Smartwatch or Fitness Tracker

(And which is better for you and your exercise routine)

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A device to track sports and daily activities is a great aid for both the casual and professional sportsperson. There are a wide range of features on offer to give you a regular overview of your training, how your fitness has improved over time and how close you are to achieving your goals.

However, the first thing you need to know is that nothing will improve by simply purchasing a device and slapping it on your wrist. Like all fitness or gym equipment, a smartwatch or fitness tracker is a tool that can help you achieve your goals but it will certainly not do any of the actual work for you.

With that in mind, you need to look at all the functions that smartwatches and fitness trackers offer. Many activities and aspects of your lifestyle can be measured with these devices. There is no single device that can do everything so you need to decide which features are important to you. Think about the sports that you do as well as anything else that you want to track like sleep patterns. Once you have a clear idea about your needs, you will be able to decide whether you need a smartwatch or a fitness tracker and then choose the device that best suits you.

Which is better - Smartwatch or Fitness Tracker?

The difference between the two is that a fitness tracker is designed exclusively for tracking activities and health data. A smartwatch is a device for communicating and viewing notifications from your smartphone that can also be used for fitness tracking.

What you need to decide is whether you need or want all the features of a smartwatch, most notably the ability to see email, text, social media notifications etc on your wrist. If this is something you want to have and can also use during your normal day as well as when exercising, then a smartwatch is right for you. If not, then a fitness tracker will help you achieve your fitness goals just as effectively. Some fitness trackers can also display notifications but the screen size usually makes it hard to actually read them, even when you are moving around during a workout.

Common Features of Smartwatches and Fitness Trackers

The following features are commonly on offer. Generally, more features means a larger unit and a higher price as more technology needs to be crammed into a small space.

Pedometer

This will measure the steps you take and give an indication of distance travelled. Without GPS, the distance measurement can only be an indication and will most likely be 10-20% away from the actual distance moved. Devices with only a pedometer are cheap and worth considering for the casual runner who does not need or want to measure more.

GPS

The most accurate way to see how far you moved and where you went. GPS stands for Global Positioning System. To get an accurate reading, a device will connect to at least three satellites that will triangulate your position on earth. Altitude can also be calculated if the device can connect to four or more satellites. As you move, speed, distance and direction can be calculated based on your changing position in relation to the satellites.

Alternative systems to GPS exist but work in the same way. The Russian system is called GLONASS. The European Union and China are both working on their own systems. Some devices are able to connect to GPS as well as GLONASS. At the end of the day, as long as the reading is accurate then you do not need to worry which system is being used. Accuracy is generally quite high but the signal can get thrown off by tall buildings or dense woodland.

Heart rate monitor

Whereas a pedometer or GPS can only tell you how many steps you took or how far you moved, a heart rate monitor can tell you how hard you were working. After all, there is a world of difference between walking and running a certain distance. If you leave the device on all the time you can see how your heart rate changes during your normal daily activities and sleep. Over time you can use the measurements to see how your fitness has improved.

There are two types of heart rate monitor. Optical and bioimpedance sensors can be integrated into a device and some connect to external chest or wrist straps. Chest straps give the most accurate readings. Optical sensors or external wrist straps need to be in exactly the right position and stay there, which becomes a problem during hard workouts or dynamic sports not only because of the movement involved but also because a tight strap around the wrist is uncomfortable. Sweat can also obscure the readings from optical sensors. Bioimpedance uses a small electrical current to measure heart rate. It is just as accurate as an optical sensor but uses far less battery power.

Gyroscope or accelerometer

A gyroscope senses your orientation and movement based on gravity and an accelerometer (no prizes for guessing this) measures acceleration. These sensors detect how much and how fast you are moving during activities as well as how much you move during day-to-day movements.

