By now, you’re probably aware of the fitness tracker trend, but maybe you’re not sure exactly what they do, or which activity monitor would be the best option for you. Follow our Q&A to learn how this phenomenon can help you increase your activity, improve your health and feel better overall.
Q: What is a fitness tracker, anyway?
A: A fitness activity tracker is a device, usually worn on the wrist, that monitors daily activity, energy expenditure, and in some cases, sleep patterns and heart rate. At their most basic, they combine the features of a walking pedometer wristband and a GPS sports watch.
Q: Why should I monitor my activity with a fitness tracker?
A: Because they look cool. Have you seen how many different colors Fitbit offers? Because all of your friends probably have one. Because monitoring your activity will likely motivate you to move more, improve your fitness, and embrace a healthier lifestyle. Because unlike a Netflix binge, this is a trend that offers actual health benefits. Because you might start sleeping better, drinking more water, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and over time, small changes make a big difference.
Q: But which one do I need?
A: There are about a million fitness trackers on the market; to find the one that’s right for you, think about what you want to get out of it and then start comparing different activity monitors. Are you interested in your daily steps and not much else? Do you want your tracker to alert you when you receive a text message or phone call like the Garmin Vivofit Activity Tracker? Do you want an activity tracker to monitor your heart rate? Your sleep? What about recording your intentional exercise (running, biking, lifting, etc.), as well as your normal day-to-day movement? Yes, we’re asking questions during the answer portion of the program, but that’s because only you can decide which features you’ll use.
Q: Wait, am I supposed to wear my fitness tracker during exercise or not?
A: That depends on the type of tracker you choose. Some allow you to toggle between different sports—running, cycling, weightlifting, even swimming and golf—and provide stats for each, along with the traditional step tracking you can expect from the most basic device. But if you already have a sports watch you love, you may not need all those bells and whistles. You can just as easily choose to wear your fitness monitor during the majority of your day, and switch it out for a sports watch when you’re working out.
Q: How do I access my tracked fitness data?
A: In addition to scrolling through your information right on the device itself, most fitness trackers will sync to your computer or smartphone, allowing you to compare your results from week to week, month to month, and beyond. By comparing activity trackers, you can better understand which monitors pair best with your lifestyle and help you improve your overall performance.
Q: Are there different fitness trackers and monitors for men and women?
A: Because fitness trackers use your personal stats, like gender, height and weight, men and women can use any model interchangeably. However, some activity wristbands and watches are on the bulky side and might appeal more to the male population like the Garmin Smartwatch, while some iFit Activity Trackers are straight-up jewelry, clearly targeting female customers.
Much like the evolution of cars—from horse-and-buggy to Maserati—fitness trackers have been upgraded, beefed up and blinged out into the modern marvels you see today. They’ve gone from basic pedometers (some of which beeped at you when you sat around for too long) to an advanced combination of workout buddy, GPS watch, sleep study and personal trainer. Here are some cool features you can expect from your activity tracker and the reasons why they’re beneficial on the journey to a healthier lifestyle.
Top Activity Tracker Features:
Steps: Fitness trackers were born as pedometers, literally counting the number of steps taken per day—whether on designated walks or trips to the bathroom because you drank too much coffee during your morning meeting. Nowadays most fitness tracking devices by Omron will let you set a daily step goal and alert you once you’ve reached it, which is a great way to increase your accidental, or non-workout-specific, activity.
Heart Rate: Not just for dudes who wear straps around their chests and go shirtless in the gym anymore. A number of new fitness trackers boast built-in heart rate monitors, but they don’t all work the same way. Some will track your heart rate all day long like the Polar Heart Rate Monitor, while others are meant for heart rate training and are activated only when you’re actually exercising. During workouts, this enables you to see how much time you spend in different “zones”: fat burning, endurance and maximum effort.
Calorie Burn: Most activity trackers and fitness bracelets will estimate your daily energy expenditure, or calorie burn, using your height, weight, gender, activity and sleep. Not surprisingly, this number is going to be more accurate when wearing a model with a built-in heart rate monitor like Garmin’s line of activity monitors.
GPS: Taking a giant leap beyond simple step counting, some GPS watches are now equipped with their own GPS, which offers a much more precise measurement of miles run, walked or cycled. This also enables the tracker to give feedback about pace, a huge benefit if you’re using your watch to train for an event. Because GPS operates by reading satellite signals, it won’t accurately measure your mileage on an indoor track, field or treadmill. For that, you’ll need to rely on the step counter.
Sleep: This popular feature monitors the opposite of activity. Using analysis of wrist movements, it tracks how much time you spend in light, deep, restless or REM sleep per night, and might also offer a count of quality sleep hours like theJawbone UP2 Activity Monitor does. However, since the fitness tracker is logistically limited— it can’t track brain waves from around your wrist—these numbers tend to be only a rough guesstimate.
