Fitness trackers are popular nowadays, and not without reason. Not only do they help with training such as running, swimming or cycling, they can also help you and your healthcare provider to understand your medical situations, such as detecting irregular heart rhythms. And they can help with more daily activities such as weather reports and calendar reports.
Shopping for a new fitness tracker can be a daunting task. There is a wide range of brands and price points to choose from. Fortunately, you can use a handful of important points to limit your choice.
Everything about the sensors
The fundamental mission of these devices is to keep track of your physical activity. They achieve this by registering and interpreting data generated by different sensors. Twenty years ago, these sensors would have weighed a few pounds and cost thousands of dollars. Modern parts are now as large as a grain of sand and cost cents.
The basic sensor is an accelerometer that detects linear acceleration. Usually three of these are configured as a single unit, covering all three axes. To detect radial (rotating) movement, a tracker needs gyroscopes: another one for each axis. Some trackers also contain magnetometers that detect magnetic fields, making it possible to deduce which way is up. Not all trackers have all three types of motion sensors, but more sensors mean better results and more accurate data.
The other common type of sensor system in a tracker is for photoplethysmography, which is a nice name for "detecting heartbeats using light." This technology couples one or more LED lights with light sensors mounted on the rear of the device. The light reflects from blood and tissue and the amount of reflected light changes as heartbeat pumps blood through the blood vessels.
Follow your training
Since the main purpose of a tracker is to help with workouts, most have a timer function that allows you to set an alarm for a specific interval or use a stopwatch to keep track of your session. Many trackers also let you specify your training activity, such as walking, running, swimming or cycling. Some devices, such as the Fitbit Charge 3, even automatically recognize the type of activity when you start.
When it comes to swimming, many trackers are now water-resistant. If you want to wear your tracker during water activities (or in the shower), look for the IP rating. IP67 means that the device is suitable for immersion in water up to 30 meters deep for 30 minutes, while IP68 is classified for depths greater than 1 meter. Many trackers – such as the Misfit Shine 2 – have now been assessed as water-resistant to a depth of 50 meters.
If you want to get the most out of your workouts, some trackers also offer heart rate variability, VO2 max and recovery speed. These functions can even be found in Bluetooth earphones such as the Jabra Elite Sport. Runners and cyclists may want a tracker with GPS tracking without also taking your phone with you; the Garmin Vivosport has a built-in GPS receiver.
Follow your health
A feature that has received much recent attention is the ability for the device to check electrocardiogram (EKG) data. This refers to the actual electrical waveforms of your heart beats. These devices can even alert you when they detect a potentially dangerous cardiac arrhythmia (such as atrial fibrillation). The Withings Move ECG is a device that contains this feature.
Trackers can contain a large number of health functions. This includes sleep tracking, hydration, food intake tracking, women's health data, and reminders to get up and move from time to time.
Do you want more than just fitness?
Just about all fitness bands tell time and just about all smartwatches keep track of your activity, so your choice of either is based on your taste, your budget and how much more you want the device to do in addition to following activities.
Trackers are great for sports enthusiasts, but the average consumer needs more if the tracker is to become an essential part of daily activities. One study reports that more than half of the people who own a fitness tracker no longer use it.
This is where smartwatches come in handy. Although the main purpose of fitness trackers is logically fitness, you can use smartwatches to upload apps for a variety of fitness and non-fitness related activities. In addition, smartwatches can offer a variety of watchfaces, the ability to take and answer calls and to listen to audio. Although many of these functions can overlap (there are fitness trackers that also have some of these options), you get many more functions from a smart watch – for a corresponding price increase. The Apple Watch Series 4, for example, has a built-in mobile circuit, so that you can leave your phone at home and still make and receive calls. The Fitbit Versa 2 includes wireless payment and built-in support for the Amazon Alexa speech assistant (although we believe it is a better fitness tracker than a smart watch).
Also keep this in mind
The life of the battery is a problem for some people. Most smartwatches last a few days between recharging and some fitness bands can last a week, but it may be that even this is awkward. A solution is the Misfit Shine 2; it does not charge at all, but uses a replaceable (and cheap) button cell battery that lasts up to six months. And the recently announced Garmin Fenix 6 smartwatch includes a solar cell that uses ambient light to extend battery life between recharging.
Another consideration is the support of the operating system. Most devices use Bluetooth connections to share data with a smartphone, and in almost all cases the company offers apps for both Apple iOS and Android phones. There are exceptions; the Apple Watch is, as expected, designed to work with iPhones only. However, your Android or iOS phone generally works with most fitness trackers.
Make a choice
Prices range from less than $ 70 for a well-equipped fitness band to $ 1500 or more for a bling-out smartwatch. Most users will find excellent choices with a range of features that match their needs for $ 70 to $ 200 for a fitness band or smartwatch. Choose the right one and it is less likely that it will end up in your kitchen drawer after six months.
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