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How to buy the best fitness tracker

Our handy guide to fitness bands, smartwatches, key features, design and more.

fitness trackers

Wearables have come and gone over the years, but fitness trackers have resonated with Australians. Having a wristband track your daily activity was the stuff of science fiction only three years ago. Today more than two million Aussies don a fitness tracker, and according to telecommunications consultancy Telsyte, a third of the population could be wearing one within the next four years.

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Do fitness trackers increase physical activity?

Fitness trackers can be an important part of your fitness routine, but they won't suddenly start working out more as soon as you put one on. The onus is still on you to get off the couch and actually do the work. That said, a fitness tracker can motivate you to exercise more often.

Most let you set goals and track your progress over weeks or months at a time, with feedback on your general health improvements. Fitness goals like "run for 20 minutes each day" give you something to aim for, and these are much more motivating than an arbitrary plan to "get fit."

Similarly, an activity log that shows how far you've come can really keep you going, especially if you're feeling a bit flat about your fitness progress. Though we can notice changes to our physiques, fitness trackers cab show improvements happening under the skin such as a decreasing heart rate or general cardio benefits.

Also, never underestimate the power of a guilt trip. Some bands will remind you to exercise if they haven't detected any activity that day, though this is usually an optional feature that can be turned off.

What does a fitness tracker do?

Fitness trackers, bands and a number of smartwatches, offer a large range of fitness logging functions depending on the model. They all count steps or distanced travelled and save that information in an accompanying app. This data is presented in graphs so you can track your activity progress.

More expensive models have features such as sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring (active and resting), calorie input logs and even support for some smartphone apps like Spotify. Meanwhile, the accompanying apps can get quite granular, with the ability to track different types of exercise including swimming, rowing and even weight lifting. Some even let you track your food intake.

The idea is that you have a constantly updating log of your activities whether that's a simple morning walk, or a full blow fitness regime. A fitness tracker won't make you exercise more, but it can motivate you to stick with your workout particularly when the data starts to show positive improvements.

Should I buy a fitness tracker or smartwatch?

Most smartwatches have some fitness tracking tools these days and their performance often rivals the best bands in our tests. Plus, they also offer a lot of smartphone features too including texting, making digital payments and calendar alerts.

They're essentially a mini smartphone for your wrist so you can review some data and control some apps, such as music streaming, without having to pull your phone out. Some also support third party fitness apps as an alternative to the default one.

However, they tend to be bigger, bulkier and a lot more expensive. The added features and large, vibrant screen can also decrease battery life and they can be pretty hard to navigate.

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Some smartwatches have fitness tracking tools. Other fitness trackers use a smartwatch design.

What are the types of fitness trackers?

Fitness trackers fall into two broad camps – fitness trackers and smartwatches with fitness features. Early fitness trackers were usually a band with a small screen that displayed basic information and while this design is still around, a couple of others have emerged.

Some companies make smartwatch-style fitness bands. These look like a smartwatch, with a square or circular face, but they only have fitness tracking tools. The larger screens can be a convenient alternative to the band, as they can display more information for quick reference and they're easier to interact with.

Hybrids hide smartwatch features under an analogue watch face with either a small screen that displays very basic information (e.g. step count) or no screen at all. They usually filter most, if not all, of the relevant fitness information through accompanying smartphone apps making them far less convenient to use during a workout.

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Withings' Steel HR blends digital fitness tracking behind an analogue face.

These, and other bands/watches, are often marketed as "fashionable fitness bands." They look like traditional watches or jewelry so you can track your health and exercise while looking stylish, so to speak. These aren't inherently worse, but they do lack the convenience of models with buttons or touchscreens.

Can fitness trackers accurately measure my heart rate?

Almost all fitness trackers come with a heart rate monitor that can measure active and resting beats per minute. Most will graph this info in their smartphone app so you can monitor your heart rate over time.

Active heart rate monitors need to be accurate as certain types of exercise, such as cardio or weight loss, benefit from specific heart rate zones. These zones are in a ten percent range which means inaccuracies readings above five percent aren't acceptable. Not only can an inaccurate reading reduce the effectiveness of your workout, it can also be demotivating.

The good news is there are plenty of fitness trackers and smartwatches out there than do an excellent job at measuring your heart rate. However, there are also plenty that don't deliver the right data. That's why heart rate measurements are a part of our test. You can see which fitness trackers are the best in our comparison table or read a detailed explanation about the science and test results at the link below.

Can fitness trackers measure blood pressure?

Though there are some fitness trackers that claim to measure blood pressure, we don't gather this information in our test as they're not very common in Australia. Even so, an accurate blood pressure reading can be very important for some people, and everyone's results will be different.

It seems unlikely that a jack of all trades fitness band will do the same job as proper medical equipment. So, we suggest speaking to your doctor to determine which equipment best matches your needs.

Can fitness trackers help me sleep?

A good night's sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, which is why many of the more recent fitness trackers and smartwatches include sleep tracking tools. These won't help you sleep, but they can provide you with important data that you can use to improve sleep.

Information about your sleep cycles, restlessness at night and resting heart rate can show whether you're a healthy sleeper or not. Many fitness trackers and their apps will take the data and either show you how your sleep is improving your health, or give you tips on how to improve sleep. But the onus is on you to relate this advice to your lifestyle and put it into action.

These are rarely user specific and should only be treated as a guide. The good thing about sleep trackers though is you can take your data to your doctor for better advice.

Do all fitness trackers need a smartphone?

Fitness trackers need to be linked to an external device with the associated app installed and that's almost always a smartphone. You may be able to substitute your phone for a laptop or tablet, depending on the brand and available software.

