Fitness trackers have become a popular way to stay active with the success of wearable devices from Fitbit, Garmin and the popularity of the Apple Watch encouraging people to keep tabs on their health.
And the devices are still improving, offering functions including sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring and different exercises. There have been some questions over their accuracy, but many offer a path to a more active lifestyle.
Smartwatches have also come into the same market as many fitness trackers and there is some overlap, making the choice between them harder. If you are interested in a smartwatch you can see our breakdown of the best smartwatches this year.
How to buy a fitness tracker
Fitness trackers can monitor users daily step count, sleep, heart rate and activity levels. Picking the right one will depend on what you plan to use it for, whether you want some casual step counting or a detailed breakdown of a workout.
You may also plan to use it as a timepiece. Not all fitness trackers are like wristwatches and many come in the form of small, lightweight bands like the Fitbit Alta HR, or can be attached to your ankle like the Moov Now. Others are simple dongles that can be clipped onto items of clothing.
Most are also unlike smartwatches and are not made to support multiple apps, although they do share some similar functions and the line is blurred, and many smartwatches also gear themselves towards health tracking. Fitbit produce their own sports watch, the Fitbit Ionic, while the Apple Watch is a powerful fitness tracker in its own right.
Don't forget the apps
A fitness tracker works alongside an app built for your smartphone and other devices. Having solid software to support the fitness tracker will make keeping a tab on your activity far easier. The app, such as the Fitbit, Garmin Connect or Apple's Health app, can be used to log activity targets and keep a tab on your progress.
What activities can they track?
Most fitness trackers will only be able to break down relatively simple exercises, such as running or cycling, and calculate your calorie burn from this. Many cannot adapt to analysing different lots of types of sport or activity, although some trackers can include walking, running, cycling, weights, elliptical, boxing and swimming.
More advanced fitness tracking devices come with a GPS built-in, others instead link up to your smartphone to provide a breakdown of location data. This can help monitor running, but adding a GPS can add to the price and weight of a fitness tracker.
Health and eating
The apps also have other features that contribute to keeping healthy, such as asking you to check how much water you drink or how you are eating. Most will also offer a way to calculate the number of calories in your food, although this should only be taken as a very rough breakdown.
Fitness tracker checklist
- Watch or no watch? While some fitness trackers come with a built-in watch face or touchscreen, others are simple dongles or are built to work only with your smartphone for fitness tracking.
- Heart rate monitor: Budget fitness trackers do not tend to have a heart rate monitor included, although this is becoming standard in current models.
- Battery life: Compared to smartwatches, most fitness trackers have excellent battery life, from anywhere between several days to six months.
- Accuracy: You are never going to get perfect accuracy from a wrist-worn tracker compared to a chest-mounted heart rate monitor or GPS device. It is good to be aware that fitness trackers are best for incremental improvements and encouraging activity, and less an exact measure of your daily calorie burn.
- Waterproofing: Many fitness trackers don't come with built-in waterproofing. If you are a keen swimmer you will definitely want to look for watches from Garmin, which normally come with added water resistance.
How much should I pay for a fitness tracker?
Budget sports bands come in at under £50 with basic functions you need to monitor steps and movement. Standard fitness trackers come in at just over £100. These devices often include heart-rate monitors and more detailed exercise tracking. Smartwatches that come in at close to £150 or more will be smart fitness watches, with functionality for answering calls and texts, lots of fitness functions and activity modes, but may suffer from more limited battery life.
Misfit's sleek Ray fitness band is a unique piece. The sleek metal tube can be worn as an accessory on a chain or around your neck, or as a classic fitness band. A coloured LED shows your daily progress and the Ray app can log distance, steps, sleep and is waterproof at depths of up to 50 metres.
Once connected to your smartphone, it can also vibrate to show calls and texts, however there is no built-in screen or watch. The Ray is available for under £50 from Misfit.
Pros: Four month battery life, unique design, waterproof
Cons: No watch face
The Moov Now is a great little activity band with a slim design that can be attached to your wrists or ankles for versatile analysis. It can measure a wide range of motions, from running to cycling, swimming to boxing, and its app can pick up on these movements and generate more accurate data than some other trackers.
It is fairly small, although as a pure activity band it is not made to be worn all the time and lacks function like a heart rate monitor, but it does support sleep tracking. It is also cheap too and you can buy one for under £60. However don't go expecting any kind of wristwatch replacement on the device, as it's purely about fitness.
Pros:Six month battery life, flexible design to wear on wrist or ankle
Cons: No watch face or heart rate sensor
FitBit Alta HR
Fitbit's updated Alta HR fitness tracker now features a heart rate monitor, adding to its functions of step tracking and sleep monitoring. Fitbit's devices work with its user-friendly Fitbit app, which is easy to navigate and can help monitor diet, water intake and daily activity goals.
