The very first fitness trackers were rudimentary step-counters, but technology has advanced since then. Now, whether you want to hit that 10,000 daily step goal, monitor your sleep, or train in a specific heart rate zone, there’s a wrist-mounted wearable for you. The best fitness trackers don’t just log and display info, they link with your smartphone, usually via Bluetooth, and use sophisticated apps to show where you are in relation to your goals and how you’re doing compared to historical data.
But in a world that already bombards us with information, do we really need more data in our lives? The quick answer, if you’re serious about getting fit, is “yes.” Research shows that setting goals, benchmarking progress, and getting feedback make us more likely to improve our fitness, health and wellness. Add in accountability—yes, many of these trackers can post directly to your social media—which is another proven way of sticking to your healthy lifestyle, and you can see why so many people are devotees.
Yet with so many options, how do you know which is the best fitness tracker for you? From product design to functionality and battery life, we’ve tracked down everything you need to know to make the best decision.
- Best fitness tracker for heart rate monitoring: Apple Watch Series 6
- Best sleep tracker: Fitbit Versa 3
- Best fitness tracker for battery life: Garmin Vivofit 4
- Best GPS fitness tracker: Coros Apex
- Best fitness tracker for screen display: Galaxy Watch Active 2
- Best cheap fitness tracker: Xiaomi Mi Band 5
Things to consider when shopping for the best fitness trackers
It’s easy to get bewildered by all the features and functions available. But the best fitness tracker for you is the one that will effectively and efficiently monitor exactly what you want it to—maybe your heart rate or the quality of your sleep—and deliver the info in a way that works for you. But it’s also smart to keep in mind that too many functions, such as GPS or an energy-sapping display can drain your tracker’s battery life.
Want to follow your heart?
There are few more accurate measurements of fitness than your heart rate at rest. Normally, the fitter you are, the lower your heart rate will be—generally a good thing as it indicates that your heart muscle doesn’t need to work as hard to maintain a steady beat.
Keeping an eye on your heart rate while working out can also be a good way of knowing you’re working as hard as you should be. Broadly speaking, if you want to work out at a moderate intensity, your heart rate should be somewhere between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate (this varies with age) and during high-intensity workouts, you should be in the 70-85% of maximum zone.
There’s been some dispute about how accurate the heart rate monitors on wrist-mounted wearables can be. Unlike chest straps which use electrodes to detect a heartbeat and are considered almost comparable to the devices that medics use, fitness trackers usually shine a light on the blood vessels in your wrist to measure the volume of blood flow, and calculate heart rate accordingly. However, when you’re moving, the sensor can slip, resulting in an inaccurate reading.
Manufacturers seem aware of this issue, and each new iteration of the tracker seems to improve on the last.
Best fitness tracker for monitoring heart rate: Apple Watch Series 6
Super Hi-Spec Fitness Tracker
Also lets you basically run your life on your wrist with read/write message capability and Apple Pay. Amazon
Various academic papers have found that Apple Watches appear to measure heart rate most accurately. The most recent iterations can generate an ECG reading similar to a single-lead electrocardiogram and can even notify the wearer of heart rate irregularities. Admittedly it’s pretty pricey—although earlier models are less expensive and still packed with features. If you’re already an iPhone user, it’s a no brainer—needless to say, it syncs seamlessly.
Want the best fitness tracker for counting zzz’s?
When it comes to fitness, we tend to neglect recovery—and that’s partly why sleep monitoring has become a key feature of fitness trackers. Some argue that you should know whether you’ve had a good night’s sleep just based on how you feel in the morning. Trying to beat a sleep score every night, they say, only adds stress and makes it less likely you’ll sleep well.
However, if you’re trying different approaches to improve your sleep—a relaxing pillow spray, avoiding screens before bed, or winding down with a warm shower—a tracking app can help you figure out what works best for you. While sleep trackers in labs use brain activity to measure the different stages of sleep—light, deep, and REM sleep—fitness trackers tend to use a combination of movement and heart rate tracking to estimate your sleep cycles.
