Wearable Health Trackers: Which One Should I Choose?

By: Gustavo Almeida

The availability of wearable fitness trackers has grown exponentially, with the most popular devices being high-tech options from Fitbit, Apple, Garmin and more. These wearables can potentially help to improve physical activity and reinforce a healthy lifestyle by giving users feedback about their daily number of steps, activity intensity level and the body’s responses to those activities, such as heart rate and energy expenditure.

Fitness trackers can monitor a range of medically useful health information and have been used by health care professionals to understand patients’ daily behaviors to improve care. However, consumers are often caught up in the fashion of their personal devices rather than their functionality. It is important to set health and fitness goals before choosing a wearable because an expensive device may not be necessary to achieve them.

With fitness goals in mind, consider these tips when choosing a wearable device:

Reducing sedentary time

Although some wearables have the “move around reminder,” an expensive device may not be needed for that feature alone. Simply setting an alarm on a calendar, phone or alarm clock can remind people to stand up and move around every hour.

Tracking daily steps

For those who are seeking to monitor only their daily step count, a pedometer is a great choice due to its low cost and availability in most pharmacies. Many free smartphone apps also track daily steps. However, neither the pedometer or apps measure activity intensity (i.e., slow vs. brisk walking).

Monitoring activity level and sleep quality

Look for devices that measure heart rate to track activity levels and sleeping patterns. These devices have built-in optical heart rate monitors, so it is no longer necessary to wear a strap around the chest to monitor activity. Additionally, these devices often have an accelerometer, which tracks movement and combines that data with the user’s heart rate to measure the intensity of each activity. More high-tech devices also come with an embedded GPS to track outdoor activities.

Losing weight

Most devices and apps can summarize users’ daily energy expenditure by combining their demographics, such as age, height and weight, with their daily amount of movement to motivate weight loss. Smartphone apps also allow users to enter their daily calories so they can track the balance between caloric intake and expenditure.

Although research has shown that fitness trackers can be inaccurate on some measures when compared to well-established, validated measurement tools, they still appear to be useful in motivating people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Most devices share daily data with the user via smartphone apps and compare data across users, encouraging them to keep up with daily activities. Studies have shown that features included in the wearables and apps, such as feedback, reminders and goal-setting, are effective to encourage activity participation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gustavo Almeida, P.T., Ph.D.,  is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. His research interests include measurement and promotion of physical activity and musculoskeletal rehabilitation with a focus on individuals with arthritis.