An Introduction to Activity Trackers

Get acquainted with fitness bands

A woman on the beach looking at her fitness band after a workout.

Though they're not always as flashy (or as expensive) as smartwatches such as the Apple Watch or smartphones that have step counters built in, activity trackers (also known as fitness trackers or fitness bands) account for a sizable chunk of devices we refer to as “wearables.” And for folks with an active lifestyle, these devices offer the essential stats, from calories burned to heart rate. Keep reading for more info on fitness trackers!

Background

Not to be confused with specialized athletic watches for runners, swimmers and cyclists, sensor-equipped wearable activity trackers have emerged in the last few years as useful accessories for both serious and casual exercisers. Using an accelerometer, these clip-on or wristband-style gadgets are able to track your activity, and the popularity of activity trackers has inspired many users to aim for at least 10,000 steps per day. Moreover, many people use trackers as motivational tools—many devices offer complementary mobile apps that let you compare stats with your friends, for example.

The Fitbit, which debuted in 2008 as a clip-on device, was one of the first activity trackers to garner mainstream attention. Since then, companies big and small have entered the space with fitness bands of their own. And while smartwatches often cost north of $200, fitness trackers are generally cheaper, making them appealing to mainstream consumers who want specific activity-monitoring features.

Having said all the above, it’s important to note that activity trackers are still a work in progress. For one, their accuracy has been called into question; a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that smartphones actually offered more accurate step counting, while wearable bands were found to underestimate the number of steps taken. Furthermore, dedicated pedometers and accelerometers were found to be more accurate than smartphones and fitness bands. Suffice it to say, you should view your fitness tracker’s stats as a rough guideline for your activity levels.

Top features

Activity trackers cater to a variety of demographics, but virtually all of them will log basic workout info like steps taken. Beyond that, here are key features that might be of interest:

  • Altimeter: While pretty much every fitness tracker will count your steps, not all of them can keep track of elevation gained (e.g.,how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed). If this metric interests you, look for an activity tracker that includes an altimeter. You’ll be surprised how many flights you climb a day—it really adds up!
  • Sleep tracking: Not every fitness band has a sleep mode for tracking the quality of your Zs, and not everyone wants to wear a gadget on their wrist when they hit the hay. If you’re interested in improving your slumber, though, buying a wearable with sleep tracking built in can offer some valuable insight. For example, a fitness band with sleep monitoring can tell you how many hours of sleep you get in a given night, as well as how much of that was deep sleep.
  • Companion app: Paired with a web account and a mobile app, a fitness tracker can deliver useful insights into your exercise habits.
  • Waterproof design: If you’re a frequent swimmer, look for a waterproof model. Serious athletes should choose a dedicated training watch from Garmin or other brands, though.

    Looking forward

    Considering that smartwatches and activity trackers are both worn on the wrist, it’s no surprise that companies are combining the two devices’ functionality into one device. Perhaps the highest-profile example of this is the Apple Watch. In addition to keeping track of steps taken, the length of your workouts and calories burned, Apple’s smartwatch will suggest new goals based on your stats, and will remind you to stand up if you’ve been sitting for too long.

    The Apple Watch is hardly the only smartwatch to offer fitness stats, either. The Pebble and Pebble Steel offer built-in step counting and sleep monitoring, and you can sync this data with other apps for more in-depth analysis. And Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) is Google’s software platform for wearable devices that supports smartwatches with GPS sensors, allowing runners to track their distances.

    The bottom line: Expect the distinction between “smartwatch” and “activity tracker” to continue to blur, as companies build more and more fitness features into smartwatches that deliver mobile notifications.