You have to notify some trackers that you’re going to bed in order to initiate sleep monitoring, but others do it automatically as long as you are wearing your device to bed. If you want to wear your tracker to monitor your activity during the day and your sleep at night, make sure you’ve got a device that has a long battery life—see our pick for best battery life below—or a quick charging time so you never have to miss a moment, night or day.
Best sleep tracker: Fitbit Versa 3
Ready For Any Activity
A little costlier than Fitbit’s more simple trackers, but the step up in function pays dividends. Amazon
The Fitbit Versa 3 automatically tracks your sleep and not only shows how long you were in each sleep cycle but how your sleep compares to others of the same age and sex. The app displays the data clearly, and lets you see historical data and a 30-day average, too. Sleep and sleep quality is clearly important to Fitbit—you can also set an alarm to wake you when you’re in a lighter sleep stage so you feel less drowsy.
How long will the battery last?
When it comes to electronics, particularly small yet powerful ones, battery life can be a major concern. Depending on how you want to use your fitness tracker, battery life might be key when choosing one.
Many of the most popular products blur the line between fitness trackers and smartwatches and come with a huge number of functions such as sending and receiving messages, storing music, and GPS tracking. But these bells and whistles can be a real drain on your battery. You might find yourself needing to fast charge your device while you’re in the shower or sacrificing sleep tracking so it can power up overnight.
That might be fine if you just want to keep track of the odd HIIT class. But if you hate being a slave to a charger—or want to take your tracker on a camping expedition, say, without access to power—it might be worth sacrificing some features for longer battery life.
Trackers with slightly fewer functions can go for up to seven days without a charge, and yet still allow you to receive notifications from your phone, prompt you to move when you’ve been sitting still too long, and track your heart rate. Bear in mind that the more interaction you have with the screen, the sooner you will likely need a recharge. If you want something that will last months or even years, there are options out there, but you’re going to have to compromise somewhere.
Best fitness tracker for battery life: Garmin Vivofit 4
Simple Design, But Effective
The battery in this fitness band will last for more than a year before it needs changing, so you can wear it 24/7 to track steps, sleep, and more. Amazon
Extra-long battery life like this comes with a few compromises, but those who don’t want to be tied to a charger will appreciate this pared-back tracker. It will track steps, distance, activity, and calories burned, as well as monitor sleep and provide a personalized daily step goal. The color display is customizable, and the app adds functionality.
Want to know where you are—and where you’re going?
GPS—or Global Positioning System—is a series of satellites that circle the Earth. If you have a GPS receiver, it can use the relative positioning of these satellites to tell you exactly where you are. It’s this sort of geolocation technology that is used to help your car company or food delivery service locate you, and how the map app on your phone gives you directions.
When it comes to fitness trackers, GPS can be helpful in a number of ways. Using what it knows about your location and the time you were there, you can get an accurate idea of your pace when you’re running or hiking. It can also allow someone who’s not with you to track your progress or help you create a map of your route. Further, on some devices, with an additional app, GPS can be used to help direct you along a pre-programmed route.
Fitness trackers have various ways of capitalizing on GPS. Some may include their own built-in receivers, which means you don’t have to have your phone with you, while others use the GPS in your smartphone to help geolocate you.
The quality of GPS in fitness trackers varies, too. Sometimes it’s tricky to squeeze a high-quality receiver into a small band or watch, and if accurate GPS is really important to you—say you’re a competitive runner and need a highly accurate record of your distances and pace—a GPS running watch might be a better option for you.
Best fitness tracker with GPS: Coros Apex
Know Where You Stand
Quickly picks up GPS signals and offers an impressive 35 hours of battery life in full GPS mode. Also comes with a built-in wrist-based heart rate monitor, barometer, altimeter, and compass. Amazon
Designed for serious athletes—hence knob control rather than touchscreen so you can get info when your hands are sweaty—this GPS-heavy watch allows navigation tracking on preloaded routes, keeps track of your elevation, lets you know if there’s bad weather ahead, and even reminds you to refuel.
Want a jam-packed screen—or a minimalist one?
