Considering a fitness tracker either for yourself or someone on your Christmas list? If so, then let us help you with your decision. These devices are becoming immensely popular, but do they really improve fitness outcomes? There is research out there to suggest that people in general do not move more when they have an activity tracking device. However, having said that, I believe that for the subgroup of folks who are already fairly active and motivated it can push you to do better.
For instance, when I get to the end of my day and I am a few hundred steps short of my goal I will purposefully do something to get there. Admittedly it is a bit funny to be walking on the spot next to the bed before hopping in (cue the raised eyebrows from my partner), but there is something innately satisfying in reaching my goal for the day and being rewarded with a small vibrating fireworks display on my tracker. After all, who doesn’t like an electronic pat on the back?
If you have started looking around, you have likely discovered that the choices can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few factors to consider in your decision.
Purpose of Use
Deciding first what you are going to use the tracker for will help you narrow down the choices. For instance, if you just want to count your steps for the day then a basic tracker will do. If you would like to track your heart rate and measure distance walked, biked, or ran then you are into a whole other category of GPS enabled devices. If you are a swimmer there are devices that are waterproof. You may even consider different devices for different activities. Yes, some of us fanatics own more than one.
Today’s electronic gadgets can practically do the dishes for you but here are some of the most common features:
- Step Counter – Be forewarned that some devices are more sensitive than others and not all devices will give you the same count even if worn at the same time. Again, this fanatic has three devices and has worn them in different combinations at the same time resulting in different step counts but most of the time they are fairly close. Of course when in doubt go with the highest count!
- Heart Rate Monitor – Gone are the days of needing to wear an annoying chest step as there are now devices than can monitor heart rate at the wrist. This feature is useful for targeting different training zones or for ensuring that your heart rate doesn’t exceed a certain limit. Some devices will even yell at you if you exceed the limit you have set. Don’t worry you can turn off the yelling if you find it insulting. Heart rate monitoring also gives you information about your resting heart rate which is a very good indicator of overall fitness level and something that will visibly improve as you get more active.
- GPS Enabled – This feature only works outdoors as it relies on information from satellites so it is not useful if you are using an indoor track or chasing your kids around the kitchen. GPS not only allows you to measure distance, but also things like pace and elevation change. While this might sound excessive it is fun to see if you can even hit the average pace of an elite long distance runner or speed walker let alone maintain it for any more than a few seconds. My excuse is short legs of course.
- Sleep Monitor – Just like Santa, some fitness trackers know when you are sleeping and know when you are awake. This is a feature that at first might seem rather useless, particularly if you are a busy mom like me and you get the sleep you get once everything and everyone is taken care of. However, I do find that actually seeing a specific number of hours and minutes of rest I have had really holds me accountable. As a result I do make an effort to get to bed earlier in the evening if I didn’t like the numbers I saw in the morning.
Prices vary widely on these devices, partly dependent upon how many features they have, but also on quality and of course how good they look (bling generally equals bucks). It is definitely worth looking into reviews of different devices to get the best bang for your buck within your budget. Here are some good review sites to check out.
Fitness trackers are strangely addictive and once you start counting your steps you can get a little obsessive about it. This means you will want to wear a device 24/7 because heaven forbid you should miss out on those 30 steps you took going to the bathroom at 3:00 in the morning. For this reason considering the look of the device is important. A lot of people choose a device with workout clothing in mind, but then find the look doesn’t work with business wear. For this reason fashion bands are now available for many devices. Trust me, some of these are pretty “snazzy” as my Aunt Marie would say and can blend right in with your best jewellery. Fitness and bling – love it.
Wrist-worn or Clip-on
Another consideration is that sometimes a wrist-worn device is not practical. I play sports and no jewellery is allowed. I found it annoying that I was not able to track the thousands of steps I was taking in a 90 minute soccer game. The day that I came home from soccer (I had stowed my wrist unit in my bag during the game) and my app insultingly told me I had taken a two hour nap, I ordered a clip-on unit. It is quite small and easily hidden under clothing. It can be securely attached to a sports bra or onto a waistband and no one will know it’s there.
Another time a clip-on unit is preferable to a wrist unit is if you have, for example, storm cuffs on your winter jacket. I have a jacket like this and when I am wearing it my wrist unit is pretty much inaccessible. One time I tried to dig it out and it went flying. Not so practical. Also, as Susan McDonald from FitMom Ottawa pointed out, if you wear work out gear that is snug at the wrists or you like to pull your sleeves down and use those funky thumb holes a lot of tops now come with, the wrist band units are difficult to access.
The app associated with your device is just as important as the device itself. I have a Garmin running computer which is fantastic for tracking distance, pace, and all those other metrics that runners obsess over, but the app is really bad. It is hard to find what I am looking for and it keeps dropping the connection to my devices. By contrast, the Fitbit app is easy to use, allows me to quickly see what I am most interested in, and allows me to seamlessly switch from one device to the other while cumulatively tracking my steps for the day. Make sure that the app is compatible with whatever devices you own and that it is easy to use. If not, it will make you crazy.
Regardless of what device you choose, your results are only as good as your motivation. Fitness trackers track, they don’t do so get out there and get active!