If your goal is to increase your daily activity time, it might be a great idea to use one of the countless fitness trackers which are available.
But since there are various options, it might be tricky to pick the right one. Frequently I get asked which watch I would recommend. Here is a summary of my user experience and outcomes of simple checks for accuracy.
What Is The Best Fitness Tracker To Buy?
A lot depends on what you are looking for. And surely your budget is an additional consideration. If you want accurate data and use it on a daily base, I would recommend well known brands such as Polar, Garmin, Fitbit or Apple. Based on numerous studies done on step counters, pedometers and smart watches, there is no perfect solution out there. Overall we can conclude that higher-quality watches reveal the highest quality outcomes. No point of running a 5k and your watch can’t track your activity correctly!?
How Much Money Do I Need To Spend?
The price range for a reasonable accurate watch is between $80 to $150. Since I was hoping to get by with a less expensive watch, I tried 2 different watches in the prices range of $20-30. My hopes were finding one for group activities or for kids. Unfortunately both of the ones I tried were highly inaccurate. They counted steps incorrectly, and one of them permanently re-set itself during vigorous arm movements. I returned both of them within a week :o(
Which Features Are Useful?
Step Count, Heart Rate, Calorie Count, and Distance/ Pace are features which are helpful to stay on track without overdoing it. Other commonly liked gimmick are tracking activities such as biking or weight lifting, counting floors walked, or setting goals and using social support groups through an online community.
Feature #1: Step Count
This is the key feature of your watch, and over the last years the accuracy of tracking the correct amount of steps walked is pretty high. In my Exercise Physiology Lab classes we compared different watches (Polar, Garmin, Fitbit) with a pedometer (Omron, hip-worn), or simply counted the number of steps we took. The accuracy was very high, which means the number of steps displayed on the smart watches was highly identical with the number on the pedometer or our own count.
Feature #2: Heart Rate Measures
Here it starts to get a little bit iffy. The golden standard for measuring heart rate in the field is still a chest strap. The accuracy of the measurement is above 95%, which can not be reproduced with a wrist-based technology. As much as the optical sensors are advancing, they still need time to catch up with the numbers provided by the chest straps. Keep in mind that the big players on the sports market, Polar and Garmin, are offering and developing both types. I am convinced they will improve their products over time.
Comparing Training Sessions
The most interesting illustration is done by looking at the same workout observed by a smart watch and a more traditional GPS watch.
I went for several runs with my Polar A 370 (smart watch, wrist-based heart rate measure), and compared the data with my Garmin Forerunner 920 (GPS watch, incl. chest-strap). Here the numbers from 1 run and my overall impression.
The chest strap measured during my run an average Heart Rate of 131, compared to the wrist-based strap of 133. This is a tendency I have seen before, wrist-based watches measuring higher or lower heart rates. Which would mean you could more easily overdo it, or not hit your target at all, when just relying on a wrist-based watch. The higher the intensities, the bigger the difference.
The distance of my run was 4.2 miles, and the smart watch over-estimated the distance by 0.7 miles. Since I did not bring my phone, which would have provided the GPS signal for the Polar watch, the estimation is actually not too bad. Garmin has the GPS built into the watch.
Garmin told me that my energy expenditure was 235 Calories. Polar calculated an energy expense of 388 Calories. Which is almost a 40% (!) difference. For somebody trying to lose weight, it would be the wrong signal. As so often, we expend way much energy during physical activities than we expect.
Athletes vs. Health-Seekers
For ambitious athletes which want to rely on hard data and take their training very seriously, I would warmly recommend to stay with a standard training watch such as offered by Polar or Garmin.
For the health seeker, who wants to improve overall fitness and get lean by increasing activity time, a smart watch would be the ideal solution. You can wear it 24/7, use it for your training sessions, and get daily summaries as well.