The wearable fitness technology market is booming. In fact, wearable technology was ranked as the number 1 fitness trend according to the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2016 conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine. The many available options cater to everyone from the casual exerciser who perhaps gets the majority of her activity from walking, to people engaging in more active sports — for example, running, cycling, swimming, tennis, and golf — or those who compete.
When trying to decide on the best wearable for you, first ask yourself exactly what you want the device to do. What features are going to keep you on track and get you to your goals? Is simply tracking your steps enough? Or do you want a coach to prompt you to get up and move if you’ve been sitting too long, or tell you when to pick up the pace during a run or a ride? What are your priorities? And, if you can’t get everything you want all in one device, are there workarounds or other apps that will work with it to give you the support you’re looking for?
Whatever your answer about ideal features, if the information collected by your device isn’t accurate, the resulting data is of little use. Many activity trackers make use of an accelerometer, which records changes in motion, and, using this information, estimates things like how many steps you’ve taken. The limitation to this technology is, if you talk a lot with your hands or spend a lot of time typing, for example, you may be getting credit for more activity than you’ve actually done. Likewise, if you’ve gone for a bike ride, the accelerometer won’t pick up much of anything (unless you strap it to your leg, and some trackers are designed for this).
One of the features that will provide more accurate data, especially if you’re using your tracker for running or cycling, is built-in GPS. Trackers that don’t use GPS estimate your steps and other activity, which may not provide the detail and accuracy you need if you’re training for a specific event or want to track your progress over time. If you’re interested in seeing a map of your route or tracking split times, having GPS is essential. GPS also enables the device to measure your cadence, a feature that’s important if you’re a runner or cyclist.
Heart-rate monitoring is another feature that improves a device’s accuracy. This feature is important for measuring the intensity of your workout and how well you recover, but a heart-rate monitor also gives you a more accurate reading of the calories you’ve burned. Calorie tracking and reconciling calories consumed with calories burned is probably one of the most important features for most people, especially those trying to lose weight. To the degree you get a more accurate picture of what you are actually doing, you will be better able to monitor and optimize your progress.
Many wearables feature sleep tracking technology. Again, depending on how that particular feature works, it could be more or less accurate. Some trackers go into sleep mode automatically, but if you’re being very still you might get credit for a nap you didn’t really have. On the other hand, some require you to manually put them in sleep mode, and if you do have a nap and forget, your device might tell you to get up and move when what you really need is a power nap. Again, it comes down to personal preference. Think about whether this feature is one that’s important to you, and if so, investigate how it works and look for reviews of how satisfied (or not) others are with the device’s sleep tracking.
Although the wearable device itself is the workhorse of the arrangement, the app associated with your tracker has to be robust to make good use of all the data. How well does the app turn this collected data into useful information? Does it track the things you want to know? Does it present it in a format that’s useful and easy to navigate?
As people everywhere have increasingly taken to tracking many of their daily metrics — calories, sleep, movement, or lack of it — apps have proliferated to help you monitor and optimize yourself. Depending on what you’re interested in knowing about what you’re doing and how you can improve, you’ll want to make sure your device and its software can sync and interact with the apps you already use, as well as your operating system, whether you have an Android, iOS, or Windows phone.
For example, if your device doesn’t have GPS, it may be possible to sync with the GPS on your phone to get more accurate information about the distance you’ve traveled. But if the device and its app don’t have the capability of hooking up to your phone’s GPS, that’s not a solution. You’ll want to make sure there are effective workarounds to provide you with the functionality you are looking for.
Does the device support the extras that are important to you? Many people are so accustomed to taking their phone with them everywhere that it may not be a big deal to continue to carry it around, even with your tracker. But if you’re trying to ditch your phone, you may want to be notified that there are things you’ll want to follow up on when you get back to it. There are some fitness bands that will alert you to incoming email and social media, but at this point, smartwatches are the only devices that allow you to respond right from the device. (Some devices with GPS can receive and send notifications without you having to lug your phone around).
There are a couple of ways security is important. First, you’ll want to make sure that the device is actually secure on your body or clothing in so it doesn’t fall off or get lost. Look at the clasp or the way the device fastens and think about it in the context of your activities. If you’re a boxer will the tracker stay attached to your arm securely during a workout? Some devices can be worn several ways — clipped to your clothes or slid into a band that fastens to your arm or leg. Some can even be worn as a pendant or pin. Is the device likely to slide out of the holder or fall off your clothes? One way to find out is to search online for the device you’re considering and read the reviews.
As with all devices that rely on Bluetooth and other forms of wireless communication, cyber security (or lack thereof) can be a potential issue. You’ll want to have a complete understanding of how your device communicates with your phone or tablet, whether there are security measures (such as passwords and data encryption), and what the manufacturer’s privacy and security policies are.
By now most of us are used to charging our phones and other devices on a pretty regular basis. This is also true of most wearable devices, but depending on how many features you have and how often you use them you may get anywhere from just a day of battery life to as long as two weeks. If you don’t consider charging your electronics an inconvenience this maybe a small consideration. However, if you’re someone who is going to be using many functions, the battery life you get (or don’t) may be more of an issue. Some trackers use watch batteries so they never need to be charged and can last up to a year before needing to be replaced. If constant charging isn’t appealing and you can get the functionality you need from a device that uses a watch battery, this may be a good trade off.
Depending on what your exercise of choice is it may be important to have a device that’s waterproof. If you’re a swimmer this will obviously be a requirement. If your device might get wet, say if you like to run or ride in the rain, getting a device that is merely waterproof may be good enough. However, some devices can’t get wet at all. If taking your device off every time you wash your hands sounds unappealing, it’s something you’ll want to consider before making your purchase.
Bottom line, do your research. Figure out what features are the most important to you and seek out devices that offer them. Then consider what other features are available or not, and whether that will support your health and fitness goals.
January 12, 2016