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How To Choose The Right Fitness Tracker For You

Thanks to all of the cool new tech that’s surfaced these past few years, today’s fitness trackers and smart watches might just put personal trainers and accountability coaches out of business. Everyone from marathoners and CrossFit athletes to yogis and busy executives seem to rock some sort of tracker these days.

But how do you know which fitness tracker is right for you? And what features should you look for before cashing out? Don’t let these questions stand between you and a new gadget; this guide breaks it all down.

Why Spend The Cash On A Fitness Tracker?

The whole point of fitness trackers is that they give you information about various aspects of your health and movement.

Though specific makes and models have different tracking capabilities, most keep tabs on:

  • hours of sleep
  • duration of exercise
  • heart rate (and sometimes heart rate variability)
  • calories burned
  • steps taken and floors climbed

“Many people enjoy having metrics of their health and fitness progress,” says Aaron Alexander, C.R., L.M.T., C.P.T., author of The Align Method. “‘As the famous saying goes, ‘you can only manage (and improve) what you can measure.’”

Because most trackers give us live updates, they can help keep folks accountable on the day-to-day, adds Tyler Curtis, C.S.C.S., coach at Philadelphia’s G-Strength. Plus, that constant feedback allows us to game-ify our fitness goals, which can make living a healthy lifestyle feel more fun.

Related: Why Personal Training Is So Worth The Expense To Me

And, of course, there’s always the appeal of rocking a tracker as a symbol of your healthy lifestyle. “Wearing one shows oneself and others that you actively take care of you health,” says Alexander.

Popular Fitness Tracker Features

Once you’ve decided to invest in a fitness tracker, don’t let the endless options overwhelm you! Instead, figure out which features will be most useful to you.

For example: If you’re a marathoner or cyclist, a tracker with a built-in GPS is a must. If you’re a swimmer, though, you probably want a waterproof watch that can track your laps.

Other bonus features some fitness trackers offer include:

  • alerts for incoming text messages, calls, and email
  • reminders to move
  • iOS and/or Android support
  • contactless payment
  • VO2 max estimates
  • rep-counting ability
  • period tracking
  • extra-long battery life

“You probably don’t need a tracker that does or tracks everything,” says Curtis. In fact, that may just confuse you. “Don’t buy a watch that tracks things you don’t understand,” he says. If you’ve never heard of heart rate variability, deceleration rate, or impulse rate, you don’t need a watch that tracks them.

The same principle applies to the tracker’s display. Some trackers display your data right on their home screen. Others, however, require you to tap a few buttons or symbols to access different information. Sometimes you may only be able to access that information through an accompanying app. While none of these displays is truly better than the other, don’t choose a tracker with a display that doesn’t feel intuitive to you.

Needless to say, cost is another important consideration, says Debra Atkinson, M.S., C.S.C.S., CEO of Flipping 50, an online platform dedicated to helping folks over the age of 50 reach their fitness goals. Generally, fitness trackers cost somewhere between 70 dollars (like the Garmin VivoFit 3) and 230 dollars (like the FitBit Versa 2). Some (like the Apple Watch), however, can cost upwards of 700 dollars, while others (like the WHOOP) involve a monthly subscription fee.

Ultimately, you want to make sure your potential tracker is comfortable and matches your style, says Alexander. The device won’t do much for you if it’s sitting on your nightstand instead of your wrist.

The Best Fitness Trackers

Though the right fitness tracker for your depends on your individual goals and needs, here are six trackers trainers themselves love and recommend.

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1. The Whoop Strap 3.0

Best for: CrossFitters, professional athletes, HIIT and bootcamp lovers

Cost: $30 upfront, plus a $30 monthly subscription

Features:

  • heart rate and heart rate variability
  • measures strain and offers a Strain Coach
  • 5-day battery life
  • weekly performance assessments
  • sleep tracking and recovery
  • calorie burn estimates
  • sleep tracking measurements

What trainers say: “In my opinion, the WHOOP is more than a fitness tracker, it’s a lifestyle performance tracker. It measures overall day strain (how hard your body worked that day), which includes both workout stress and work stress. It then uses that data to recommend how much sleep you should get, and vice versa. Though the WHOOP strap doesn’t have a screen (or some of the other fancy features of smart watches), it syncs with an app and gives you the data you need to perform at your best every day. Since it’s subscription-based, I recommend folks try it for about six months to understand what they need to change about their habits. From there, they can re-up their subscription every few months to check in on their sleep and performance.”—Tony Milgram CF-L1, coach at ICE NYC in New York City

