Improving your health starts with measuring your lifestyle alongside your nutrition, so picking a device for features related to fitness or other functions is not as helpful as prioritizing lifestyle metrics first. Every week, another company seems to release a new gadget with new features and new price-points to expand their audience to a new demographic...but which product is right for YOU on your health journey? This article is to investigate the most productive features, why certain brands are better than others, and make sure you get your money's worth when you hit the stores! An appropriate tracker is a tool used to measure your lifestyle and body's responses to your environment, so like in choosing a weapon for battle, you want to ensure it is the correct one for what you need in the situation.
First things first...what are YOU trying to accomplish? Most products are marketed to you based on your age, gender and what they think you should like about how it looks. The problem there is that your goals aren't determined by those surface level things that make you part of their demographics. When it comes to health, you should be tracking the things that matter most:
1) Activity (steps per hour and per day)
2) Sleep (duration and quality)
3) Stress (heart rate variability and exercise heart rate)
4) Future Exercise Goals (types of exercise, equipment, environments)
Outside of those four features, pretty much everything else is dependent on your personal preferences; so make sure you consider them FIRST before deciding on a product.
Activity (Step) Tracking
When it comes to activity, there are many ways that devices display how active you are throughout the day. Ever wonder why public health officials always tell us to be active 30 minutes a day at least five days a week? Well, its because our bodies need to move in order to circulate nutrients to our tissues, and then move waste out of the body via the stools. Interestingly, most professionals have misinterpreted this to mean "exercising" that often, which is wrong. Activity is the amount of "movement" we take with our whole body, most easily expressed as "steps" we take in a day OUTSIDE of any exercise.
A tracker that keeps track of these steps for you in steps is the most effective for this reason. Unfortunately, trackers disconnected from these realizations will not show the step count directly on their devices. They instead show an assortment of "rings" denoting different intensities of effort, etc that make monitoring your progress much less convenient. Ideally, you want to work up to moving a little over 700 steps per waking hour (totaling roughly 10,000 steps per day), and can see your progress right there on the device home screen. Hitting these step goals can be accomplished by taking five minutes every hour to go refill your water bottle, going to the bathroom, taking a couple laps around the office, etc to meet your hourly target. Garmin and some of the better devices will actually give you an audible or vibrating alert to remind you to move if you haven't met these goals in the last hour, so they are typically more conducive when it comes to tracking your activity.
Remember: You want a STEP COUNT on the screen with activity notifications NOT intensity rings for best results!
Pretty much any trackers you look at that can track sleep are doing it the same way, so this is less of a concern overall, but worth talking about briefly. They obtain your sleep data by measuring how much you actually move overnight, marking "deep" sleep as the times in which you aren't moving enough to trigger the accelerometer in the device. In this way, as long as you set your sleep time in your device's app, you'll see your sleep as a function of your movements overnight. The main limitation in this category pertains to battery life of the device, so if your device can't hold enough charge to track your steps and keep on overnight for several days in a row; it probably won't be very productive to use for this measurement. You'll want to check that one of the primary functions of the device is to track sleep AND that it can hold a charge for at least five to seven days of constant wear for this feature to be used appropriately.
When it comes to stress, there is no better brand than Garmin in our opinion. Last month, gadgetsandwearables.com dubbed the Garmin VivoSmart 4 as the "Best for Stress" because Garmin's partnership with FirstBeat has still put them far out in front of stress reporting in the wearables realm. Their VivoSmart 4 and several other options will give you real-time stress notifications, prompts for relaxation sessions and in-app reports of how your stress changes through the day and night. A lot of chatter in the support blogs mention frustration with people not understanding what the stress measures mean, so here's what you need to know. The device is measuring a metric called "heart rate variability", which is essentially the change in time between heart beats.
The more variable your HRV is, the more "ready for stress" your body actually is. If you are ready for stress, it means that you are physiologically rested enough to endure any stressful experience (confrontations with people, bouts of intense exercise, etc). The beauty of how Garmin and other companies display this information for you is that they show it to you in an easier to read format, with higher numbers instead telling you when you need to focus on rest and relaxation. Having objective measures of your stress response will allow you to see what happens through your day or night that prevents your body from performing the best it can. Whether you want to figure these things out for yourself, or are working with a coach, this kind of data is invaluable for changing your schedule and habits to be more lively.
