Chapter 2: The Top Fitness Trackers and Apps Available Today
In the introduction, we discussed how it wasn’t actually necessary to won a ‘fitness tracker’ per say in order to effectively track your health and fitness. That is indeed true.
Nevertheless though, a fitness tracker can still do an awful lot to make life easier for you when you’re monitoring your health and fitness. As the name would suggest, these devices are all about the fitness tracking and therefore should offer a more comprehensive overview of your health in one place than any other device or method.
A fitness tracker doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, it might only set you back $50 in some cases. This should be a great investment though as it will keep your health and fitness at the forefront of your mind and help you to learn much more about yourself in the process.
This chapter is your guide to picking the right fitness tracker.
What is a Fitness Tracker and What Should it be Able to do?
A good place to start is by asking what a fitness tracker is, what it does and what you should be looking for when you pick one.
To summarise then, a fitness tracker is any device that you wear on your person and that tracks some aspect of your fitness. To classify as a fitness tracker though, the device probably needs to have more than one function, or a ‘smart element’ such as the ability to sync with a smartphone or upload data to the cloud. Many fitness trackers also offer a screen, which makes it easier for you to access the information and to use the device in other ways – though some you interact with solely through an app.
Most fitness trackers are worn on the wrist like a watch/bracelet, though there is a fair amount of variation here too. Some devices like the original Fitbit are instead worn on the belt. There are also some other interesting models in the works, which include one (called ‘Jabra’) that you wear inside the ears.
The most basic function that pretty much every fitness tracker out there offers then is a pedometer. Take your regular pedometer, give it a mobile app and you have your basic fitness tracker.
Most then use their in-built app in order to calculate other interesting data about you. In order to monitor steps, a pedometer needs to be able to measure movement and that means that it can roughly calculate your calories burned based on your activity (as long as you give it some basic information when you first set it up).
On top of the basic pedometer functionality, most trackers will include a gyroscope and accelerometer in order to measure more information about your movement. With a smart algorithm, a tracker can then deduce which activities you’re engaged in and recognize if you’re swimming or if you’re cycling. More often, this technology is used to measure when you’re sleeping – and how much you move during the night. This then allows for some basic sleep monitoring so that you can see how much deep sleep you’re getting and how you might improve in order to feel more refreshed each morning.
From there, you then start to get a little more advanced with additional sensors. Galvanic skin response (GSR) is used to monitor whether or not a band is being worn. Another feature which is becoming more common is heart rate monitoring. Heart rate monitoring used to be achievable only with a chest strap (the most popular commercial option being those from Polar). Today though, heartrate monitoring is possible through wrist-worn devices using infrared sensors which effectively film the pulsation of the veins. Some fitness trackers provide constant heartrate tracking, while others need to have that feature switched on during workouts.
Either way, the reliability of these readings is somewhat variable, which is something we’ll be looking at more. An alternative offering comes from the UP3 from Jawbone. This device does away with the normal heartrate sensor and instead offers a ‘bio impedance sensor’ which measures the resistance offered by the skin. This feature is actually very similar to how a treadmill works using the grips to monitor your heartrate.
Other features include temperature monitoring, GPS tracking (for runs) and even UV sensitivity. Which of these you need will of course depend on what you plan on monitoring.
A final important element for a lot of fitness trackers is the social element. Most fitness trackers allow you to compete with friends and relatives to see which of you are getting the most exercise and they allow you to compare yourself to other people in your demographic. All this offers encouragement and support which can be a great help when you’re struggling for motivation to get out and get training.
With all this in mind then, you should have a good picture of what a typical fitness tracker can offer. Let’s move on to comparing a few of the top offerings to see how they hold up. The Top Fitness and Activity Trackers:- The Microsoft Band 2
Let’s start with a fitness tracker that sits at the top-end in terms of capabilities. While the Microsoft Band and Band 2 are not the rock stars of fitness tracking that Fitbit is, they nevertheless pack in a lot more sensors and features and are potentially the most complete offering for those who are really keen on measuring their health.
If you buy the Microsoft Band 2, then you will get the following sensors:
* All day LED heartrate monitoring
* UV sensor
* Ambient light sensor
* Galvanic skin response
* Temperature monitor
Together, these provide a truly comprehensive picture of your health. When you view the stats through the app or on your computer, you can how your heart rate changed throughout the day and how things like caffeine and sleep might have affected it. You can also see the number of steps you took, when you were most accurate and how many flights of stairs you ascended. You’ll also see your calories burned of course.
Is the heart rate monitoring accurate? Overall the answer is yes. A Polar chest strap will still be more accurate but for most people it’s not going to be far off. Your mileage may vary though and it appears that some factors like skin pigmentation may affect just how good a reading you get.
When you sleep, you get to see how long you slept versus how long you were in bed, how many times you woke up and how your heartrate varied throughout the night. Eventually, you’ll start getting some contextual tips and advice on how to improve your sleep along with some ‘observations’. The Band 2 also comes with a smart alarm which works by buzzing when you’re at the lightest stages in your sleep up to 30 minutes before you set your alarm. This reduces ‘sleep inertia’ so you’re not groggy when you get up.
When you train either in the gym or out running, you’ll get an even more minute-by-minute breakdown of your heartrate. During training you’ll be able to see how many calories you burned, how much of that was fat vs carbs, and what the ‘cardio benefit’ of that training was. With time, the Band can even tell you roughly what your VO2 max is, which a great measure of cardio fitness is. If you’re running and you turn on the GPS, you’ll be able to see your routes mapped and a breakdown of your best speeds, splits, pace and times. Oh and using the UV sensor, it can tell you when it’s time to put on sun cream!