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2. Apple Watch Series 5

Best for: Workaholics and social butterflies who also regularly exercise

Cost: Starts at $399

Features:

  • always-on display
  • customizable band
  • ECG app for live heart rate monitoring
  • menstrual cycle tracking
  • GPS
  • water resistance up to 50 meters
  • advanced workout metrics
  • apple music and audiobook streaming
  • ability to call and text right from watch

What trainers say: “If you’re looking for just a fitness tracker, you don’t need the Apple Watch. However, if you’re looking for a fitness tracker that allows you to to answer calls, texts, and emails without having to take your phone out of your pocket or bag, it’s great. Plus, the fitness tracker features are on-par with any popular FitBit or Garmin product. The battery life on the Series 5 is also pretty good, and usually lasts me about two days.”—Tony Milgram CF-L1, coach at ICE NYC in New York City

3. Fitbit Inspire HR Tracker

Best for: first-time fitness tracker owners and athletes who want something basic

Cost: $99.95

Features:

  • sleep tracking
  • calorie-burn tracking
  • reminders to move
  • heart rate monitoring
  • swim and shower proof
  • 5-day battery life
  • built-in timer and stopwatch
  • on-screen text and call notifications
  • guided breathing sessions

What trainers say: “Now I just use my phone to make sure I get in at least 10,000 steps per day, but I used to use the Fitbit Inspire HR tracker. It’s water-resistant, which was KEY for me! I also loved the long battery life—and the fact that it tracked my steps, heart rate, and gave me the option to log other things, like my food, period, and sleep.”—certified pilates instructor Lesley Logan

4. Polar Ignite

Best for: swimmers, yogis, runners, general data-lovers

Cost: $229.95

Features:

  • GPS
  • waterproof
  • heart rate monitoring
  • breathing rate and breathing exercises
  • sleep insights
  • recovery insights
  • calories-burned tracking

What trainers say: “I LOVE my Polar Ignite. It’s a complete fitness watch, but I don’t find it overwhelming. I like that it offers features such as constant heart rate monitoring (without a chest strap!) and on-demand workouts from FitSpark. It also displays all of my workout data on one screen. Plus, since it’s compatible with the Polar flow app, I can upload my workout to the free app for more long-term tracking.”—personal trainer Franklin Antoian, founder or iBodyFit and author of The Fit Executive

5. Garmin Forerunner 935

Best for: triathletes, marathoners, swimmers, cyclists, professional athletes

Cost: $449.99

Features:

  • tracks elevation change
  • indicates if you’re under or over training
  • measures biomechanics (stride length, ground contact time, and cadence for technique analysis)
  • 2-week battery life
  • waterproof
  • GPS
  • VO2 max
  • menstrual cycle tracking

What trainers say: “It’s pricey, but I like the Garmin best myself. When I was shopping for a fitness tracker, I wanted something easy to use for any activity. I use this for swimming, biking, and running, and it still provides accurate heart rate monitoring. Plus, it has a long enough battery life to last during long training rides. I also wanted to easily sync my tracker to a computer so I could see my progress over time—and the Forerunner has that, as well. Oh, and I also like that I can link it to Training Peaks and log workouts from a training plan on there.”— Debra Atkinson, M.S., C.S.C.S., CEO of Flipping 50

6. Fitbit Charge 3

Best for: regular exercisers, runners, yogis

Cost: $149.95

Features:

  • sleep tracking
  • calorie burn tracking
  • reminders to move
  • heart rate monitoring
  • automatic exercise recognition
  • swim and shower proof
  • 7-day battery life
  • real time pace and distance
  • smartphone notifications
  • menstrual cycling tracking

What trainers say: “For a simple tracker, my clients seem happiest with the FitBit Charge 3. It allows them to monitor steps, sleep, heart rate, and distance traveled. When budget permits, I also recommend the Fitbit Iconic, which has the added perks of GPS and music syncing. My goal for clients is for them to be able to leave their phones at home (unless they’re necessary for safety!) and these features allow them to do that.”—Debra Atkinson, M.S., C.S.C.S., CEO of Flipping 50

When Fitness Trackers Don’t Work

While they can be highly effective for some people, Alexander says that people may find them bothersome, annoying, or even addictive.

If you notice that you’re relying on that screen to tell you about your health and well-being (instead of looking inward), find yourself staring at the screen all day, or notice that it’s interfering with your happiness, free your wrist of the extra weight. 

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