Arguably, Fitbit devices are built for the everyday user who wants a simple way to up their activity rates and exercise more. The Alta HR gives you all the monitoring functions while also being slim and stylish on the wrist, and it also features a decent seven day battery. The only drawbacks are a lack of waterproofing, while Fitbit's step trackers have been known to overstate the step rate on some of its devices.
Pros: Heart rate monitor, slim and sleek design
Cons: Small tap screen, not waterproofed
Fitbit Charge 2
Fitbit's Charge 2 is the company's smarter mid-range fitness tracker, fulfilling a wide array of tasks and exercises. It can monitor running, cycling, a general workout, weights, elliptical and more, making it a more advanced tracker than some devices at cheaper price points, while it also has a five day battery life.
While the Fitbit app remains easy to use, one issue with the Charge 2 is the slightly tricky navigation, requiring multiple clicks or longer pushes of the touchscreen to change actions, or to initiate a stopwatch. Again it lacks full waterproofing, but with a heart rate monitor and GPS if you connect through a smartphone it is packed with features. For a device with added GPS check out the TomTom Spark 3.
Pros: Monitors strength exercises, lots of excercises
Cons: No waterproofing or GPS
Garmin Vivosmart 3
Garmin's fitness trackers are considered to be for more serious athletes than some other brands of fitness tracker. This can be seen from the complexity of Garmin's Connect app and the variables monitored by its fitness tracker range. The Vivosmart 3 is waterproof for swimming and showering, while it also has a rep counter for use during strength exercises.
Other features include a heart rate monitor and music controls for your smartphone. The battery life is five days, but it does lack a GPS compared to more expensive models and Garmin's app is considered a little harder to navigate. With the price now below £100, it's a bargain. If you are willing to spend a little more, the Vivosmart HR+ offers a built-in GPS for serious runners.
Pros: Heart rate monitor, waterproofing
Cons: Complicated app
£150 and above
Garmin Forerunner 235
Garmin's professional-looking line of sports watches delivers detailed levels of tracking and monitoring for a premium price. At more than £250 it is not a cheap sports band, rather the Garmin Forerunner 235 is a watch for athletes who want more than a bit of encouragement to keep active.
With heart rate monitoring, a built-in GPS and waterproof up to depths of 50 metres, the Forerunner is a serious fitness device. While it is not a true smartwatch, lacking support for extra apps, it can answer calls and allow you to read emails and texts and has a customisable watch face.
Pros: GPS, customisable watch face, nine day battery
Cons: Expensive, lacks smartwatch functions
Fitbit's latest line of sports watches takes its technology a step further, with the Fitbit Ionic truly embracing smartwatch technology with its own payments system, and smartwatch functions from calls, texts, emails and Whatsapp messages on the go. With around four days of battery life it will also easily outlast most smartwatches.
It's also still a phenomenal fitness tracker, combining Fitbit's simple app with an exercise coach, timers for running, a heart rate monitor, and built-in capabilities for music storage. It can also connect via Bluetooth to the new Fitbit Flyer headphones, which can be used on the go so you can take your music with you when exercising.
We've loved using the Fitbit Ionic and it's Fitibt's most advanced fitness watch yet, although in the UK you can only make payments through a handful of small challenger banks.
Pros: Smartwatch functions, additional exercises, takes calls, messages and payments
Cons: Limited apps
Apple Watch Series 3
The Apple Watch Series 3 is the culmination of Apple's recent advancements in smartwatch technology. It's also one of the top fitness gadgets out there, useful for running, swimming and health tracking. It can monitor a huge range of exercises with watchOS4, comes with a heart rate monitor, and will soon be able to plug in to a variety of gym equipment, logging your data as you go.
It's also first and foremost a smartwatch. It can take emails and text messages, and can now operate using its own 4G and mobile signal, meaning you don't need your iPhone with you to use the watch to make calls. On top of this you get access to a host of apps such as WhatsApp and Spotify on the go.
However, with a battery life that will often not last the day, you will need to keep a charger handy, while if you want to use the watch to make calls you will need to use EE from £25 per month, although it is limited to making calls from the UK.
Pros: Smart design, built-in 4G, can independently take and make calls
Cons: Designed for use with an iPhone, limited battery life, expensive
We have loved using the Apple Watch and Fitbit Ionic, but they are not inexpensive buys. If you want a smartwatch that also does fitness, and are plugged into the Apple ecosystem then the Apple Watch Series 3 is your best bet.
For most people, who want to do some casual fitness monitoring and don't want to spend too much, the Fitbit Alta HR represents a decent investment in a cheap fitness tracker that can monitor activity and plug you in to the excellent Fitbit app.