The Inside Track: How to Choose An Activity Tracker

There are dozens of activity trackers already on the market with new ones debuting all the time. Despite the fact that all trackers rely on the same core technology, each brand has it’s unique personality based on its design, function and marketing. Some brands reach out to athletes and fitness buffs; others are designed for people who want to lose weight or tone up for “bathing suit season.”

The truth is, not every tracker is for everybody. How do you find the perfect tracker for your life? 

  • Review Activity Trackers at a Glance, to get a basic understanding of the differences between popular trackers.
  • Read the checklist below to help you pick the right tracker based on your own goals, needs and preferences.
  • Take advantage of the Wellocracy community: See what people like you are saying about their trackers. (After you’ve started tracking, be sure to share your feedback!)
  • Learn how to use your tracker with our Steps and Bursts strategy, a really simple way to boost your activity.
  • Have you taken our “What Makes it Stick” quiz to find out your “stickiness factor?” Knowing what motivates you is also important in finding a device that will keep you on track.

Checklist: Finding the Right Activity Tracker

Just a few years ago, the first trackers came with a hefty price tag of up to several hundred dollars. Although there are still some pricier trackers that come with additional bells and whistles, today you can get a basic tracker for about $100 or less that get the job done.

For some people, less expensive trackers may do the trick, but if you want additional features, you may have to consider the more expensive brands.  Keep in mind that not all trackers track every activity. Some track sleep, some don’t, and only a select few can be worn swimming. The bargain tracker that doesn’t track what you need can turn out to be a waste of money. Be certain that you’re purchasing a tracker that does what you want it to do.

And then, there’s the aesthetics. Regardless of price or function, you simply may like the look of one tracker over another! If you don’t like your tracker, you’re not going to use it.

Be sure to consider all of these factors when comparing the cost of trackers. (Check out “Cost,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.) 

What Does it Track?  

If your primary activity is walking, hiking or running, virtually any brand will do. Not so if you get most of your activity either cycling, working an elliptical, walking on a treadmill, swimming or mountain climbing. Be sure to select a tracker that can capture data for the specific activity or sport you do most, or you won’t get full credit for your active minutes and calories burned.

Swimmers take note: Most trackers are water resistant, not waterproof, which means it won’t break if you splash water on it, but submerging it in water is another story.  Be sure to pick one that clearly states that you can wear it swimming. 

Stationery activities like yoga, Pilates and even weight lifting – which may require a great deal of exertion yet don’t contribute to your step count – are recorded as “active minutes” or “very active minutes.” When you’re working hard, you should notice an uptick in calories burned.

Some trackers offer a separate category for stair climbing. Having this feature could motivate you to take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator.

If you’re interested in tracking your sleep, be sure to select a tracker that offers this function.

To pick a tracker that best suits your activity needs, check out “What it Captures,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.

Where Will You Wear it? 

Trackers come in different shapes, styles and sizes: Some are small enough to clip onto your belt, bra or shoe, while others are worn on wristbands or armbands. Whichever tracker you choose, be sure that you are absolutely comfortable with it so that you will leave it on all day (and in some cases, all night).

Some trackers just beg to be seen. They feature shiny lights or fun icons that change throughout the day as you log in more activity. You can hide these snazzy trackers under your clothes, but then again, why would you want to? You can get a tracker in basic black, or bright or neon colors. We know some who match the color or their tracker to their outfit!

If you want a device that is completely hidden, then opt for a clip-on that you can wear on a belt or a bra. Some brands give you the option of wearing your tracker on either an armband or as a clip-on, depending on your preference. (If you choose to wear your tracker under your clothes, remember that it may be harder for you to view progress shown on many of the tracker screens.)

Only you know what will work best for your lifestyle. To review your options, check out “Where it Can Be Worn,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.

Are You Comfortable With The Technology?

Regardless of your level of tech know-how, there’s a tracker out there for you. There are basically three “tech” issues to consider when selecting a tracker: the set-up, how you keep it charged and how it stores your data.  In most cases, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to handle any of these functions, but some people may find a few of the tasks intimidating. Don’t let that stop you though. With a little practice, you’ll be tracking like a pro.

Don’t Get Upset by the Set-Up!

Just about every tracker requires some computer, tablet or smartphone set-up to get you started. If you can access a website and plug in a USB cable, most trackers are quite easy to activate and connect. (Basically, the whole “on boarding” operation requires little more than locating a website, downloading some software and setting up your personal account.) Honestly, this is not a big deal. If you are tech-phobic, get someone else to do it for you! Remember, you usually only have to do it once.