Why is this? Fitness trackers gather all kinds of data during a workout which is moved (aka "dumped") to your phone, laptop etc. Most bands will do this every minute or so if the phone is nearby, but you can also dump all the data in one go when you get back from a run, for example.

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Your exercise data is much easier to read on an app than the band or smartwatch.

You may find some bands or watches that don't need to dump data, but instead offer it as an additional function. But the information that they can display is usually very limited compared to what the app can do, so its always worth connecting them.

It's much easier to review detailed fitness data on a phone compared to a small screen. Some bands also only provide basic information or none at all, which is why the smartphone is essential. It's also used to create an account and things like that.

Also, some fitness trackers give you the option to control apps on the phone if it's connected and nearby. For example, if you're jogging along and feel like listening to a particular song, you can flick through your playlists on the band/watch rather than having to get your phone out.

How to connect a fitness tracker to a phone

Fitness bands and smartwatches connect to your phone via Bluetooth. If you're having trouble connecting, make sure the band/watch and your phone are in Bluetooth scanning mode, then look for it in the list of available devices in your smartphone's settings. It should automatically connect after that once detected, but you can do it manually in the same device list too.

Some also require location settings, so turn those on before you set it up. Also, connect to a Wi-Fi network if you're setting up a fitness band for the first time, as you'll need to download an app/software and possibly some firmware updates as well.

Are fitness tracker subscriptions worth it?

Apple and FitBit offer paid subscription services called Apple Fitness+ and FitBit Premium. Subscribers get access to video workouts from professional trainers (updated weekly) as well as content and guidance tailored to your lifestyle and exercise regime.

FitBit Premium, for example, can provide personalised, pre-recorded workout routines that are much more nuanced than the free, default app, called guided programs. It also provides deeper insights into your fitness data, dieting tools and a digital personal trainer. Each service costs $14.99 per month but they also offer significant discounts if you sign up for a year.

Using different fitness apps

A number of Android-based fitness bands and smartwatches support alternative, third-party fitness apps such as Runkeeper and SporT tracker. Similarly, some Android bands are compatible with Google Fit on your smartphone. The Apple Watch supports a few third-party fitness apps, but the range isn't quite as extensive.

"Zombies, Run" is a very popular example, which uses an audio-book Walking Dead-like narrative about surviving the zombie apocalypse to encourage you to run. The more you exercise the more chapters you unlock and it motivates you to keep moving by playing zombie sounds if you slow down. Stop entirely, and you become a meal.

If you want to give Google Fit a try, follow these steps on your Android device. There, you'll find out whether your fitness tracker works with Google Fit.

Other important features to look for

Alarm

Quite useful, especially if it's a silent alarm that just buzzes on your wrist to wake you up without waking up anyone next to you. They can also be useful for runs and other situations.

Altimeter

Great for those who want to measure stairs, or height changes. This can also be worthwhile from a running or walking perspective, to measure the degree of effort made in exercise rather than just the distance, without having to go back and adapt your routine via your smartphone or the band's webpage.

Battery life

This can be an important consideration, and most claim a few days at least, with others clocking it at over a year, while needing user-replaceable batteries. Most have rechargeable batteries, which can be powered up via USB.

Bluetooth

A key feature, if your smartphone doesn't have at least the base Bluetooth version required by the band, you may end up missing out on some of its features. Bluetooth 4 is the most recent, widespread version which introduced low energy consumption to improve battery life. 4.1 added a number of small changes, including the ability to support multiple simultaneous tasks using one signal. 4.2 introduced support for internet of things (broader connectivity options).

Fitness bands and fitness features on smartwatches don't really require features beyond the 4.0 release. "Smart" Bluetooth is more or less the same as 4.0. Some brands do not specify the version used.

Calorie counter

This will usually show you how steps taken convert into calories lost. It generally measures in calories rather than kilojoules, which can make it difficult if you're doing some on-the-fly grocery shopping, but there are some third-party apps that you can utilise for automatic conversion through your smartphone.

Distance counter

This can be adapted for metric or imperial, and generally measures distance based on your steps. Some of the newer fitness bands do have a GPS function though, which can utilise this technology for more accurate distance measurement.

Food tracker

Built into the smartphone app used by the fitness band means you can log your intake of food throughout the day as well. If you have the discipline to maintain this routine, you might find it useful to track the number of calories you're taking in versus those you're using up. Native food trackers tend to be US-centric though, so it would be worth looking around at their third-party apps.

Milestones

Acts as rewards and are an incentive to keep going when you get a notification that you've passed 10,000 steps, or that another milestone over the life of wearing the fitness band has passed. They can also queue into social interactions automatically, if you're interested in that facet.

Session tracker

This means you can trigger an activity or event such as a run or a cycle and note it as such via the tracker, rather than having to do it later by logging it manually. This means it can more accurately assess the number of calories you've used in this period.

Social media sharing

An important feature for some, as it can act as an incentive to let your friends or colleagues know that you've passed some milestone. It can also add a competitive element for some that acts as an extra incentive. The myriad social media outlets means that no fitness band covers them all, but is instead dedicated to a few, apart from some devices that have none at all.

Step counter

This measures your steps, though accuracy will vary depending on what you put in as your height, weight and, in some cases, pace length, plus the technology used in the device.

Waterproof claims

These vary between models. Any that do claim this feature usually have the specifications on their website, but they range from splash-proof to swimming to 50m depth.

How much do fitness trackers cost?

The fitness trackers and smartwatches in our test range from about $39 up to nearly $700. Smartwatches usually cost more than fitness trackers.