Fitness trackers and smart watches can improve your overall health
Long hours spent sitting at
a desk can make getting enough exercise challenging. Enter the fitness tracker:
a small wearable device that records every movement -- and can even remind you
to walk around after you've been sitting too long. While these devices count
steps and tally distances, many also track other activities such as bicycling,
climbing stairs or swimming. Many even estimate how many calories you've burned,
take your heart rate and record how long -- and how well -- you sleep. A key
feature of fitness trackers is that they can upload this data to your computer,
tablet or smartphone, where you can see your overall activity and chart
progress toward fitness goals.
Smart watches have many of
the same abilities, but there are some differences. They're a little more
design-forward with customizable bands and displays, whereas many fitness
trackers are more utilitarian -- think smaller (or nonexistent) displays and
sweat-proof rubber wristbands. Second, smart watches trade some
fitness-specific features for those that focus on general productivity -- for
instance, the ability to download third-party apps, read texts and emails,
check the weather and even pay for your lunch. Finally, smart watches are much
pricier, ranging from roughly $100 to $1,000, compared to around $25 to $250
for fitness trackers.
Whether you want a fitness
tracker or a smart watch, consider the type of activity you commonly do, what
data you want to track and whether the tracker or watch is compatible with your
computer or smartphone. Don't forget to think about comfort and design, since
both devices are intended for near-constant wear. And if you're looking for
other equipment to help you lead a more healthful lifestyle, be sure to check
out our reports on heart rate monitors and treadmills, as well as
our report on running shoes.
The best fitness trackers
you want to casually count your steps or track intense workouts with in-depth
data, there's a fitness tracker that can do it. Some clip on to your clothes;
others are wristbands. Nearly all are sweat-proof and sync with your phone to
let you see your activity levels, adjust your goals and even compete against
friends. A few high-end trackers even include limited smart-watch functions
such as text and email notifications.
Fitbit, one of the top names
in fitness trackers, consistently lands at or near the top of most expert roundups.
Among its trackers, the (Est. $80) receives the best feedback from
users, who praise its accuracy and user-friendly design. The One is a small
clip-on capsule with an OLED display that provides instant feedback on your
daily step count, calories burned and overall activity level. While most users
like being able to discreetly attach the One to a belt or bra, some warn that
it's easier to lose or send through the washer than a wrist-based tracker. However,
most say that it's very water-resistant and suffered no ill-effects from going
through the laundry cycle. Still, some say it doesn't survive its watery
adventure. The One is also sweat-resistant, but you can't swim with it.
The Fitbit One can track
walking, running and stairs climbed. The extensive website and app support
allow you to input other activities as well -- virtually any active moment can
be charted, users say. Accuracy gets good feedback, especially since the unit
doesn't depend on arm movement to record steps. To track the quality of your
sleep, you can slip the One into an included wristband; there's also a
vibrating alarm to wake you discreetly without disturbing your partner. The
One's sleep tracking isn't as highly rated as with some other trackers, but
users love it, with many saying they've learned more about their sleep patterns
from the One than from professional sleep studies.
Where Fitbit really shines
is its thorough, easy-to-use app. Fitbit trackers sync via Bluetooth to your
smartphone, or to your computer using a wireless dongle. Stats update
continuously and automatically, so you don't have to think about the process. The
One is also compatible with the (Est. $110) (which we review in our separate report on bathroom scales),
and linking a Fitbit with the scale offers an extra tool for managing weight
loss. Fitbit trackers are also compatible with free fitness apps such as MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople and MapMyFitness, to name just a few. Battery life is
an impressive 10 to 14 days, and charging takes about an hour with the included
USB charging cable.
If you would prefer a
wrist-based Fitbit, be sure to look at two of the company's more recent
trackers, the (Est. $130) and the (Est. $180). Both add a few more features over the One,
including heart-rate tracking, automatic exercise recognition and caller ID
when paired with your phone. The Blaze also provides text notifications and
music control. Both trackers get good expert feedback, but users seem more
pleased with the accuracy, simplicity and value of the Fitbit One.
While Fitbits dominate the
fitness tracker market, they aren't the only game in town. The (Est. $145) is a well-regarded
wrist-based tracker that adds several features the Fitbit One lacks, including
heart-rate tracking and smartphone notifications. Users appreciate the
watch-buckle clasp that keeps the tracker from slipping off, and they say it's
lightweight enough to forget you're even wearing it. Anyone concerned about
design may find the band a bit bulky and utilitarian, however. As Wareable.com's
James Stables notes, the look "is not exactly couture."