What makes the Band 2 an improvement on the likes of Fitbit though is the big touchscreen which offers an intuitive and pleasant-to-use screen for getting around. This shows you data such as your current heartrate and pace when you’re training but it also allows for more interesting things. For example, you can actually download pre-set workouts from the Microsoft Health App and then get talked through sets and reps or particular fitness drills. You can also create your own plans, which is a really nice touch.
There’s even a ‘golf’ mode that tracks your performance on the golf course, measuring swings and practice swings and showing your route as you follow the holes around.
And better yet is the fact that the Microsoft Band 2 also works as a smartwatch. Not only does it allow you to see your messages, respond to them, read e-mails and check the weather – it also allows you install apps that others have made. Some of these are really useful, such as the ‘music control’ app that lets you control Spotify on your phone.
These features actually have health benefit too – in that they prevent you from getting out your phone every two minutes and allow you to be more ‘present’ as a result.
The Microsoft Band and Band 2 work on android, iOS, Windows Phone and even Windows 10 for PC. The downside? It’s about the most uncomfortable fitness tracker out there and can actually be a little tricky to sleep with. The first Band had some build quality issues and it’s not waterproof so it’s not a good option for swimmers. Battery life is also only 2 hours or less if you use the HR tracking, GPS or ‘watch mode’.
The TomTom Spark is another top-end fitness tracker that has some real killer features. Compared with the Microsoft Band 2 it’s not quite so pretty to look at but it’s also a lot more comfortable. In terms of features, it also lacks the ‘smartwatch’ aspects of the Band 2 but makes up for it in the fitness features.
Sure, the TomTom Spark lacks a few of the Band 2’s metrics like the barometer or the ability to calculate VO2 max. However, where it gets more useful is in the 5 day battery life and the waterproofing. These are great features for those who are really serious about tracking their fitness full time.
What’s also cool about this option is that it provides you with the option to ‘pick and choose’ the features you want. Some models for instance will let you store music on the device (something else the Band can’t do) so you don’t have to take your phone on runs (you’ll need Bluetooth headphones). You can also optionally choose GPS tracking and heart rate monitoring and if you go for the full feature set, this will again be one of the most comprehensive trackers available. What’s also cool is that you can use the Spark with a chest strap for more accurate readings.
The latest Fitbit is the Surge. The feature set is very similar to that of the Spark with a heartrate monitor, pedometer, sleep tracking and a nice big display. It’s not a smartwatch though, so you won’t be using it to send texts or catch-up on Twitter. Unfortunately it isn’t waterproof (like the Spark) but it does have GPS built-in.
Fitbit has one of the best apps from any fitness tracker and has been in the game long enough to build up a massive ecosystem. It syncs with a ton of different apps and has perhaps the very best social elements of any brand.
Like the Spark, the Surge has only a black and white display – whereas the Band 2, Apple Watch and Gear Fit all have colour touchscreens.
The odd thing is that the Fitbit Surge is actually more expensive than the Band 2 or some versions of the Spark despite doing less. If you’re not fussed about the heartrate monitoring though, you could go with a different model of the Fitbit – such as the Flex – and that would also mean rocking a slightly more subtle look without the display (just a few lights). The Charge HR meanwhile offers you a tiny screen, plus heartrate monitoring – so again you can really pick the model that best suits you.
The Jawbone UP3 is something completely different from the other options on this list. The Jawbone UP3 has no display which some people will see as a downside but other people will love.
Certainly the UP, UP24 and UP3 are sporting some of the most stylish designs of any fitness tracker and this is great if you want to carry on wearing a watch or if you want to avoid being too ostentatious with your technology. Jawbone is also one of the best options for women as its slim enough to fit around a thin wrist/arm and also has available designs that don’t look like a big hulking piece of technology on your wrist.
The UP3 had lots of delays at launch which damaged its reputation. However, the heartrate tracking is interesting (though it offers snapshots throughout the day rather than continuous updates) and you do get some metrics you won’t find anywhere else – like temperature during sleep.
There are other UP models too. The UP24 has no bio impedance
We could go on forever, but the above should help to provide more than enough option.
In case you’re still shopping for that perfect tracker though, you might also consider the Nike Fuleband SE which is great for gamification and which measures ‘fuel points’ rather than steps (which correspond to general activity). Otherwise this one is a basic monitor. The Basis Peak is another cool one with temperature monitoring, smart exercise detection and HR. The Gear Fit is a bit old now but has a (non 24 hour) heart rate sensor and a ton of smartwatch features relying on Android Wear. The Vivo Smart from Garmin is a sleek fitness tracker which display that stays hidden until it needs to show a notification – and with a great price point. The Vivo smart HR adds heart rate monitoring.
The Apple Watch also has a ton of health tracking features, though these are fairly light and the battery life is quite poor. If you like having the latest gadgets though and you are just looking for some entry level fitness tracking, then the Apple Watch will be a great way to get started.
Then there are the weirder and less well-known options. The Jabra Sport Pulse measures your heartrate through your ears for instance and offers quite accurate data. There are also a whole plethora of different and strange fitness trackers on the way and already in the store, some of which we’ll be looking at in the next section.
Note as well that a lot of phones have basic fitness tracking capabilities these days too. For example, the Galaxy Note 4 and 5 or the S4, 5 and 6 will both measure your heartrate, as do the latest iPhones. Almost every phone has a pedometer built in, or apps that can provide that function. There are also a ton of apps you can download that will further enhance the fitness tracking features of your devices. For example, you can download MyRunKeeper to track runs or Endomondo, or you can use MyFitnessPal to track your calories. We’ll look at these more in subsequent chapters.