Sleep tracking

Fitness trackers and smartwatches can give you an indication of time spent sleeping and quality of sleep. You should be wary of the accuracy though. Devices use readings from an accelerometer to guess when you are asleep but they cannot definitely know if a large movement is because you are awake and moving or if you have just rolled over. Often the guesswork is wrong but if you spend significant amounts of time not moving when you are asleep, then it is likely that you are sleeping deeper. Some devices also use heart rate data to decide what stage of sleep you are in.

The sleep data given by fitness trackers is only really useful for users who generally sleep well. If you have a sleeping disorder or suspect that you do, a fitness tracker will be of no help in indicating how well you are actually sleeping. For the average user however, you can get an idea of how much sleep you are getting.

Barometer

Using atmospheric pressure as a guide, a barometer can indicate your altitude. As you gain altitude, air pressure decreases. The reading can be obscured by sudden changes in weather. For example, a sudden thunder storm will be accompanied by a drop in air pressure, which will make a barometer think you are higher up than you actually are. For this reason, the most accurate altitude readings cross check a barometer with the known altitude of nearby locations. A device can only do this if it has GPS.

Activity detection

Not all devices support different activities/sports. For your convenience, some can automatically detect what sport you are doing based on your movement and speed. Others require you to manually select your current activity.

Workouts

Workout plans are great if you do not have a personal coach or trainer as you can get a free training plan. Your device can lead you through workouts like interval or endurance training.

Social

Connecting with friends or the community using the same device can be motivating and fun. Challenge friends to see who can run the furthest in a month. Liking each others activities will help motivate you.

Third party apps

Some devices are compatible with third party apps which can fill in any gaps in what the original device offers. MyFitnessPal for example can be synced with certain devices to help monitor your calorie intake.

Smartphone notifications

Smartwatches and some fitness trackers can display notifications from your smartphone. Whether you want or need to see messages while working out is up to you.

Waterproof or water resistance

If you are a swimmer then you will obviously need a waterproof device. Water resistant devices will be able to put up with showering or light rain.

Battery life

Some devices can last for days before a recharge is needed. Smartwatches tend to have a much shorter battery life and some need recharging daily.

How to Use a Smartwatch or Fitness Tracker to Achieve Your Goals

Once you have the device of your choosing (see the table below for help), you need to wear it and regularly look at and use the data to set and achieve goals. For example, you can see how long it takes you to run a fixed course and watch how you get faster over time alongside how your heart rate changes. You can use specific workouts to work on endurance or sprint speed for example.

Burn Fat

Calories in = calories out. If you consume more calories than you use, you will gain weight. If you burn more calories than you consume, your body will use fat as an energy source and you will lose weight. It sounds simple but this is useless knowledge unless you know how many calories you burn during your daily activities and how many you get from your food. Fortunately your device is here to help.

First you need to know how many calories you are burning. Your device will work this out by calculating your base metabolic rate (BMR) and active metabolic rate (AMR). Think of your BMR as the calories burned by your body just to live. Things like breathing, digestion and your heart beating all burn calories. The number of calories that your body burns before you do any activity is the BMR. Add the calories burned during activities like moving around, walking the dog, workouts etc to this number and you have your AMR, which is the total number of calories burned in a day.

When you set up your device, it will likely ask you for your gender, age, weight, and height to make an estimate of your BMR. Sensors like the pedometer, heart rate, and gyroscope will tell the device how much you are moving and how hard you are working to estimate the additional calories burned and therefore your AMR. Although not entirely accurate (everyone burns calories at a different rate and the weight input does not account for muscle vs fat weight) you will still get a good indication of what you are burning on a daily basis.

Now you know your calorie output, it is time to think about the input. You can either keep a manual food diary or use MyFitnessPal, which syncs to many devices and makes the tracking a bit easier for you. Aim to consume 200-300 calories less than your AMR. The deficit will force your body to use fat reserves for energy, making you lose weight.

Remember to set your device to the correct activity type if it does not automatically detect what sport you are doing. Also as your weight changes, you will need to update your device to ensure that your AMR reading is based on your current weight.