The Vivosmart HR tracks steps, distance,
calories, floors climbed, exercise intensity and sleep. Runners or anyone else
who wants built-in GPS will need to upgrade to the (Est. $220). Brian Eastwood of TomsGuide.com says the Vivosmart HR
is "surprisingly accurate" as a pedometer, though some other activities such as
tooth-brushing may register as steps. Feedback is more mixed for heart-rate
monitoring, with some reviewers saying readings are inaccurate during more
intense activity. (To be fair, this is a criticism levied at most wrist-based
monitors.) Sleep tracking gets mostly good feedback, but some users are
disappointed that there's little detail beyond whether you're in light or deep
The Vivosmart HR offers a few more perks that set it apart from the Fitbit One
and the similar Fitbit Charge HR: Smartphone notifications beyond caller ID,
including text, email and calendar alerts; music playback control; and 5 ATM
water resistance, meaning you can swim with it. Battery life is about five
days. Unfortunately, experts say the Garmin Connect app simply isn't as easy to
use as the Fitbit app. Amy Roberts with TheSweethome.com calls it "overly
complicated," requiring users to swipe between too many screens to see vital
data. She also notes that Fitbit's app does a better job of connecting casual
exercises than Garmin, which may be a consideration for anyone who wants a lot
of virtual motivation from friends.
Cheap fitness trackers
Inexpensive fitness trackers share
the rugged design of their pricier counterparts, and most still record
essential data such as steps, calories and distance. Where they differ is
features: Cheaper models omit heart-rate monitors; large, vivid displays; and
exercise-specific modes that allow more detailed tracking. Fortunately, their
simpler design often means better battery life.
If you want a cheap fitness tracker
that still offers a good range of features, reviewers say the (Est. $50) is among your top choices. This wrist-based unit won't win beauty contests, and
the plastic "kind of reminds us of the kind used on cheap ‘80s sports watches,"
says James Trew of Engadget.com. The Vivofit relies on pegs that pop through
corresponding holes rather than a watch-like clasp, and reviewers say it
doesn't always stay on.
The Vivofit fares better when it
comes to tracking. You'll be able to track steps, calories, distance, and
sleep; the Vivofit can also be paired with a chest-strap heart-rate monitor. Trew
says it's particularly good for tracking accurate distances, and most users say
they're happy with step-count accuracy, though there are the usual qualms about
arm movements registering as steps. Most users like the sleep mode, though they
wish it were automatic -- they have to tell the Vivofit when they're going to
bed and when they wake up.
Battery life is one of the
Vivofit's strong suits. Its two replaceable coin-style batteries last for up to
a year. Owners also like the one-button controls, and the fact that the Vivofit
is water-resistant enough to swim or shower with, but they wish the display had
a backlight. The Vivofit's corresponding Garmin Connect app gets mixed reviews,
especially compared to the Fitbit app, but most users say they find it easy
enough to navigate.
If you prefer a smaller, simpler
fitness tracker that can be worn anywhere on the body, the (Est. $50) is a longtime favorite. This tiny tracker comes with a
silicone sleeve that users can clip on anywhere, including on waistbands or bras.
Because it's easy to keep out of sight, design is less of a consideration here
-- just be sure not to lose it or wash it, which is the main concern with
The Zip tracks steps, distance,
calories and active minutes. Unlike the Garmin Vivofit, it does not track
sleep. Its step-counting feature fares well in experts' accuracy tests, and
users seem mostly satisfied as well. Anecdotally, experts say clip-on trackers
may be more accurate than wrist-based trackers because they aren't solely
relying on arm movements to track steps. That may mean a tracker like the Zip
(or its more expensive counterpart, the Fitbit One) is a better choice for
parents pushing strollers, shoppers with carts or anyone who may not be able to
fully swing their arms while walking.
The Zip's replaceable coin-style
battery lasts for up to 6 months. Users like the LCD display, which they simply
tap to cycle through time, steps, distance and calories burned, but there is no
backlight. The Zip is sweat-proof, but unlike the Vivofit, it is not waterproof
and cannot be worn while swimming. Fitbit's app gets perennially strong reviews
for ease of use and its large base of active users, who can motivate one
another with a range of challenges.
Anyone who simply wants to track
steps without worrying about syncing data to their phones will get by just fine
with a traditional pedometer. Reviewers say the Omron HJ-325 Alvita Ultimate Pedometer (Est. $22) is
one of the best, reliably counting steps without other unneeded features. Like
most traditional pedometers, the HJ-325 does not connect wirelessly to
smartphones or computers. Several reviewers actually prefer this, saying they
like the simplicity of keeping things separate. The device can be clipped on
your pocket or looped around the wrist with an included lanyard, and reviewers
say it's small enough to be unobtrusive no matter how it's worn.
The HJ-325 tracks steps, distance
and calories burned. Most reviewers are pleased with accuracy, though some say
it's not as reliable as its predecessor, the still-available but much pricier (Est. $80). The HJ-325 easy to
use, most owners say, with large buttons, a clear display and a counter that
resets automatically at midnight. It has a seven-day memory. The battery
compartment can be unlocked without any tools, and users are happy with battery
life, which the manufacturer says should be at least six months.