Sport Specificity: For some fitness and activity monitors, a workout is a workout is a workout. Others, however, let you pick different activities—such as running, biking, swimming, lifting, golfing—and track them accordingly. Some will allow you train against your best times, and others will even analyze your form, whether it’s your running stride, your golf swing or your overhead press. Compare activity trackers and see which device will help you reach your goals.
Doing Laundry and Making the Bed: Okay, not exactly, but some new activity trackers are getting close like the fitness watches offered by TomTom. They’ll store music, allow playback, and show you calls, texts, and emails as they hit your phone. Some will even display Facebook notifications; now you can head out on your afternoon walk in peace, knowing you’ll be right on top of things if someone tags you in that unflattering picture from the weekend. Isn’t technology awesome?
Since it’s literally designed to follow your every move, including watching you sleep, your fitness tracker already stalks you pretty hard. But there are adjustments you can make to fine-tune your feedback, resulting in more precise information, a better understanding of your activity level and a baseline from which to judge or adjust your training. Check out these tips to maximize your potential and get the most out of your device.
Personal Stats: When you set up your fitness tracker, you’ll be prompted—either on the tracker itself or on the coordinating app—to fill in your age, height, weight and gender. This helps your device determine calories burned during the day and while exercising.
Stride Length: Your device uses your stride length, both walking and running, to calculate steps taken and distance traveled. By default, those are determined using your height and gender, but you can manually override these settings if you’d like them to be measured more precisely. You’ll just need to count your steps across a known distance to determine your actual stride length.
Setting Goals: Most fitness trackers come with a preset daily goal of 10,000 steps a day, but that may be too ambitious or not enough depending on your current activity level. To make the most out of your device, you need a goal that’s challenging but achievable for you, not a one-size-fits-all value. Spend a few days using the preset goal, then adjust it according to the steps you’ve tracked.
Custom Heart Rate Zones: If you’re just using your device to measure your general daily activity, you may not need to change your heart rate zones, which are automatically generated using your age and gender. But if your fitness tracker is more like a coach than a pedometer, you’ll want to dial in your specific fat burn, cardio, and peak zones to make sure you’re spending the right amount of time in each.
Compatible Apps: Fitness trackers come with their own apps for your smartphone or tablet, ranging from the most basic dashboard to a full-on secretary that will notify you about appointments, make calls and play your music. But many devices are also compatible with a host of other apps, allowing you to seamlessly sync your workouts, nutrition, and even hydration without manually entering this information. You can earn rewards points with the Walgreens Balance app, pull your calories burned directly into the MyFitnessPal app, and check out your bike ride stats on the Strava app, among other things. Take advantage of these partnerships; they’ll make it easier to get a complete picture of your health and fitness.
Even before the first pedometer took its first proverbial step, “fitness” and “exercise” trackers still existed – in the form of pen and paper, keyboard and Excel spreadsheet, rock and cave wall… you get the picture. Humans have always been invested in their own activity (as evidenced by millions of self-congratulatory Facebook posts: Made it to the gym this morning! #boss #killingit), and we’ve kept an activity log of progress in a number of ways:
Pen and Paper: Seriously, people used them. Exercise logs have been around for ages, from simple steno notepads to dedicated journals. They’re still relevant for keeping track of weights and reps during a workout, but obviously fall short of giving you the total picture of your daily activity.
Excel Spreadsheet: The ultimate tool for the Type A fitness freak, Excel lets you divide your workout into neat columns, so you can include everything from time of day to pre- and post-gym supplements to how you felt on a scale of 1 to 10. But while seeing everything in a crisp, clean grid is appealing, it’s still only a fraction of the daily information you’d get from a fitness tracker… unless you’re going to count and log every single step you take, in which case maybe it’s time to look for a hobby.
Pedometer: The birth of today’s fitness tracker really started here, with clip-on devices that counted your steps for you. This made “accidental” exercise, or simply moving more, into a thing. By and large, people were surprised at how little time they actually spent being active; taking the stairs and parking at the end of the lot became ubiquitous tips.
Choose the right pedometer for your fitness routine.
Nike+: In 2006, Nike and Apple joined forces and changed the game by creating Nike+, a small fitness tracking device worn on the shoe that transmitted the distance of a walk or run to the wearer’s iPod or iPhone. It also included information like pace and calories burned.
Fitness Trackers: If the pedometer and Nike+ technology had a little fitness baby, it would be today’s activity tracker. Current technology gives the wearer the ability to analyze workout stats while also getting a comprehensive look at total day-to-day movement, sleep patterns and more. Find out more about fitness trackers to streamline your workout.