Finding the Right Fitness Tracker

Finding the Right Fitness Tracker

Used to be if you wore your heart on your sleeve it meant you were sentimental and easily bruised. Not any more. Now colorful bracelets, watches, clip-ons and other gizmos track your steps, and heart rate, not to mention your work outs, calories consumed and burned, sleep habits, intensity of effort, degree of muscle fatigue, even your distance in an open-water swim. Welcome to the world of “fit tech.” Get hip to it.

These fitness trackers are turning up everywhere. You can catch a glimpse of them on the wrists of CEOs, Olympic athletes and celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow and Katy Perry. The National Basketball Association recently announced some players will soon wear a one-ounce disk under their uniforms that monitors performance data such as muscle fatigue, speed and number of jumps. The NBA wants to become the first US professional sports league to quantify and analyze every movement during every game. (Dr. Mike hopes this will pump up the Cleveland Cavaliers—and Dr. Oz has similar hopes for the Knicks.) There are even fitness trackers, such as FitBark, for dogs.

While you probably don’t need to track your jump shots or how many times you retrieve a stick, you can make big fitness gains using monitors that help you stay enthusiastic about being active. But it’s hard to know which to choose before plunking down $50 to $200, the average price range for a tracker.

Here's how to make a smart choice:

Ask yourself: “Do I really need a fitness tracker?” If you’re dedicated to your daily walking routine, you should already have a simple pedometer or accelerometer that counts your steps and monitors your motion. The FitBit and Yamax Power Walker get good reviews. If you don’t have one of these devices, get two! One for your desk at work, one for home. They can make it much easier to reach your daily goal for steps, heading for 10,000 (or equivalents, one minute of aerobics equals 100 steps) and help you walk your way to better health.

But if you are doing other activities (biking, swimming, running, playing tennis) or you want to shake up your routine, create new challenges and increase your motivation, then today’s multi-function fitness trackers are a smart investment.

Look for the features that matter most to you. Some trackers upload your latest results to share with social networks or compete with other users (the Nike+ Fuelband SE). And most, like the Jawbone UP24 and FitBit, sync with your smart phone, sending your data wirelessly for tracking your progress over time and sharing your info with friends and workout buddies or your doctor.

Now there are a few, like Moov, that offer personalized, computer-generated advice based on your own habits (the trackers can tell when you’re short on sleep and urge you to eat a substantial, healthy breakfast to compensate or analyze your footfall and suggest you change your gait).

Want to know your heart rate? Check out Basis. Tracking speed or exercise intensity during your workout? Try Polar Loop. Many but not all trackers will show you how hard you’re working, in numbers, words or flashing lights. Others let you set goals, then monitor your efforts on your phone or computer with clever charts and graphs.

Stuck at a desk job? We’re fans of trackers like Jawbone UP that alert you when you’ve been sitting too long (fitting in more everyday movement is a great way to stay slimmer and healthier). Some trackers let you set alarms for morning wake-ups and naps, too.

Other trackers work with apps that help you monitor what you eat, use barcode scanners and provide food lists, so you don’t have to type in everything you munch. Many trackers measure how long and how well you sleep and others let you add info about your moods. These can help you see connections between working out, feeling depressed or happy, eating well or poorly, sleeping or not, and how it all affects your health. Smart!

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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