8 Things to Consider Before Purchasing a Fitness Tracker
Last Updated: May 14, 2015
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Next time you’re in a crowded place -- a restaurant or mall, for example -- take a look around. You’ll see something you wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago: fitness trackers. They might look like watches, but they aren’t telling the time (well, they might be, but that’s not their primary function); they’re telling people how fit they are. From counting steps and calories to measuring caffeine intake and sleep quality, fitness trackers -- sometimes called activity trackers or monitors -- are becoming more and more popular. Sometimes you can’t even see them because they’re clipped on in inconspicuous places, such as a bra strap or the waistband of someone’s jeans, but they’re there. Don’t have one yet? Perhaps you should consider it. For a relatively low cost, fitness trackers offer motivation to kick-start and stick with a fitness plan, hold you accountable for maintaining healthy habits and help you lose weight. Still, there are a few drawbacks to consider before making a purchase, so keep reading to learn more.
You probably don’t notice just how much time you spend sitting every day, but it plays an important role in your health and even your life expectancy. According to a 2013 analysis published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, there’s a direct correlation between the length of time spent sitting and risk of death from all causes. But it’s easy to forget to get up and walk around when you’re trying to meet a deadline at work or engrossed in your favorite TV show. Slap a fitness tracker on your wrist, however, and it’ll alert you when you’ve been sitting too long. When the alarm goes off, it’s time to get up, take a 10-minute walk around the office or around the block, and then come back to whatever you were doing.
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WEARABILITY AND STYLE
Fitness trackers only work if you wear them. If it’s not comfortable or attractive to wear, you might be inclined to leave it at home, especially if you’re going to work or out on the town. “These devices tend to be designed by men, and they look ugly on women,” says Jill Duffy, contributing editor at PCMag.com. Duffy explains that this is especially true for the wrist-based devices, which tend to lack style and are usually sized inappropriately for petite women’s wrists. “To anybody who cares very much about style, I would say look for something that has a clip-on option, because then you can wear it on the front of your bra strap or even in your pocket.” Just be careful to remove clip-on trackers before putting your clothing in the wash, warns Duffy.
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Weight loss is about remaining in a calorie deficit, burning more calories each day than you take in. But the old way of tracking your calories -- reading package labels and estimating calories burned during exercise can be arduous and inaccurate. Even the most basic fitness trackers can estimate your calorie burn based on data you’ve input about your weight, height, sex and age, and models with built-in heart rate monitors are even more accurate. Activity trackers can also track your food intake. Most of them use a mobile app or desktop interface to do so, but Livestrong.com’s Apple Watch app can track your food from your wrist, your phone or your computer. You can even use a bar-code scanner on your smartphone to import calorie data. All that data goes into your fitness tracker so you can easily see how many calories you can eat for the rest of the day (or how many you need to burn off), ensuring that you’re always balancing the weight-loss equation correctly and taking a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
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You stare at a computer screen all day, only ungluing your eyeballs to sift through text messages and social-networking updates on your smartphone. Having yet another gadget to navigate can cause some people to shove their gently used fitness tracker in the junk drawer after a couple of months. That’s not a big deal if you’ve only invested $50, but if you’ve shelled out $150 or more, that’s another story. “I always tell people to try not to be a slave to the data, because you can be almost too obsessive about the data and rely too much on the data,” says Keith McDonald, senior sales manager at Polar. But you don’t have to look at your fitness tracker every hour of every day or even every day. Fitness-tech expert Jill Duffy recommends using it to get a sense of the bigger picture when device fatigue sets in. “A lot of what the value is in having one is seeing what are your trends over time,” she says.
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COMMUNITY SUPPORT AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Whatever your goal is -- whether it’s to sleep more, sit less, eat better or get more exercise -- you’re more likely to achieve your goal when you have support. When you create an account with Livestrong.com, FitBit, MyFitnessPal or any of the other fitness-tracker-compatible apps, you have the ability to connect with friends, family members or even complete strangers who can see your progress. “Just knowing that people can have that visibility into your activity can help you keep yourself in check,” says fitness-tech expert Jill Duffy. Notifications also remind you of your activity progress for the day and week so you don’t fall behind. Like a string you tie around your finger reminding you to take care of an important task, your activity tracker is holding you accountable for being more active. “By just having it on your wrist, you’re saying, ‘OK. I’m holding myself accountable, and this thing’s going to remind me that I need to get up and get moving,’” says fitness-tech expert Keith McDonald.
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BOREDOM AND DISUSE
While this is not necessarily a fault of the device itself, many people stop using the device after just a short period. Data collected from various sources, including Nielsen and Endeavor Partners, show that anywhere from a third to a half of fitness-tracker users abandon the device after just a few months. Though the reasons for discontinuing use are varied -- boredom, bulkiness, lack of style, difficulty syncing or broken devices -- the results are the same. To ensure you make good on your investment, set tangible, meaningful goals or challenge a friend or co-worker if you have a competitive side. Sometimes just knowing that the odds are slightly against you will motivate you to continue wearing and tracking.
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INCREASED HEALTH AWARENESS
Perhaps your doctor told you at your last physical that your resting heart rate was a bit high and that you needed to exercise more to bring it down. As soon as you walked out of his office, you probably forgot all about it. Buy a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor and your high resting heart rate is a lot harder to forget because it’s right there on your wrist. This is especially true when you see your resting heart rate go down after a few months of regular exercise. “When a doctor tells you that, that’s a very elusive bit of information; when you see it happening yourself, it’s much more real and much more powerful,” says fitness-tech expert Jill Duffy. Activity tracker apps can also help increase your awareness about how much sleep you’re getting, how much time you’re spending being inactive and how much caffeine you’re drinking.
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PRICE POINT VS. FEATURES
Though some fitness trackers can cost a few hundred dollars, you can get a decent fitness tracker for less than $50, says fitness-tech expert Jill Duffy. At this price point, Duffy recommends the Jawbone UP24 and the Misfit Flash. “They’re very accurate; they don’t do very much, though. They count your steps, and they can quantify your activity. They both do sleep tracking, but they don’t have any advanced features on them,” she says. If this helps you be more active, lose weight or get more sleep, it’s worth every penny. If you have a bit more to spend on a tracker, go a little higher in price and you’ll get a few more features and better displays, though Duffy doesn’t think the average person needs to spend more than $150.
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IS A FITNESS TRACKER FOR YOU?
“I never met somebody who got a fitness tracker and said I really, really hate this thing because it’s useless,” says fitness-tech expert Jill Duffy. “Some people say, ‘I wish it did more,’ but you have to spend more money if you want it to do more.” If you’re a recreational athlete training for a 5K or a half-marathon, you’re probably going to want to spend a little more for a smartwatch. These devices track activity, but they also have GPS capability, so you can measure data such as distance and pace. But for the average person just looking to get healthier, fitness trackers are a sound investment.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you ready to purchase an activity tracker? What are your goals for purchasing one? If you’ve already been using a fitness tracker, what has your experience been? Which one(s) have you used and which are your favorites? Share your insights with the rest of the Livestrong.com community in the comments section below.
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