Choosing the best activity trackers.

You’ve got your reasons for investing in a fitness tracker.  Perhaps it’s an electronic supplement to your personal fitness training program, or a “motivational carrot” to get you started on a fitness program.  Maybe your doctor advises (read “warns”) you to start exercising.

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1. Tracking the basic tracker

Fitness trackers come in various forms including chest straps, wrist bands, watches, clip-on devices, and even certain cellphone app functions.  They have varying levels of capabilities.  The most important function of any fitness tracker is that it can help you be more aware of your activity level.

At the most basic level is the pedometer, but don’t be fooled by the term “basic”.

Some pedometers only count your steps.  Others are programmable pedometers capable of calculating calories consumed and distance based on your weight and stride length. You might not think much of it as a fitness trainer but if your objective is to take your daily 10,000 steps, a reliable pedometer may be your best tracking pal.

Pedometer apps can be downloaded to your cellphone (some rely on your phone’s GPS tracking system and measure distance, not steps).  Some GPS watches also include a pedometer function but be aware that some GPS-based pedometer apps and watches tend to be major battery hogs.

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2. Tracking up

Wireless activity trackers are the next step up from basic step tracking.  Many of these more advanced tracking models look very much like pedometers and offer functions similar to the more advanced pedometers:

  • Steps tracking
  • Distance traveled
  • Stairs climbed
  • Calories burned
  • Sleep quality

In addition to the basic level tracking systems, these units also have goal setting functions and allow the user to view progress.  Some trackers can sync to most computers and Bluetooth-enabled cellphones and tablets.

If collecting and monitoring data is important to you, there are fitness trackers that can meet your demands.  These units have more sensors that measure activity and sleep patterns with much greater accuracy.

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One fitness blogger used the sleep readout function on his tracker and discovered he spent very little time each night in REM sleep and that his body temperature was low.  He also learned that he wasn’t pushing himself as much as he thought he was in training runs; this was reflected in his total calorie burn tally.

Just as important as reaching fitness goals is evaluating the effects of overtraining.  Your fitness tracking device, used in combination with a good fitness tracking app, can provide the feedback you need to see where your fitness program is helping you achieve optimal results vs. where you may be pushing yourself into a pattern of lackluster results and persistent fatigue.  It may not be that you are doing too little; your tracking system may be the way you discover when you are doing too much.

3. Tracking device variations

Other options in fitness tracking are devices that have a narrower spectrum of functions, i.e., they “specialize” in only a few functions.  One such system is a multisensory unit that tracks everything from skin temperature spikes,  your hydration level, hours of REM sleep (and how often you wake up) – all on a minute-by-minute basis.

Some devices are heart rate monitors (HRMs), only.  Newer technology enables the user to measure heart rate through the skin, your fingertip, a wrist-worn device, or the more traditional chest strap monitor.  HRM monitoring provides valuable feedback on the intensity of a workout, enabling you to avoid potentially harmful over-exertion.

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4. About sleep

A number of the middle and advance-level fitness tracking devices can monitor sleeping patterns to near-clinical levels (according to some reviewers).  Trackers that monitor/record your sleep patterns watch for movement during your sleep time.  The unit may equipped with a sleep-tracking mode that you activate or you must log each bedtime/waking time.

These devices report movement such as rolling over or shifting just enough to be counted as “awake” moments.  Some devices report your cycles of light and deep sleep – again, based on motion.

The value of this type of monitoring may be more beneficial for people who have sleeping problems.  The tracking device cannot identify the reasons for irregular or insufficient sleep.  But pairing the information from the tracking data with an activity tracking website or app may help you identify patterns or correlations and ways you might adjust your activities and habits to facilitate better quality sleep.

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Sleep is supposed to be a restorative – the uninterrupted time when your body regroups from the previous day’s efforts, heals from illness and injury, and prepares you for the coming day.  The sleep data your device tracks and reports can also be valuable if you need to consult with your doctor about an ongoing sleep problem or other health concern.

5. Pro-level tracking

Some people just want all the bells and whistles with all their electronics.  But for the serious athlete who cross-trains for maximum condition and endurance, the advanced fitness tracking devices may provide the best support for monitoring and reporting.

These devices are designed for multiple sports activity use – running, climbing, swimming, endurance, etc.  They incorporate more sensors – GPS, force-measuring gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers to measure rotation, and heart rate monitors.

Snowboarders, tri athletes, swimmers, cyclists and mountain bikers, and marathoners can generate performance metrics– heart rate, calories burned, power output, distances covered, etc.  They can track the strokes a swimmer takes to complete one lap of a pool or a runner’s ground-contact time.

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The data reveals a lot about an athlete’s efficiency such as whether a running, jumping, or walking stride is too long. Being able to identify such patterns may also help the athlete adjust the mechanics of his or her movement and reduce injuries.  Some fitness trackers can monitor running metrics related to risk of injury (including stride cadence and average vertical oscillation) in real time.  The data gathered by these advanced functions can help an athlete identify errors in training and performance, train smarter, and train more safely.

6. Motivation in fitness tracking

Beginning or sustaining a fitness program is challenging for many people.  Weight loss or better sleep is sufficient motivation but for some people to continue a fitness program.  Social accountability is a strong motivating factor.  Social accountability is a strong motivating factor.  Many fitness trackers enable users to interact with public groups (or create their own private groups) to share goals and get encouragement and support to help keep them going with their fitness programs.

Technology has turned many of us into instant gratification-hungry beings.  Fitness tracking devices feed into that expectation by providing real-time feedback.  A glance at the pedometer screen tells you how many steps you’ve taken and miles you have walked in a given period of time. Results from a training session can be retrieved in a matter of seconds.

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But what really seems to make the most significant difference to the success or failure of a fitness program is keeping a log.  People who regularly track and log their data have a proven record for reaching their health and fitness goals.  Further, “the more frequent and detailed the entries, the greater the success,” according to some studies.

Fitness tracking devices can capture performance details and then sync that data to the web or cloud servers.  A fitness app or program willcomplete the necessary calculations, analyze data, and display your ongoing progress with touch-of-the-finger access.

Pair the data from a tracking device with an app or online program that includes goal setting suggestions, motivational games, exercise advice, photo, video, and audio workout instructions, and a person can potentially create a complete fitness training program without ever going to a gym.

7. The future of fitness tracking

Fitness trackers are constantly undergoing design modification and improvement.  Developers are continually working on expanding the tracking parameters of “wearable technology”.  Future tracking devices may soon be available that measure the wearer’s blood pressure, heart rate and blood flow, and stress level.

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The potential benefits provided by wearable technology are not exclusive to athletes and fitness enthusiasts.  Tracking devices can already monitor and report data on a 24/7 basis.  This data gathering and reporting can also be helpful in managing chronic diseases, particularly in understanding the impact of stress on an individual.

8. Back to the basics

10,000 steps a day can sound like a lot of steps.  It equates to walking approximately four miles a day.   The American College of Sports Medicine says that taking even 7,000 steps per day can have health benefits.  High blood pressure is considered epidemic in our society.  Increasing daily activity by 10,000 steps can help lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of certain cancers, relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and provide other ongoing health benefits.

The future of how your fitness tracker can help you rests in your commitment to using it.  It can be a new technology “toy” that lands in the desk drawer in a matter of weeks.  Or it can help you reach your 10,000 steps goal, run your best marathon ever, and sustain a fitness program to support a lifelong healthier you.