same, but with a color screen.
The downside to having a display is that it drains the battery faster. If you want something you won’t have to recharge every few days, you might be better off with a hybrid smartwatch that combines a mechanical watch with basic fitness tracking. The Fossil Hybrid Smartwatch HR ($195), for example, can go for two weeks between charges.
Another aspect you should look into is the app associated with the device you’re buying. A little research will tell you if it tracks the data you need, if it supports a web platform, or if it plays nicely with Google Fit or Apple Health. Most fitness tracker apps are now perfectly decent bits of software, but it’s another factor to bear in mind when you’re shopping around.
Fitness tracker specs
With the basics out of the way, you can start looking at more advanced features. Unlike phones, most fitness trackers offer similar specs. Lately, even the cheapest trackers have added an integrated heart rate sensor to go with step counting, so you’ll get a more detailed breakdown of your cardiovascular health.
Waterproofing is one key feature to look out for, but whether or not you want a waterproof tracker really depends on whether you plan to take it swimming or not. Most wearables are water resistant, meaning they can handle a bit of rain or sweat, but be sure to double-check the specifications to know just how much. If you do a lot of outdoor activities, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Plenty of fitness trackers also promise to gather data on your sleeping habits. If this is important to you, make sure to dig deeper into the specs to check the small print—some trackers can tell the difference between light sleep and deep sleep, but others can’t. You’ll also need to consider whether sleeping with something strapped around your wrist all night is something you actually want.
Fitness trackers with integrated GPS can track your running route and distance more accurately, whether or not you’re carrying your phone with you. These are less common, but there are great examples, like the Garmin Vivosport ($120). Usually though, if you want to have GPS on board, you’ll need to take the smartwatch route.
The smartwatch options
Speaking of smartwatches, the lines between these gadgets and dedicated fitness trackers are blurring more and more each day, so you might consider upgrading to a full smartwatch.
To decide on what type of device to invest in, you’ll need to figure out what activities you’re planning to track. If the answer is running around a muddy sports field and getting barged from all sides by other players, maybe you don’t want a $300 smartwatch strapped to your wrist. If your main pursuits are going to be running and cycling, however, it makes more sense.
If you’re considering one of these gadgets, that’s a whole other sport, but we’ve got you covered with our full guide to smartwatches. Spoiler alert: unless you have an Android phone, the Apple Watch ($200 and up) remains one of the best options out there for tracking your health and fitness. Alternatives to Wear OS are available with some decent tracking features as well, including the Fossil Gen 5 ($295), which works with both iPhones and Android phones.
You’ll get a host of added extras with a smartwatch, including GPS (most of the time), more interactive notifications from your phone, and, in some cases, even the ability to make and receive calls. However, they are bulkier—not ideal when you’re exercising—and they are a significant step up in terms of price, too.
You’ve got plenty of points to ponder, but answering these questions should be enough to get you closer to the right fitness tracker (or smartwatch) for you. But you’ve still got a few more ways of telling one wearable from another.
The overall design and look of your fitness tracker might be important to you, so if you can physically go to a store to check it out, do it. Also, try to see it from as many angles as possible before buying it. Pay particular attention to the bands that come with the trackers you’re considering, and whether or not they can be swapped—cheap plastic isn’t quite as good on the skin as quality leather or some synthetics.
As with any gadget, you can only tell so much about a fitness tracker in advance. Read up on as many reviews as possible for the wearables you’re considering, and you’ll get an idea of how well their advertised features hold up, whether they have the accuracy you’re looking for, and whether or not they fall apart after a week of use.
With all that done, it’s time to take the plunge, part with your cash, and enjoy the features of your brand new fitness tracker. Just don’t be one of the 30 percent of people who give up on their tracker after buying it due to boredom, lack of motivation, or some other factor. Keep an eye on those step counts, and the rest should take care of itself.