The tech in activity trackers has evolved tremendously over the past five years, and while they haven’t gone mainstream like smartphones or flash drives, everyone seems to know someone who won’t move a muscle without strapping on their fitness armband.
Trackers don’t impress fitness freaks, as they lack many of the high-end features of serious sports watches, including GPS (to measure distance more accurately), the pacing tools that runners use, and many other metrics. Trackers also don’t measure up to smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear, which have much larger screens and plenty of downloadable apps. However, there are now dozens of trackers on the market, including some that are becoming more customisable, with impressive feature sets, while still costing far less than sports- or smart watches.
This is the most important feature if you’re actively interested in your health and well-being. Movement is measured using a tiny sensor called a three-axis accelerometer (measuring movement in three directions). The speed and distance that your arms move help the tracker decide whether you’re walking, running or gymming. The tracker estimates the distance you’ve covered based on your height and stride length, which is not as good as using GPS, but is pretty close.
Almost all good trackers now include a heart-rate monitor. A bright light on the underside of the face shines through the skin on your wrist to track the movement of blood in your arteries, and reports that pulse as your heart rate. The best trackers do regular readings throughout your working day, but they measure constantly during workouts.
This is important data to track, because holding a more challenging yoga pose will push your heart rate up and burn calories even if your arms aren’t moving enough to activate the accelerometer.
The accelerometer and the heart-rate sensor work together to measure the quality of your sleep. For example, movement of your arm indicates light sleep, while no movement and low heart rate indicate deep sleep. The best trackers can now track several parts of the sleep cycle, including REM. Popular consensus is that sleep plays a far bigger role in our physical and psychological well-being than was previously understood, so understanding your sleep cycle can be valuable.
All trackers upload data to your smartphone using Bluetooth. With a companion phone app, this is usually displayed as easy-to-read, interactive graphs offering more detail than what’s shown on the tracker. Historical data is stored in the cloud and can never be lost, even if you lose your tracker or phone. Appointments, alarms and messages received on the phone can also be displayed on the tracker, and you can control your phone’s music playback from your wrist.
Some trackers can connect with your phone’s GPS to add proper distances and mapping data to your workout, but you’ll have to carry the phone with you
Other useful features
• A movement clock reminds you when you’ve been stationary (at your desk or watching TV) for too long, normally about 45 minutes. Walking around for a few minutes resets the clock.
• Stress indicators normally kick in if your heart rate rises while you’re not moving during your work day. Some trackers recommend taking a break with some breathing exercises.
• Most trackers offer calorie counting, but these are wildly inaccurate at best. All bodies burn calories at very different rates, and the supporting phone app relies on you to constantly report what foods you’re consuming throughout the day.
• Obviously, activity trackers won’t get you fit and healthy. It still takes huge doses of sustained willpower and dedicated lifestyle changes to reach your fitness goals. Using a tracker to mark your progress is just one more way to stay motivated.
Less is more
Some medical-aid schemes offer rewards for sharing your tracker data with them, and even subsidise the cost of the device as long as you meet your fitness goals. Your data is uploaded to the medical-aid scheme using your tracker’s phone app. However, you only receive rewards (vouchers, points) for meeting certain minimum goals (daily step count, active minutes per week and other measures) and only the top trackers and sports watches are eligible. A list of brands and models is usually available on their websites.
Our top picks
Garmin now leads the tracker market with a product for every niche. This model includes GPS for accurate distance measurements, and it will automatically recognise whether you are gymming, cycling or running in the mountains. It’s completely waterproof for swimming and showering and, besides the usual step-, sleep- and heart metrics, it also tracks your stress levels through the day. While Garmin definitely needs help in the style department, the tech behind the product is solid.
Step/sleep/heart metrics, GPS, workout recognition, waterproof, music controls, R3 500; Also consider Garmin vívosmart 3, R3 000
Fitbit’s previous narrow bands were subtle to wear, but hard to read. The Versa presents like a full smart watch with metal body and a bright, colour screen. We like the side control buttons, which are easier to use than tapping on the touchscreen when your sweaty fingers are shaking with exhaustion. It’s also water-resistant for swimming or showering, and stores around 300 MP3s for playback through your Bluetooth headset.
Step/sleep/heart metrics, on-board MP3s, workout recognition, water-resistant, music controls, R3 000; Also consider Fitbit Alta HR, R2 200
Polar is better known for their hard-core sports watches, but that same DNA exists in their trackers too. The A370 does all the basics of step count, sleep monitoring and heart rate perfectly well, but we found it took the most holistic approach to the user’s well-being, gently prompting throughout the day towards healthy movement goals. The colour screen was the most generous of the three, but you do pay for that with slightly shorter battery life of two to three days.
Step/sleep/heart metrics, workout recognition, waterproof, music controls, R2 800; Also consider Samsung Fit2 Pro, R2 700