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With spring just around the corner, runners and athletes can put away the treadmill in favor of a run on the track or in the park, basking in increasingly more beautiful weather. Unsurprisingly, search interest in fitness trackers and smartwatches began peaking in the beginning of the year. What’s more, according to Statista, people are expected to spend over $93 billion on wearable devices this year.
When I first began regularly using fitness trackers in 2015, they were mainly designed for step counts and distance traveled. Today, fitness trackers equip much more: The brands behind them say they can detect biomarkers such as your heart rate, respiration rate, heart rate variability (HRV) — the variation in time between heartbeats — blood oxygen concentration and sleep time. Some companies boast trackers that they say can predict menstrual cycles.
To help you find the right fitness tracker for you, we consulted fitness experts, some of whom recommended specific models they prefer. On top of sharing those below, we found highly rated fitness trackers that aligned with our research and the guidance experts gave us.
How to shop for a fitness tracker
While fitness trackers can provide many specific data points, experts’ shopping advice was more general than granular: Prioritize comfort, wearability and style — they all noted these matter more than the specific datasets fitness trackers afford, which should be secondary.
“Comfort and wearability are paramount to the effectiveness of the devices,” explained Zakkoyya Lewis-Trammell, assistant professor of kinesiology and health promotion at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, adding that “the device cannot be effective if it is not worn. The robust data means nothing if no data is collected.”
Once those points are settled, experts said your direction will mostly fall within the context of your personal fitness goals and needs, no matter what those are.
“Fitness trackers are most useful for not only athletes and avid gym-goers but also everyday people who may benefit from or be curious about their physical metrics,” said Rhys Athayde, founder and CEO of Phantom Fitness.
Lewis-Trammell added that certain brands lean more toward one purpose than others, in that regard. For instance:
- The Apple Watch is solid for all kinds of “physical activity,” she said
- Garmin devices will be especially useful for “planned exercise and exercises that rely on GPS” like running and biking
- And devices like the Oura Ring, FitBit and Samsung’s Galaxy Watch have a “good balance of physical activity data and data of other health behaviors”
While fitness trackers are certainly an investment — their prices fall mostly between $100 and $300 — Lewis-Trammell told us that many relatively affordable models offer substantial features like self-monitoring, goal-setting and feedback. The higher priced models largely improve on aesthetics and more granular and “robust biometric data” like heart rate, stress and sleep data, she said.
The best fitness trackers of 2022
We sourced these products from notable brands using expert guidance and recommendations as well as some Select staff favorites. The trackers we feature here come in a variety of styles and forms, so you can choose one that you think you’ll wear the most, which experts say is a top priority.
Having just run her first marathon sporting an Apple Watch, certified strength and conditioning specialist Kristina Jennings recommended it for its comfort, fitness tracking capabilities and community features. “You can follow your friends and get notified when they complete activities, which helps with motivation,” said Jennings, who works as a performance coach for workout app Masters. Calling the Apple Watch his go-to fitness tracker, Athayde told us that for Apple users, integration is a major strength of the Apple Watch, emphasizing “the convenience of Apple technology on my wrist.”
The Apple Watch Series 7 comes in 41-millimeter and 45-millimeter display sizes, and is IP6X dust-resistant and water-resistant up to 50 meters, according to the company. The watch has a blood oxygen sensor, optical and electrical heart rate sensors and the ECG app that Apple says can take an electrocardiogram (EKG) — a snapshot of the heart’s electrical activity — through your wrist and finger. You can also choose from a variety of cases, bands and colors.
Athayde recommended the Whoop for its “in-depth data analysis” —it can detect metrics like blood oxygen, heart rate, skin temperature and, notably, HRV — and its “comprehensive mobile app.” Jennings said it’s a great tracker for “recovery, strain and sleep.” Using Whoop requires a membership, which ranges in prices depending on how long you sign up for.
- $180 for 6 months ($30 per month)
- $288 for 12 months ($24 per month)
- $324 for 18 months ($18 per month)
After your initial subscription ends, you have the option of a month-to-month membership for $30 per month.