How much information do you want to see on the screen of your fitness tracker? Ask three people and you’d probably get three different answers. Do you want all your info there? Or would you rather a single piece of data on screen—your step count, calories burned, or heart rate—knowing that you’ll have to scroll through to get the other data you want?
As with so many choices, it’s all about compromises. If you want a full color, fully customizable screen, you’re probably looking at a smartwatch rather than a band-style tracker, but that probably means a touch screen, rather than buttons, which can be tricky to interact with when you’re sweaty or wearing gloves.
Whatever you opt for, it’s worth spending a bit of time getting to know your tracker’s screen, working out how you can customize it so that the functions and information you want most are easily and quickly accessible. As with your phone, you may find some apps or functions installed that you don’t need. If you know you’re never going to record a ballet class, for example, delete that option if you can. The less information you have on screen, the easier it will be to zone in on what you want.
It might also be worth considering a screen protector if you’re going for a smartwatch-style tracker. These can be really thin and unobtrusive, and the best don’t interfere with functionality, just protect against scratches, scrapes, and damage.
Best fitness tracker for screen options: Galaxy Watch Active 2
Clear Customizable Color Screen With Eye-Catching Graphics
The option to use a digital dial and button rather than a full-on touch screen gives the best of both worlds. Amazon
This Samsung may offer fewer customization options and third-party apps than rival Apple Watch, but that provides you the opportunity for a cleaner, less cluttered customer experience. You can still track more than 40 exercises (and auto-detect six), monitor heart rate and sleep, and get notifications from your phone as well. Waterproof and with decent battery life, it plays best with an Android phone.
Best cheap fitness tracker: What you get for under $50
You’re probably going to have to head over the $50 mark if you want to pick up any of the brands in our main feature, although Fitbit and Garmin have entry-level products around $70. But to get more bang for your buck, look to Chinese brand Xiaomi. Their Mi Band 5 has a large screen display, tracks 11 different sports, as well as your sleep, steps, and heart rate. It can also show you notifications from your phone and can be used to control your phone’s music and camera, too.
Best fitness tracker brands to know
Fitness trackers have an interesting heritage—closely related to sports watches and mobile phones—as well as being their own stand-alone tech. The brands we’ve identified below as strong players in the industry encompass the entire spread of these technologies. From companies known originally for their computing genius to those established with the sole purpose of creating fitness wearables, here’s a slightly deeper dive into some of the brands included in this article.
Established in 2007 when two entrepreneurs realized that the technology behind sensors and wireless computing had reached a stage where the concept of a wearable device to improve fitness had real potential. Fitbit has come a long way since their early rudimentary clip-on trackers that used motion sensors to track movement, sleep, and calorie burn. In 2019, Google announced its acquisition of the brand for $2.1 billion.
Garmin’s roots lie in GPS. Founded in 1989 by two engineers Gary Burrell (Gar) and Min Kao (min) who gave their names to the brand, the company’s first product was designed for automotive and marine purposes at a time when GPS was predominantly being used by the military. Their first wearable GPS didn’t launch until 2003 when they brought out the Forerunner 201, a pager-sized wrist-mounted device, and many feel they’ve led the way in wearable GPS ever since.
Born as a computer company in 1976, Apple has always been as much about product design, desirability, and user experience as about technology. The iPod, which launched in 2001, marked a turning point for the company, revolutionizing the way the world listens to music. The iPhone launched in 2007, followed by the Apple Watch in 2015. In 2019, it was reported that Apple had sold more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry.
A final word on the best fitness trackers
There’s no doubt that a fitness tracker can help you up your game when it comes to your workouts, and that there are a host of different features and functions out there that can keep you on track, whether you’re a busy parent squeezing in a quick yoga class or a professional athlete trying to shave every last second off your time. The huge leaps and bounds in technology also mean that your fitness tracker can do double duty as a smartwatch, notifying you about everything from news headlines to your next meeting. The type of tracker you opt for will depend on your life, lifestyle, and what you want from it. But the choices are out there like never before.