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Here's Everything You Need To Know About Getting A Fitness Tracker

If your Fitbit-obsessed friend is pressuring you to get one, read this first.

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We recently reviewed Fitbit's new devices — the Alta and the Blaze — and a question we get all the time is: Are fitness trackers really worth it?

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Navigating the wild world of fitness gadgetry can be daunting. Here's everything you need to know about getting into activity tracking.

What do activity trackers do?

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Most of them count steps, track distance traveled, show you calories burned, measure sleep quality, and sync this data to an app on your phone that presents the information in a way that's easy to read. The majority of fitness trackers are compatible with both Android and iPhone (except for smartwatches).

The more "advanced" (read: expensive) devices can track heart rate. Even more high-caliber trackers have GPS that use satellite to track your location and altitude.

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What are the different kinds of fitness trackers that are out there?

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The most basic trackers are glorified step counters (aka pedometers). Pedometers have been around for some time and can be found in pretty much any drugstore. A schmancy device in this category is the Fitbit Zip ($50), which syncs to an app on your phone, but you can spend as little as $15 for a clip-on device like the Omron HJ-320.

Some basic trackers can measure sleep quality too.

This includes the Misfit Flash ($20), Jawbone UP Move ($35), Fitbit One ($90), and Fitbit Flex ($80). These devices typically have integrated lights that can show you your progress, instead of a display that can show information like the time (except for the One, which has a small display).


The next tier are basic trackers with "smart" features for text and call alerts.

Fitbit's Alta ($130) and the Misfit Ray ($100) have vibration alerts for calls, texts, and alarms. You can also use the Ray to take selfies and control music.

More advanced fitness wearables have basic activity tracking and heart-rate monitoring.

The Jawbone UP3 ($93), Charge HR ($150), Garmin Vivosmart HR ($150), Basis Peak ($195), and the Adidas Fit Smart ($140).

Most smartwatches have fitness features built in.

The Moto 360 ($300), Apple Watch ($300 to $350 for sport model), Microsoft Band ($175), and Huawei Watch ($350) are devices with full-color touchscreen displays, heart-rate sensors, and activity tracking capabilities.

Finally, there are running watches with GPS tracking included.

These devices use satellites to track your routes, pace, distance, and elevation. The Fitbit Surge ($250), Garmin vivoactive HR GPS ($300) (waterproof! good for swimmers and triathletes!), Polar M400 ($158) are good for more serious athletes who are looking to track their mileage with a high degree of accuracy, without their phones.

Will they make me fit AF?

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The short answer is: It depends!

If you spend most of your day sitting down at a desk job or in school, eating a lot of takeout, and hardly ever work out, then challenging yourself to 10,000 steps a day (the standard goal for most trackers) could be a good way to make a difference!

But steps alone won't improve your overall, long-term fitness. You need to look at other aspects of your life too, like sleep, diet, and workout regimen. Most trackers measure sleep quality (living a healthy life means making sure you're getting enough rest) and have food-logging features in their apps. (Jawbone, Fitbit, and Basis all do.)

If your goal is to lose weight, you'll also need to look closely at what you're eating and the type of exercising you're doing. This means doing a lot of your own research, in addition to wearing the tracker and making sure you're hitting your step goals. Here's an amazing resource for everything you need to know about body fat.

If you're already active and want to get even fitter, you'll need to incorporate workouts that get your heart rate up and/or challenge your strength. Having a tracker won't guarantee that you'll meet your goal, but can be a good way to keep track of what kinds of exercises you're doing. Try these quick running workouts or these intense bodyweight exercises. Since many of those exercises aren't step-oriented, you'll probably want something with a heart-rate sensor.

Are activity trackers accurate?

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It’s a complicated question. Virtually none of them are FDA-approved, so they don’t have to be as accurate and precise as a medical device. What’s more, fitness trackers are constantly changing, usually faster than independent, peer-reviewed, scientific studies can evaluate them, and depending on where they’re worn on the body, some devices are better at measuring certain things than others.

Companies also don’t reveal the proprietary algorithms that measure your biometrics, and tend to provide limited access to the data they collect, making their products harder to scrutinize.

For the thing many people buy them for — to track their steps — Fitbit and Jawbone are generally reliable, according to a December review of a total of 22 studies inspecting Fitbit and Jawbone devices. In the Fitbit studies, subjects wore the Classic, Ultra, One, Zip, and Flex on different parts of their bodies, while people in the Jawbone studies wore UP and UP24 on their wrists. Fitbit and Jawbone devices were generally very accurate at counting steps, the studies reported overall.

However, many of those studies reported that they also underestimated caloric burn. And according to some studies, the devices tended to overestimate moderate to vigorous physical activity, the review authors wrote.

How good is Fitbit at measuring heart rate?

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Customers from California, Colorado, and Wisconsin filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that two of the newest devices — the Charge HR and the Surge — are inaccurate by “a significant margin,” especially during intense exercise, and don’t actually “count every beat” despite the company’s ads about heart-rate tracking. (Fitbit has said that it does not believe the case has merit and it stands by its heart-rate technology.)

But some doctors find the heart-rate monitoring reliable enough to make judgments in medical situations. And when Consumer Reports tested the Charge HR and Surge on two people on a treadmill, it found the heart-rate monitoring to be “very accurate” in almost all situations, compared with a chest strap with proven accuracy.

So the evidence is more mixed for heart-rate monitoring. If accuracy for this is really important to you — which may be the case if you’re a hardcore athlete — you should probably get a chest strap.

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What about other devices?

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Unfortunately, there are fewer studies about fitness trackers that are relatively new or less popular. In a small study published last year, 21 healthy adults went about living their normal lives for two days while wearing two research-grade devices plus seven consumer devices, including the Misfit Shine, Nike Fuelband (RIP), the Striiv Smart Pedometer, and the Withings Pulse.

After analyzing how all the devices measured step count, sleep time, and caloric burn, Australian researchers concluded that the Fitbit One, Fitbit Zip, and Pulse were the strongest performers.

What about the Basis Band? Another study tested it in a group of 60 men and women who wore it, plus seven other monitors, while working out for nearly 70 minutes. Sadly, the Basis Band had the largest error rate in terms of measuring caloric burn.

Can wrist trackers actually measure sleep quality?

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Roughly. In children and adults, Fitbit and Jawbone trackers generally overestimate how much time people spent actually asleep, and underestimated how often they woke up after falling asleep, according to the December review of nearly two dozen studies.

Granted, the trackers were usually tested over one or two nights, and “it may be that newer trackers will perform better if they ‘learn’ when the person is asleep, awake, or napping,” the review authors wrote.

Fitbit, for its part, notes that you can set your device in “sensitive” or “normal” mode when you hit the hay, depending on how detailed you want the data to be. Wearing your tracker consistently with the same setting should produce useful data, the company says.

Last year, Jawbone released the UP3 (which wasn’t included in the studies summarized by the review), which it claims is capable of tracking detailed data like REM cycles and deep sleep.

So what's the best fitness tracker?

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Stephanie: While the Apple Watch is expensive and has a few more bells and whistles than you'll probably ever use, I like it because it tracks my movements, shows me at any given time how much progress I've made so far that day, and easily syncs all the data with the iPhone Health app.

Nicole: I really like the Charge HR because it has a great battery life, and I like the Fitbit app more than other brands. It's almost one of the slimmest/most comfortable form factors for a tracker with a heart-rate monitor built in. To track GPS, I use my phone since I take it on runs and rides to listen to music anyway.

But ultimately, it's up to your personal needs!

Still have questions? Leave 'em in the comments.

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