Keeping it Juiced

Once you’ve completed the set-up, there is very little technology involved in wearing a tracker other than keeping it charged. You typically have two options: a tracker that uses a long acting lithium watch battery or one that runs on an internal battery that must be recharged. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Trackers that use watch batteries can run for up to six months, but eventually must be replaced. The disadvantage is that the batteries are tiny – really tiny – and for some people, may be difficult to manipulate.

The other option is a tracker with an internal battery that must be charged every 5 to 7 days. Once again, not a big deal, unless you feel overwhelmed by the number of devices in your life that already need routine charging. Check out “Chargeable vs. Battery,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.

How it Stores and Syncs Your Data

If you choose to have your tracking data sent to your computer or tablet, one thing to consider is how easily your tracker communicates with these devices. For some trackers, a USB connection is required to upload to your computer.  In others, a wireless antenna connected to your computer automatically uploads the data from your tracker whenever you pass by the computer wearing the tracker.

Most trackers are able to link directly to your smartphone which, on the one hand, is great because you can check your personal data from anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, getting the right connection can be tricky. The connection from phone to tracker is usually via Bluetooth, which can be notoriously finicky.  .

Another challenge is that running an activity tracker on your smartphone 24/7 can drain the juice for your phone very quickly.  The more demands you place on your smartphone beyond making calls, like running apps and surfing the internet, the faster your battery will be depleted. You’ll just need to charge your phone more often.

How Do You Access Your Data?  

Wearing a tracker is just half the story. The other equally important part is understanding and using your data to live a healthy life and achieve your goals. Different activity trackers have different ways to display and access data. When you upload or sync your tracker, you will be able to view your data on a personal ‘dashboard’ viewable via a website or smartphone app. Depending on the tracker, the dashboard will maintain graphs of your activity trends for weeks or even months. This is important information in terms of helping you better understand your habits and behaviors. If you find a website or app difficult to navigate, you will be less likely to use your data effectively. Before making a purchase, check out the product website or app to see if it speaks to you in a way that will keep you coming back.

In addition, nearly all of these devices themselves show you a measure of your progress throughout the day.  Some display actual numbers, others use visual cues like lights that indicate how close you are to completing your goals. This can be an important feature in terms of keeping you on track. We recommend checking your data at least once a day, preferably late morning or early afternoon, when there is still time to make a mid-course correction. (If you wear your tracker under your clothes, you’ll very likely be accessing your data on a website or app during the day.)

Do You Want Extra Support?  

Most trackers offer some kind of positive feedback often in the form of virtual rewards – called badges, or congratulatory e-mails – when people meet their daily goals. Although this sounds a bit hokey, having your hard work acknowledged can make you feel good. For some people, a slap on the back is not enough and need additional support to stay on track.

Some trackers offer additional “personalized” coaching- – usually for an extra fee – which may include among other things, menus based on weight goals and food preferences, work-out suggestions and encouraging texts throughout the day. This could be an important feature for people who have specific goals, like losing a substantial amount of weight and who require additional guidance and motivation.  (Check “Additional Features,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.)

Your “stickiness factor” comes into play here. To find match your personality type to the right activity tracker to help keep you motivated and ‘on track,’ take the Wellocracy Stickiness Quiz!

Different features available on activity trackers may appeal to different personality types. If you’re a “Self-Starter” who craves competition, choose a tracker that creates some sort of contest for you. Nike excels at this.  If you’re a “Social Butterfly,” or “Team Player,” look for a tracker that makes it easy to share your data with friends.

If you’re “Solo-Social,” you want a tracker that respects your independent streak (that is, doesn’t bombard you with messages all day) but still allows you to share with friends.  On the other hand, if you are motivated by reminders or a strong coaching voice some of the trackers are starting to link to coaching/reminder services. Keep in mind, however, automated coaching can seem very robotic which many people dislike.

Think about what motivates you and how you can take advantage of these different tools to keep you accountable to your goal.  An activity monitor provides the objective yardstick, but it’s too easy to make excuses if nothing or no one is holding you accountable.  If you use one or more of these motivational tools, you will have a better chance of keeping focused on achieving what you set out to do.

Is It Compatible With Other Devices/Apps?

Millions of people are already using apps or websites to keep a food diary or manually record their daily exercise routines, like Lose It!, My Fitness Pal and Spark People. Some trackers will let you send your data to the apps and websites that you may already be using. This enables you to sync your tracking information with your diet and workout, and access it all in one place. This handy feature can help you better manage and coordinate your wellness plan.

Similarly, some trackers will also integrate data with a smart scale, blood pressure cuff or glucometer. There’s no better way to see the relationship between lifestyle, weight gain and blood sugar levels than having all your data displayed together.

Check out “Additional Features,” Activity Trackers at a Glance.