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I also wrote our guide to GPS running watches. In addition, I checked in again with Clinton Brawner, PhD , a clinical exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit, to continue our years-long dialogue about heart-rate monitoring during workouts.
Who this is for Photo: Sarah Kobos The lines that separate GPS running watches and smartwatches from dedicated fitness trackers are blurrier than ever.
GPS watches can now track your activities all day and your sleep at night.
Smartwatches can now capture your movement with auto-activity detection and built-in GPS. We still see a place for fitness trackers, though.
They can run for up to a week between charges, unlike smartwatches, which you generally need to charge daily. And the latest generation of trackers go well beyond just counting steps and recording workouts: They include more smartwatch features than before—from interactive notifications to third-party apps—and additional sensors to provide more granular detail on movement and sleep.
The trackers we looked at are for people who want a better idea of how often they move, how much they move, and the ways that they move throughout their days and nights. They and their apps are also for people who want a place to log their diets, hydration, and even menstrual cycles, to gain a broader picture of their health.
The differences among these trackers are principally the number of sensors—and therefore features—they offer and, most important, how easy they are to use.
We want to stress that these trackers are not a replacement for a medical device. Consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine. If you suspect you may have a sleep condition, see your doctor. How we picked and tested Photo: Sarah Kobos To come up with our testing pool, I made a list of all the activity trackers I could find for sale in the US—new models as well as those from previous generations that are still available.
I also weeded out any with consistently poor reviews from owners or from other editorial outlets. Most of the 13 trackers remaining on my list were wrist wearables, mainly from the biggest players, Fitbit and Garmin.
RIP, Jawbone. But not everyone wants to wear a bracelet—and the old, clip-style trackers have almost disappeared—so I also called in a few new non-wrist options. I put these 13 trackers through their paces, looking to answer the following questions: How easy is it to use and live with?
In living with each one, I considered: Is the device comfortable to wear all day and to sleep with all night? Can you decide which workout types and data step count, calories burned, distance traveled you want to see?
Is the app inviting to use? Do any smartwatch features work well? Does the battery last as long as promised?
Is it waterproof or at least water resistant, or do you have to take it off before showering or swimming? How well does it track activities? To gauge how accurately the trackers recorded all-day step count, I wore the devices in pairs, one on each wrist, for two days straight switching wrists on day two , and I compared their step-count readings with the results from an Omron pedometer that I know to be reliable.
I also tested how well the devices recognized activities and how those results appeared in the apps. I took at least one walk and one bike ride of 15 minutes or longer with each tracker, as most devices need at least 10 minutes of activity to trigger a recording.
I noted everything I did each day, and I compared the activity the trackers recorded against that written log. I also wore the devices to bed and compared their results against my actual going-to-bed and waking-up times for sleep duration.
As most of the devices I tested have built-in heart-rate monitors, I noted the resting heart rates they recorded to see if those figures jibed with what I know mine to be.
How well does it record workouts?
For all of the devices, I tested how well they estimated distance traveled by walking a mile on a treadmill; the devices all use algorithms to estimate stride length, which they multiply by the steps counted.
For any device that tracks active heart rate during a workout, I performed two separate tests on the treadmill: a five-minute steady-state run at an easy pace, and a six-minute walk-jog-run of two minutes at each pace.
I compared heart-rate readings from the device against an older-model Garmin with a chest strap at second intervals, and for two minutes of recovery. During all of the treadmill tests, I noted how easy or difficult it was to read the data display mid-workout.
These trackers collect all kinds of data, including the number of steps you walk in a day, the kinds of activities you do, the intensity of your workouts, and how well you sleep. But how accurate are they? It depends.
Although fitness trackers tend to measure some activities well, they measure others quite poorly—including all-day step count.
Any device that you wear on your wrist is actually tracking the swinging of your arm, which—when you are walking or running—pretty closely matches what your legs are doing. And many devices do automatically recognize and record activities reasonably well, if not perfectly.
Still, with any tracker, if you want the very best log, use a dedicated workout mode to record your session—launching it will turn on the timer, activate more sensors, and even increase how frequently the device checks your heart rate.
There are also some other measures you should approach with caution. GPS rarely is. How well the trackers measured step count and distance Fitness tracker.