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.
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test fitness trackers.
Why do I want a fitness tracker?
Fitness trackers, or bands, are typically a device that fits around the wrist like a watch and measures your steps – it's the one thing they all have in common. Measuring your steps shows you how much daily activity you are doing every day. The more activity, the better health outcomes according to research done by the George Institute released in November 2015.
But fitness trackers do a whole lot more than track your movement. They also offer features such as sleep tracking, calorie input and output, smartphone connection and other gee-whiz features to entice you into paying a premium for them.
All the models in our fitness tracker and smartphone reviews connect to your smartphone or sync directly to your computer, the former option being the easiest to use. And the features you'll find them loaded with at the moment are described below. If you don't want to lug around your smartphone every time you go for a walk/run, etc, that's no problem either, as most of them store data on your activity and only need to connect periodically with your phone.
Smartwatch versus fitness bands
We're starting to see more smartwatches that add fitness tracker features on top of standard functions (time, date, digital payments and so on). They also support custom interfaces, notifications, voice commands and even the ability to answer calls and send texts in some cases. Most give you the freedom to install third-party fitness programs if you're looking for an alternative to the default option, and interact with apps on your smartphone at the same time.
Does that make smartwatches a better option? It depends on the demands of the user. Just because there are loads of features that don't relate to fitness, doesn't mean you're going to use them, and the simplicity of many fitness bands is actually a strong argument in their favour, depending on your needs. You're also far less likely to wear a fitness tracking device that's uncomfortable, and bands are typically smaller and lighter than their smartwatch counterparts (although not always), which are easier to wear for long periods.
The number of smartwatch-cum-fitness bands is likely to increase down the line, with the recent launch of Android Wear 2.0, which expands fitness-tracking capabilities, adds more pre-made workout routines and improves integration with the Google Fit app. However, they almost always command a much higher asking price.
Fashionable bands and kids' fitness
There's also a growing segment focused on 'style', which wants to make fitness bands look like fashionable jewellery. Many of these are faceless, and filter most, if not all, of the relevant fitness information through accompanying smartphone apps. These aren't inherently worse, but they do lack the convenience of models with buttons or touchscreens.
Kids fitness bands are becoming popular too, which seems like a gross marketing exercise/extreme example of helicopter parenting. Data and progress tracking, as well as goal-oriented workouts, deliver engaging results quickly, which makes the activity feel fun, engaging and achievable, and can be powerful motivators for kids.
However, it's important to be aware of their potential impact on mental wellbeing. Obsession with exercise and body image can lead to poor self-esteem, emotional distress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders, and the raw data pumped out by fitness trackers can exacerbate these issues. This is problematic when data is shared among friends or family as a competitive tool.
Finding the right fit
There are a few tricks available when it comes to finding the fitness tracker for you. Make sure the rigid parts of the band's face are not wider than the thickness of your wrist. Devices like the Microsoft Band 2 have electronics housed in the rubber arms of its band. Instead of the arms moulding to the contours of your wrist, they remain rigid. Buy the wrong size and it's unlikely you'll find the band comfortable.
Heart monitors are usually tucked onto the bottom of a fitness tracker. Some bulge outwards to press against the skin, such as the original Apple Watch and the Garmin Vivosmart HR, but this design can grow tiresome and will prompt you to take them off for a brief break, during which you'll notice an imprint of the heart sensor marked into your skin.
Features to look for
- The step counter will measure 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.
- A distance counter 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.
- The calorie counter 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 such as MyFitnessPal that you can utilise for automatic conversion through your smartphone.
- Waterproof claims 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.
- OS versatility can range from only working on Apple or on certain versions of Android, so check closely to see whether your phone matches the fitness band's requirements. Some (cough, Samsung, cough) will only work with specific brands of smartphones.
- A sleep tracker claims to be able to measure when you're active in your sleep, i.e. not getting a particularly good rest. Virtually all of them require you to both wear the band and activate this feature before going to sleep, so you'll need a little extra discipline if you want to get some vital data out of this information.
- An alarm can be a useful thing, 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.
- The altimeter feature will be useful 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.
- Milestones act 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.
- Some fitness bands have a heart rate monitor, a useful barometer of effort for some people that can act as a way to measure your fitness regime more precisely. Some will offer them as an optional extra.
- Several of the bands come with a session tracker, which 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.
- A 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.
- Social media sharing is 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.
- Battery life 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 capacity is also an important element. 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.
Many fitness trackers have a way to be social through avenues such as Facebook and Twitter. Depending on your coterie of friends, you may lose a few connections if you bombard them with milestones achieved while wearing your fitness tracker, or you could be surprised by the community support that rallies behind your achievements. Some activity trackers actually have internal community groups connected to the application that you can join, and you can locate them via country or email – depending on how much privacy you want to sacrifice.
A number of Android-based fitness bands and smartwatches support alternative, third-party fitness apps such as Runkeeper, SporT tracker and Zombies, Run which is very popular. It uses an audio-book Walking Dead-like narrative about surviving the zombie apocalypse to encourage you to run, by unlocking additional chapters as you exercise. Your workout is tracked and integrated into the app, which uses unique tools to keep you moving if you start to slack off. Every now and then a groaning mass will suddenly bear down (through your headphones), leaving you with two options: 1) stay put and become a meal, or 2) run. It's a simple idea, but one that effectively takes your mind off the monotony of exercise.
Calories vs kilojoules
What's the deal? All of these fitness apps use calories as a unit of energy measurement rather than the metric kilojoules, even when you've set the bands to metric. This is poor form, and probably due to the fact that the American market is so much larger than Australia that it's not worth it for each company to add this into their design. Luckily some of the third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal, which some fitness bands can link to, can convert to kJ easily. Otherwise you'll be stuck with mentally converting 1 calorie to 4.2 kilojoules when you start comparing nutrition labels.
Models in our latest fitness tracker and smartwatch reviews range in price from $30 to $599.