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Fitness trackers

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Which fitness tracker can help you get fit?

We tested fitness trackers on how accurately they measure and whether they’re easy to use. We also assessed two smartwatches as fitness trackers to see if they do the job.

From our test

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The rise of wearables

Exercise and staying healthy were the priorities for 54% of New Zealanders who took part in a 2015 Microsoft survey.

When asked what technology tools they would use to help them achieve these goals, 50% chose a desktop computer or a laptop, followed by smartphone (42%), apps (35%), social networks (34%) and tablet devices (34%).

“Wearables” is a tech area that has taken off. Fitness trackers are especially popular. Essentially, they are hi-tech pedometers that measure more than just steps. They are designed to be worn all the time to measure daily activity. They link to a smartphone app or through your home computer to a tracking website. The more elaborate wearables can send alerts from your phone and even control your workout music.

What to look for

You can track steps, altitude, calories and heart rate. When used with a website or app, this information can be paired with a food diary and biometric data (weight, height etc) to set personal fitness and weight loss goals.

  • The step counter will measure steps, though accuracy will vary depending on what you input as your height, weight and, in some cases, pace length.

  • A distance counter measures distance based on steps, although some fitness bands have a GPS function, which measures distance more accurately.

  • The calorie counter converts the number of steps and heart rate, if available, into calories burned.

  • A sleep tracker claims to measure sleep quality, by tracking how restless you are while asleep. Virtually all of them require you to both wear the band and activate this feature prior to going to sleep.

  • An alarm can be useful, especially if it’s a buzzer on your wrist.

  • An altimeter is useful to measure the degree of effort made in exercise rather than just the distance.

  • Milestone alerts and reminders are an incentive to keep going. For example, you can be notified that you’ve passed 10,000 steps or reminded you aren’t on track to reach your calorie-burn target for the day. Milestones can be shared automatically on social media.

  • A heart-rate monitor is a useful barometer of effort and can be a way to measure your fitness regime more accurately. Only one fitness tracker we tested had this feature. It was measured from your wrist, but others have a connectable chest band as an optional extra.

Fitness trackers do have drawbacks. If exercising at the gym this may not be recorded as you are unlikely to be moving far. GPS is often recorded via a smartphone, so you may need to run with your phone (not easy if you own a huge smartphone). Runners, cyclists and anyone wanting to record performance in a particular activity would be better served by a dedicated sport tracker – a GPS-enabled running watch or cyclometer for example. Also, if you want to swim with one you’ll need to search for a waterproof version – many will hold up in the shower but not in a pool.

IP ratings

If you plan on taking your devices out and about with you, it’s important they can withstand the elements. Ingress Protection (IP) ratings indicate how resistant a device is to water and solids (dust/dirt).

IP ratings have two numbers. The first relates to solids, such as dust, and has a maximum rating of 6. The second relates to water and goes as high as 8. An X rating means it hasn’t been assessed for that type of protection.

Examples:

  • IP55 and IP65 – Protected from most dust and low-pressure sprayed water
  • IP67 – Dustproof and resistant to water up to a metre in depth
  • IPX7 – Hasn’t been tested on dust particles, but is resistant to water up to a metre in depth.

See here for more on IP ratings and the different levels of protection.

The tyranny of 10,000

Whichever fitness device you choose for your wrist there’s a good chance it’ll tell you to try and reach 10,000 steps per day.

Much like the mythical seven glasses of water, this is a guesstimate and not really based on any hard science. In America, the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of “moderate activity” per week, roughly 7-8000 steps per day.

This is not to say that aiming for 10,000 steps is a bad idea, but one that you should work towards, especially if you’re just starting out. Trying to increase your step count 1,000 steps per day until you get to 10,000 is much more reasonable for many people trying to get back into exercise.

Also remember that the tracker is on your wrist not your ankle, so hand movements can register as steps.

Reliability survey

Apple was streets ahead in wearables reliability, with just 3% of its products needing repair or replacement.

79% of Apple owners were very satisfied and 83% would buy the brand again. Just 54% thought the product was excellent value for money though.

Fitbit recorded the worst reliability for wearables, the only brand below average with more than a quarter (27%) of products needing repair or replacement. As a result, we no longer recommend any Fitbits.

  • Above-average: Apple, Samsung, Garmin
  • Average: TomTom
  • Below-average: Fitbit

Total number surveyed: 1280

For more on wearables reliability, see our survey.

Should you buy one?

Tech writer Hadyn Green weighs in.

Fitness trackers sit in an odd space behind fully-fledged smartwatches. On the one hand (see what I did there?) they’re a device designed to track some simple metrics about you. On the other, they’re another device to carry, connect to your phone and charge every few days.

This distinction is subjective. But if you really want these bands to be useful and not just an ugly reminder you haven’t walked 10,000 steps for the fourth day in a row, you need to use the data they provide.

A lot of sites will give you graphs of your progress over time (steps each day, for example). But essentially it’s about hitting targets each day rather than improvement. It’s hard to generate a graph of, say, steps per day versus heart rate. Because of this it’s harder to see improvements your exercise is making. It’s difficult to do things like put steps and floors climbed on the same chart. Maybe you walked the same number of steps on two days but on the first day it was all flat and on the second it was all uphill.

Being able to download your data (as a spreadsheet) is the only way to get to the nitty gritty of how you’re performing. Garmin’s Connect offers this free, while to get data from Fitbit costs either $80 per year or a hefty amount of coding.

This begs the question, whose data is it? When the data about my day is collected, via the device I bought, to the website I joined, when did I hand over ownership? Probably somewhere in that lengthy, unread, terms of service document.

I see more of a future in smartwatches than in fitness trackers. However, smart watches (like the latest releases from Apple and Google) aren’t exactly rugged in their designs. So fitness trackers might become a “sometimes” gadget, something you only wear on runs or during workouts.

It may sound old fashioned, but I’m happy using my old analogue watch. I haven’t needed to change the battery since 2010 and I don’t need to update it every couple of years. Of course you may be someone who has freed their wrists from the shackles of all devices, in which case, more freedom to you.

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