Fitness Tracker Basics

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The quest for better fitness has led to a new line of helpful apps and trackers. With all the new technology how do we know which trackers and apps are the best for our particular need?

The wearable fitness tracker is one of the hottest health trends right now. These gadgets are small enough to wear on your wrist or carry in your pocket, but powerful enough to tell you how many steps you take, how many calories you’re burning, or even if you’re getting enough sleep.  Want to learn more about fitness trackers?  Read our guide to see if one is right for you.

Fitness Tracker Basics

If you’re looking to lose weight or get in better shape, a fitness tracker could help. The simplest ones tell you how active you are each day. More advanced versions say they track your heart rate, hours of sleep, and even account for climbing stairs or hills. This can take a lot of the guesswork out of figuring out how much exercise you’re actually doing.

For example, some fitness experts recommend walking at least 10,000 steps every day. That might sound like an unattainable goal. But put on a fitness device, and you might find that you’re already hitting 3,000 or 5,000 steps a day just going about your regular routine. (Seriously, you’ll probably be surprised how much walking you’re already doing.) That makes 10,000 steps seem much more doable.

Perhaps more importantly, studies suggest that the act of tracking your movement can be motivating in itself and could improve your chances at getting healthier. In one recent study, people moved more and sat less when they started wearing a fitness device. It’s unclear why this works — maybe seeing your steps is a reminder to walk more.

This brings up another feature of modern fitness devices: The social aspect. Most tracking apps let you connect with friends and online communities so you can share your progress and support each other in your fitness goals. You can even join friendly competitions and see who’s getting the most steps every day!

It’s important to choose the right one, as many people stop using their devices. According to one survey, 6 months after buying them, one-third of people stop wearing them regularly. On the the plus side, that means up to two-thirds are long-term users. Which group will you be in?

The options

The kind of tracking device you get really depends on what you plan to use it for, and how much you want to spend. Pretty much any tracking device, beginning with the humble pedometer, will tell you how many steps you took during the day.

At the low end are old-school pedometers, which have been around for years. If you just want a basic step count, they’ll do the job well but generally won’t sync to apps or websites. You can pick one up for about $25 or $30.

Modern tracking devices use accelerometers and other motion-sensing technology to count steps and calculate distance and calories burned. They can sync that data with an app or website, track progress towards goals, and let you compete against friends. Some basic options include the Fitbit Zip ($60), Jawbone UP Move ($50), and Misfit Flash ($50).

If you spend a little more you get more features. Many mid-range devices say they can track the hours you sleep and stairs you climb. In this range you’ll find the Fitbit One or Flex ($100), Jawbone UP2 ($100), and Misfit Shine ($100). The Garmin Vivofit ($130) claims to have a battery life of one year.

Higher-end gizmos are packed with tech and start to enter smartwatch territory. Some have heart rate monitors and GPS built in at much lower prices than in the past. Options in this range include the Fitbit Charge HR ($150) and Jawbone UP3 ($180), which track heart rate; the stylish Withings Activité Pop ($150), which is water resistant for swim tracking; the Fitbit Surge ($250) and Garmin Vivoactive ($250) with added GPS; and the Microsoft Band ($200), which can send you calendar and email alerts, and even social media updates.

If you want something with more bling, designers are getting in on the action. Swarovski has designed bracelets and pendants that hold the minimal Misfit Shine discs, for example, and Tori Burch has a line of bangles and pendants to cage the Fitbit Flex. The Withings Activité is a Swiss-made tracker that looks like a beautiful watch, with a price to match ($450).

Lots of full-featured smartwatches have fitness tracking now too. Some of the Android Wear watches (by various manufactures) are quite stylish, including the Motorola Moto 360 ($250), which looks like a sturdy analog watch but has a pedometer and heart rate sensor built in. And then there’s the Apple Watch. It’s pricey — $349 to $600, with gold-cased Edition models ranging up to $17,000 — but the Watch is a wearable computer and geek-chic status symbol packed with fitness features. For example, the Watch automatically tracks the amount of time you spend standing, moving, and exercising, and will even nudge you to get up if you’ve been sitting too long.

You can use many of these devices with your account on Rally or other sites as part of a fitness or weight-loss plan. For example, when you sign up for a challenge or device-enabled mission on Rally, you can sync your data with just one click instead of entering your data.

If you’re planning on wearing your tracker while you shower, swim, or do heavy exercise that will make you sweat, make sure to pick a waterproof model. Also, most of the devices listed here will sync with both iOS and Android smartphones, but you should double-check before you buy.

More options: smartphones and apps

If you aren’t ready to commit to a fitness device yet, you can often use your smartphone as a fitness tracker. For example, there are tracking chips built into the hardware of the iPhone 5C and higher, as well as certain Android and Windows models; check your phone’s specs.

You can use different apps to see this data (the exact ones depend on your phone), like Map My Fitness, MyFitnessPal, Moves, Nike+ FuelRunKeeper, and Garmin Connect. Some device makers like Fitbit have apps that work with smartphone tracking; these let you join their online communities without buying a device.

Most of these apps are fairly basic, however, and might lack some of the fancier features that come with a dedicated tracking device. Some have food logging features that can be handy if you’re trying to lose weight or track what you eat.

Selected references

Endeavour Partners. Inside Wearables How the Science of Human Behavior Change Offers the Secret to Long-Term Engagement. January 2014. [Link]

De Cocker K, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Brown W, et al. The effect of a pedometer-based physical activity intervention on sitting time. Preventive Medicine, August 2008. [Link]

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