The best smart watches
Smart watches are for casual
exercises who want their wearable tech to do a little more multitasking and a
little less fitness tracking. That means you'll get things like notifications
when you get a new email, call or text; access to specially designed smart-watch
apps that are streamlined versions of the ones you use on your phone; and
sleeker, more customizable designs. On the flip side, you'll give up more
detailed fitness data and the longer battery life that dedicated fitness
Like all smart watches, the (Est. $350) is more than a fitness tracker -- paired with your iPhone, you
can answer calls, receive text and email notifications, and even pay for your
lunch with it -- but reviewers say it's also a good choice for any Apple
enthusiast who leads an active lifestyle. It's easier on the eyes than most
fitness trackers, with a sleek, round-edged anodized aluminum case available in
four finishes. Buyers can also choose from two watch-face sizes, two band
materials and more than a dozen band colors.
The Apple Watch activity app prods
users to meet three main goals: Stand more, move more, and exercise more. It
also tracks steps, distance and calories. A separate workout app tracks data,
including heart rate while users are running, biking, walking, rowing and doing
other specific activities, but some reviewers complain the information they get
simply isn't detailed enough. For that reason, some use third-party fitness apps
made for Apple Watch such as MapMyRun -- doing so, however, requires users to
carry their iPhone. Sleep tracking is not built in, but third-party apps can do
One of reviewers' major complaints about
the Apple Watch is battery life. It has to be recharged nightly, and the
charger is different from the one used for iPhones and iPads. The vibrant
retina display gets much better feedback, and most users say the touch screen
is intuitive and responsive. Like Fitbits, the Apple Watch is sweat-resistant
but not waterproof, so it's not for the dedicated swimmer.
If you don't have an iPhone, don't
despair: the (Est. $300) is a capable
smart watch for active users that's compatible with Androids. It also has a
full range of non-fitness features, including text and email notifications, and
is compatible with Google Play apps including Amazon and Spotify. Motorola's
online Moto Maker makes the watch almost endlessly customizable, and the
classic styling may appeal to those who want a smart watch that actually looks
like a watch.
The Moto 360's built-in fitness app,
Moto Body, tracks steps, distance and calories. Like the Apple Watch, it can
remind users to get moving and has a built-in heart-rate monitor, and a
separate Moto Running app focuses on running stats. Also like the Apple Watch,
there is no built-in GPS, but anyone who wants that feature can opt for the (Est. $200), which comes with a silicone band and a
non-LCD display. Still, reviewers caution that neither model is ideal for swimming,
cycling or other non-steps-based activities.
Battery life on the Moto 360 is slightly
better than the Apple Watch at up to a day and a half, but it still lags far
behind most fitness trackers. Reviewers say the backlit LCD display is colorful
and vibrant, but some complain that the display isn't a full circle and has a
"flat tire" effect at the bottom. The touchscreen gets good marks for ease of
use and responsiveness. Like the Apple Watch, the Moto 360 is sweat-resistant
but not waterproof.
Smart watches usually aren't as easy on the
budget as fitness trackers, but the (Est. $100) bucks that trend. Compatible
with both iPhones and Androids, it offers the usual text and email alerts, a calendar
timeline, and the ability to add Pebble apps that let you order a pizza or call
an Uber, among other things. It has a steel bezel, plastic body and a silicone
band that is available in black, white, and red; the upgraded (Est. $179) has a steel body and a leather strap.
Pebble Time's Pebble Health app tracks
steps, distance, active minutes and sleep, and it automatically adjusts goals
based on your previous activity. It also imports that data into Apple Health or
Google Fit if you want to view it on your phone. Accuracy impresses Wareable.com's
Sophie Charara, but she warns this isn't a device for in-depth workout
tracking. One reason is that the Time lacks a heart-rate monitor, though this
feature is slated for the next version of the watch. Pebble is compatible with
third-party fitness apps such as RunKeeper, Jawbone UP or Misfit, but the
selection isn't as extensive as it is for the Apple Watch or Moto 360.
While the battery on a typical smart watch won't
last much more than a day, the Pebble Time's lasts up to a week, besting even
some popular fitness trackers like the Garmin Vivofit HR. It's also water-resistant
up to 30 meters compared with the merely sweat-resistant Apple Watch and Moto
360, so you can swim or shower with it. Users like that the color e-paper
display is always on and easy to see in direct sunlight, but note that it's not
as detailed or vivid as an LCD screen. The Time also lacks touchscreen controls,
but many owners say its buttons are easier to use, especially on a device with
a small display.
Expert & User Review Sources
There is no shortage of
expert opinions on fitness trackers and smart watches. The best, from sources
including ConsumerReports.com, TheSweethome.com, OutdoorGearLab.com,
methodically test each device using the same methods and give head-to-head
comparisons. Also helpful are in-depth roundups and reviews from tech-savvy
sources including CNET.com, Wareable.com, TomsGuide.com, Techlicious.com, Gizmodo.com, Engadget.com, AndroidCentral.com and TechRadar.com.
We also examined user reviews from sources including Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and DicksSportingGoods.com for a fuller picture of real-world use.