Fitbit has long been a notable brand in the fitness tracking space. This Versa 3 smartwatch has sensors to detect your heart rate, HRV, oxygen saturation, skin temperature, sleep and more. According to the company, the battery lasts more than six days on a single charge, and has up to 12 hours of battery life with continuous GPS. It also comes in five colorways: midnight/soft gold aluminum, black/black aluminum, pink clay/soft gold aluminum, thistle/soft gold aluminum and olive/soft gold aluminum.
Select writer and avid runner Zoe Malin has used FitBit products since middle school — “it’s the only fitness watch brand I’ve ever used,” she said. Malin uses a now-discontinued version of the Versa smartwatch, the Versa Lite, but praised the platform for its “diverse-yet-simple offerings” and called the brand “great for beginners.”
Jennings said that Garmin smartwatches — including the Forerunner 745 Smartwatch — may appeal to “serious runners and athletes,” lauding the GPS tracking and telling us that the company “is known to accurately track mileage the best.” Jennings recommended this watch specifically given its flexibility around streaming music — you can sync playlists from Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify accounts, according to the company. The tracker tracks data including heart rate, VO2 max, blood oxygen saturation, sleep and more, while also providing more specialized metrics like intensity minutes, recovery time and energy levels. The tracker uses GPS as well as GLONASS and Galileo — these are additional satellite mappers — which Garmin says is more effective than GPS alone. It also features on-screen workouts and popular walking, running and biking routes. The company says that the battery lasts up to a week or up to 6 hours with music and GPS running.
Athayde told us that he likes the minimalism and sleep tracking of the Oura Ring 3 — Jennings added that, similar to the Whoop Strap, it’s good for “recovery, strain and sleep.” In contrast to the other trackers we recommend, you wear the Oura Ring on your finger — it still tracks similar data points compared to most wrist wearables, including heart rate, HRV, blood oxygen saturation, skin temperature, sleep and more. Notably, the company says that the Oura Ring’s skin temperature readings can predict a menstrual cycle. The ring comes in four different colors: silver, black, Stealth and gold (Stealth and gold cost $100 more). A monthly membership fee of $6 per month is required, though the first six months are free.
How to get the most out of your fitness tracker
During my senior year of high school, two of my classmates and I embarked on a Fitbit challenge: We competed all week to see who could get the most steps in. The winner would have their Saturday lunch paid for by the others — as well as fitness bragging rights. That challenge did encourage us to be more active, but we definitely missed out on some interesting insights had we studied just everything the Fitbit was trying to tell us. So other than winning free lunch, what is the best way to use these devices?
- To measure blood flow (and track metrics like heart rate and HRV), the tracker shines a beam of light onto your skin and measures how much of the light is absorbed and/or reflected with an optical sensor. These measurements can provide insight into your physical exertion during a workout.
- Generally, step counts and related movement and location data are collected by an accelerometer or a GPS. Depending on how robust the tracking is, you can learn measurements from how far you’ve walked to how long your strides are.
That creates a fairly robust data set, from which fitness trackers offer various bells and whistles for additional takeaways. And while fitness trackers can motivate you to have a more active lifestyle, they are most effective when paired with an exercise program or a physical activity intervention, Lewis Trammell said “They are optimized to allow the wearer to self-monitor their behavior and provide feedback on their progress,” she added. “These two features alone have a big impact on physical activity improvements.”
Supplementing your fitness tracker data with other considerations and plans is especially significant because, even with perfectly accurate data, fitness trackers have their limitations. Lewis-Trammell said that fitness trackers “do not adequately assess the wearer’s fitness level,” specifically pointing to chronic stress and nutrition as areas where the data “is not as robust.” And while some newer trackers include VO2 monitoring — which Lewis-Trammell says helps “better assess fitness level” — and devices like the Garmin include stress monitoring, fitness trackers often fall short in painting a complete biometric picture of your health.
I did win that high school challenge, by the way, though not without several hours of jogging in place in front of the TV on the final day of the challenge (where I tallied over 30,000 steps, somehow). That was probably not the best way to use the product, according to what experts have told me since. Once the challenge was over, my lifestyle went right back to the way it was before, too. If I had had real fitness goals (rather than just competitive ones) and had been on a workout program, maybe the device would’ve spurred lasting changes for me. Ultimately, whether a fitness tracker works is up to the user.
“I can confidently say the right device is out there for you,” Lewis-Trammell said, “if you are willing to take the time to examine all of the features to make an informed decision.”