Since the introduction of the Fitbit in 2009, wearable fitness trackers have taken the country by storm. These days, it seems everyone is sporting one of these little gadgets on their wrist or clipped to a belt. People who use them love them, too. Give them a chance and they’ll talk your ear off about how many steps they’ve taken that day, how much weight they’ve lost, how their resting heart rate has improved.
While there are plenty of worthwhile fitness trends, most come with a steep price tag. At those prices, many people who haven’t jumped on the fitness tracker bandwagon yet are wondering: Are these gizmos worth the money?
How Fitness Trackers Work
Fitness trackers have a variety of different functions, and some of them work better than others. Here’s a rundown of what fitness bands can do as well as the technology behind them:
- Count Your Steps. Pretty much every fitness tracker contains an accelerometer, a device that measures how fast something is changing its speed or direction. Using this tool, the tracker can count the number of steps you take as well as measure your movements from side to side or up and down.
- Measure Other Movements. Fancier trackers also contain various other sensors to track your movement. For instance, they can use a gyroscope, which can spin in any direction around a fixed axis, to figure out whether you’re sitting, standing, or lying down. A barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure, can calculate your altitude to determine how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. And a tiny GPS unit can track your location, which is handy for recording your route on a long run or bike ride.
- Check Your Vital Signs. Many fitness trackers contain a heart rate monitor to measure your pulse, both during exercise and while at rest. Some can also detect your skin temperature and level of perspiration. They combine this data with your pulse rate to figure out just how hard you’re working out.
- Keep Track of Calories. Some fitness trackers use your heart rate to estimate how many calories you’ve burned during the day. A few also come with an app that lets you record how many calories you consume. That way, you can track calories consumed against calories burned to help with weight loss.
- Monitor Your Sleep. Many fitness trackers can supposedly track how well you’re sleeping. They detect motion while you’re lying down to figure out when you’re awake, lightly asleep, or in deep sleep. However, this function doesn’t work all that well. The devices often claim that you’ve slept either more or fewer hours than you really did.
- Messages Notifications. Another way fitness trackers work with your phone is to alert you when you have new. They can notify you about incoming calls, texts, e-mail, and even social media posts. Also, some trackers send you messages of their own. For instance, they can send a “move alert” to let you know when you’ve been sitting still for too long. They can also send you messages of praise when you hit an activity goal. In many cases, you can use your trackers to share reports of your activity with your friends online. This can lead to friendly competition that can motivate you to work harder. A few trackers can even share health info with your doctor. Sharing your progress is a proven way to achieve your goals.
Not all trackers have these functions, however. In general, they fall into two main types. Basic “all-day trackers” keep track of your daily activity, such as steps taken, calories burned, and periods of activity and sleep. They track your heart rate and breathing, the miles you’ve logged, your speed, and even your altitude – a nice bit of info for cyclists and skiers. Some of them even provide music to go with your workout.
Benefits of Fitness Trackers
Why do people love their fitness trackers so much? The main benefit, most of them will tell you, is that wearing the tracker motivates them to be more active. For many people, exercise is more rewarding when they can see numbers in black and white telling them how well they’re doing. They get more excited about hitting a specific target, like 10,000 steps per day, than about the vague goal of being healthier.
Fitness trackers are designed to encourage this kind of thinking. They send messages to cheer you on when you meet a goal, giving you an ego boost. Plus, you can share the messages with your friends to let them know how active you’re being. For many people, this brings out their competitive instinct.
Other Benefits of Fitness Trackers
Fitness trackers can help you in other ways, too. For instance, you can use them to:
- Understand Your OverallHealth. Using a fitness tracker can help you figure out if you’re getting enough steps every day to be healthy. You can use it to see if you’re getting enough sleep or to measure your resting heart rate.
- Measure Progress Toward Goals.If any of these numbers isn’t what you’d like it to be, you can take steps to improve it – and the fitness tracker can help you see how the numbers change over time. This can help you figure out which strategies work or don’t work for you.
- Train More Effectively. If you’re trying to lose weight, a fitness tracker can show you when your heart rate is in the ideal zone for exercise. This can help you get the most benefit out of your workouts. If you’re a serious athlete, a fitness tracker can track your speed and distance traveled, so you can see how well your training regimen is working. If you’re just starting out, try a proven home workout plan.
How to Decide
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to keep track of your health without wearing a fitness tracker. But that doesn’t mean there’s no good reason to get one. If a wearable device truly motivates you to move more or helps you train harder, it could be a good investment. The question is whether you’ll get enough benefit to outweigh the cost.
Questions to Ask
To decide if a fitness tracker is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
- What Do You Want to Know? If all you want to do is count your steps, you can do that better with a simple pedometer – or an app that costs nothing at all. But if you want to track all aspects of your health – activity, sleep, heart rate, and so on – then a fitness tracker is the only tool that can do it all.
- How Do You Work Out? If your main sport is walking, running, or cycling, you’re probably better off trying a smartphone app first. With many fitness trackers, you need to carry your phone anyway to use all the features, so you might as well see if an app alone can do the job. But if you play a sport that makes it hard to carry a phone, a wearable is a better bet. And if swimming is your main sport, you’ll need to make sure you choose one of the few fitness bands that work in the pool.
- Do You Carry Your Phone Everywhere? If you do, then an app could be a better bet than a basic fitness tracker. It’s cheaper, and it doesn’t require you to carry an extra device. Even if you want the extra features of a fitness tracker, you can get by with a cheaper one that pairs with your phone to give you your results. But if you don’t carry a phone all the time, you’ll need to pay more for a high-end tracker that contains its own display.
- How Much Can You Spend? There’s not much point in buying a fitness tracker if you can’t afford a good one. So if you don’t have at least $60 to spare, go for a fitness app instead. It’ll give you the most bang for your buck.
- What Drives You? This is the big question. If you’re competitive, a fitness tracker’s social functions will be a big help for you. Seeing how your friends are doing and trying to outdo them could inspire you to move more when nothing else does. But if all you need to inspire you is a goal to work toward, an app is just as good for tracking your progress.
The real bottom line is whether a fitness tracker will improve your health. Will you work out more when you’re wearing it? Will you eat better or sleep better at night? If a tracker can motivate you to make these positive changes when no other tool can, it’s a good buy.