Count More Than Steps
There’s never been a better selection of fitness trackers, but with choice comes confusion. Which tracker has the features that are right for you and the activities you do? Here are some tips and recommendations for choosing the best tracker for your needs.
Where to Start
If you want to give fitness tracking a try (but without a wearable), start by using a mobile app that counts your steps. This method requires little to no investment and could be of interest if you’re a beginner. Some apps we like are Argus, Fitbit, and Moves.
If you run or bicycle, we recommend tracking your runs or rides with an app before going whole-hog and splurging on a tracker. Why? With some trackers, you still need to carry your phone to get accurate pacing, distance, and mapping, so you’ll want to know before you make a purchase if you’re okay with carrying your phone, or if you’d prefer a tracker with built-in GPS so you don’t have to. A few apps we recommend are Runtastic PRO (for running), Cyclemeter (for bicycling), and Strava (for both running and cycling).
The Coros SafeSound Helmet is another interesting solution for cyclists that integrates your phone’s GPS to track your rides and uses bone-conduction audio to let you hear directions, music, and phone calls without blocking your ears.
How Much Should You Spend on a Fitness Tracker?
Fitness trackers can range from $25 to $400 or more. Some less expensive trackers lack a display, so you can’t see how many steps you’ve taken unless you look at your smartphone.
More expensive trackers usually include built-in optical heart rate monitors and GPS, and often, these features are tailored toward athletes and exercise enthusiasts. Don’t get suckered into buying an expensive tracker if your primary activity is walking. If you walk and don’t do much else, there are great options in the $25 to $99 range.
If you work out a lot and want ample fitness-tracking options, we recommend spending at least $99, as that’s the price point where you’ll start to see the features that are useful to very active users.
Choose Your Tracker Style
One important question to ask yourself before choosing a fitness tracker is the type of form factor you want. Most these days are worn on the wrist, though you can get clip-ons, and fitness-tracking rings. Bracelets and watches are hard to lose. Clip-ons can fall off or get thrown into the wash.
Do You Want Heart Rate Monitoring?
Heart rate monitoring sounds like the best feature ever, but there are different kinds of heart rate monitors, and frankly, some people don’t need it at all. A built-in heart rate monitor can drive up the price.
Optical heart rate monitors are the ones built into the device itself. Some very good fitness trackers don’t have a heart rate monitor but can pair with a chest strap. Most every device from Garmin and Polar supports a chest strap (like the excellent Polar H10), and you can usually bundle one in when purchasing a tracker for an extra $40 or $50.
Finally, if you’re interested in knowing your resting heart rate, you don’t need to buy a tracker with an optical heart rate monitor to find it. Many smartphone apps let you take your heart rate in about 15 seconds using the phone’s camera. Check your pulse once or twice a day, and you’re good to go.
Smartwatch vs. Fitness Tracker
Several fitness trackers have some smartwatch functionality, and some smartwatches have fitness features, too. The Fitbit Versa 2 comes close to blending both worlds, but at the moment it still lags far behind the Apple Watch in terms of third-party app support.
The Apple Watch Series 6 places more of an emphasis on health and fitness tracking than any other smartwatch we’ve seen. It even has an FDA-approved electrocardiogram (ECG) function that generates a PDF of your heart rhythm you can share with your doctor, which is a feature you won’t find on any of the other trackers listed here. But as its name implies, it’s first and foremost a smartwatch.
With so many good fitness trackers on the market and promising ones on the horizon, it’s hard to contain them all in just one list. We’ve limited our picks here to trackers that have scored four stars or higher, but there are lots of other very good options out there that might be right for you. We update this article often, so make sure to check back for our latest recommendations.