Future Exercise Goals
When choosing your device, looking only at what you want now can make your choice cheaper in the short term, but considering your future uses may save you money in the long term. Think about if you will be primarily exercising in the gym, if you want to count laps in the swimming pool, or if you'll be outside (hiking, biking, running, etc.). These capabilities might cost a little more, but knowing whether you'll need GPS, altimeter, lap-counting, or other features will prevent you from needing to purchase multiple devices when you could get an all-in-one solution from the beginning. The priority is definitely with the lifestyle metrics mentioned in earlier sections, but knowing what you will be doing for exercise in the future will both save you money long term and be a daily reminder as to why you are getting healthier in the first place.
Notifications & Other Considerations
There are many different brands and styles available that can offer the above capabilities, so once you've shortened your list to what can do what we've recommended (and what you plan to do in the future), there are a couple other specifications you can use to narrow your options. Whether or not smart notifications are enabled on the device is an important consideration. Increasing your productivity, attentiveness, etc are much easier to accomplish with a device that allows smart notifications. This is because such devices will display calendar reminders, text/email notifications, etc that allow you to see your push notifications at a glance without taking out your phone. For business professionals and people just wanting to be more polite in public, the convenience of smart notifications will let you spend less time on the phone and more time doing what matters in the moment. Unlike most of the devices with smart notifications enabled, Apple seems to be the only one focusing primarily on this feature. They allow direct communication through their product as if it were the phone itself, and that two-way communication is definitely something they charge you for.
Next, playing or controlling music from your device may be desirable for your situation. If you are like us, you may prefer to listen to music during workouts or when just out in public. Products such as most Garmin models (excluding the VivoFit series), Apple's iWatch, and select FitBit devices allow you to control music directly from your wrist. Though this feature is not necessary for health tracking, it may make your every day experiences more enjoyable.
When it comes to choosing a brand, most of our clients have had the best success with Garmin products for cost, durability and function. Though most of FitBit's products can have similar features, but generally cost more for the same capabilities and have had higher defect rates. Both companies have a long history of meeting customer needs for health and fitness metrics, so their displays and mobile applications are each productive regarding what's being measured. The other option most people we've worked with consider has been the Apple iWatch. Though they are great about minimizing their phone functions to a wrist-based device, they are far behind the curve in both pricing and health functions. Since the iWatch has to be charged frequently, it doesn't allow for sleep tracking; nor does it measure activity and exercise in ways that are conducive to health modification. These have been our observations over thousands of clients in the last 11 years, so of course there are people that have had better or worse experiences with each brand; but this experience is why we usually recommend our clients choose the Garmin product best fitted for their needs. By doing so, we can usually save our clients money and time in finding a reliable product that meets their lifestyle and fitness requirements.
Other considerations abound from whether or not you can modify the band that the device is housed, its color options, and the overall look of the device, etc exist. Once all other considerations are made, our advice in this situation is to keep focused on the features that have a direct impact on your health and lifestyle journey, and let the general appearance take a back seat in priority. When it comes to choosing a device, "cool" is not as important as "productive"; so use this guide to make the right choice for you at this stage in your health journey.
When it comes to lifestyle and health outcomes, this is our brand and level recommendations list in order:
Garmin VivoSmart or above - will display step count, sleep/stress metrics, and is best priced for most features. Garmin has been in the health tracking world long enough to have more accurate and cost-effective methods of getting you this data than their competitors. You'll get the best bang for your buck on features and reliability with these products. *The higher series you look into, the more features you'll get for your long term goals usually.
FitBit Charge 3, Versa, or Ionic - will display step count, sleep metrics and all day heart rate tracking; but you will pay more for these and other features relative to Garmin. Since FitBit has not released a stress tracking feature, you will miss out on this huge value proposition that Garmin offers in partnership with FirstBeat technology.
Apple iWatch - offers all day heart rate tracking and steps in the app. Sleep measures aren't practical because the device doesn't hold a charge long enough to use it during the day and night at this point. Regarding stress, the iWatch does measure HRV in the first minute you put it on. This means you have to put it on while laying down at least the first minute of each day for it to give you a usable method for tracking stress in your iHealth app. Overall, Apple was late into the fitness tracking world, so there is a disconnect between what you need to know and what it can do relative to the prior two brands. They might catch up eventually, but at this point it is not a very effective device to use for overall lifestyle monitoring and getting healthier.
Other brands and monitors are not recommended simply because they haven't typically been on the market long enough to prove their efficacy in competing with the above-mentioned brands/products.
The more data about yourself that you (or your coach) are able to analyze, the faster and more precise your intervention can become...so choose your weapon wisely, my friends!