Bear in mind that weight loss is not infinite. As you work out more, you will lose fat and gain muscle, eventually the two will balance out and you will stop losing weight. It would be harmful to try to lose weight beyond this point.

Gain Muscle

Not everyone wants to lose weight. You can use a smartwatch or fitness tracker to build muscle as well. To do so, you will need to complete muscle building workouts, eat more calories than your AMR and up your protein intake. On top of this you need to rest properly as this is when new muscle will be built.

Your device can help you with each of these. Download specific workouts and stick to a workout plan. Monitor your calorie intake against your AMR and ensure that you eat at least 1 gram of protein for each pound of weight. Rest is the most important aspect so tracking your sleep will let you know if you are resting enough. A higher than average heart rate can indicate overtraining.

Track Fitness

Weight loss or muscle gain may not be your priority. Both are likely to happen anyway if you work out more or do more sports. Tracking your activities is a great motivational tool and lets you see your improvement over time.

Your device will probably come with a smartphone app or online platform (or both) to view your activities. You may even be able to connect with other services like Strava. Analyze the data with the tools provided to see graphs or calenders of weekly and monthly totals. You will also most likely be able to see when you have beaten personal bests. Some devices like Fitbit allow you to connect with other users and friends to compete in challenges and motivate each other.

It is worth checking what is included before making a purchase to make sure that you will be able to see the data that is important to you.

Track Heart Rate

Tracking your heart rate over time will help you to see how you are getting fitter and also warn you when you are overtraining or getting sick. As your fitness improves, your body will become more efficient at moving blood and oxygen around your body. Consequently your resting heart rate will decrease. If you are overtraining or getting sick, your resting heart rate will increase. Your device can give you a warning if your resting heart rate is 10% higher than normal and you should take this as a cue to rest for a few days. You should be aware if the cause is overtraining or illness based on how you feel and how much you have been working out.

Overtraining is a serious problem. If you choose to ignore the warning signs you will feel constantly low on energy and start to lose muscle mass. Once this starts to happen your recovery time will be even longer so it is best to take action immediately and rest up. Once your resting heart rate is back to normal, you can continue with your workouts.

Third Party Apps

There are literally hundreds of apps so we can’t discuss them all here. Here are some highlights for you though:

MapMyFitness

A free Android and iOS app to log over 600 different types of activity, track all sorts of data, gain a comprehensive insight into personal fitness and set goals based on current fitness level. The community has challenges that you can join and more features are available for a monthly subscription. Map My Fitness syncs with over 400 devices, most notably Android Wear and Apple Watch.

Lose It!

This free app helps you lose weight by counting calories and logging activities. It can connect with a number of devices including Fitbit.

FitRPG

Compatible with Fitbit devices, this app gamifies your workout data. First you create an RPG character and you earn points and gold from working out. You can then use these to improve your character, go on quests and compete against friends.

Waterlogged

Also an app for Fitbit, Waterlogged helps you track your water intake and help make sure that you are staying properly hydrated during your activities.

Apple Health

Intended to be a single location for all your fitness and health data, the Health app connected to many third-party services and a wide range of devices, including Apple Watch, Misfit Shine 2 and Xiaomi Mi Band 2.

Smartwatch and activity trackers on white background
Smartwatch and activity trackers on white background

The 10 Best Fitness Trackers and Smartwatches

  1. Garmin VivoSmart HR+:  Fitness tracker with heart rate monitor, GPS, water resistant and 6 day battery life.
  2. Mood Now:  Fitness tracker, GPS links through smartphone, waterproof and reported 6 month battery life.
  3. Samsung Gear Fit 2:  Fitness tracker with heart rate monitor, GPS links through smartphone, waterproof and 3 day battery life.
  4. FitBit Charge 2:  Fitness tracker with heart rate monitor, GPS links through smartphone, and 6 day battery life.
  5. Jawbone UP3:  Fitness tracker with heart rate monitor (resting only), and 7 day battery life.
  6. H;Huawei Fit:  Fitness tracker with heart rate monitor, waterproof and 6 day battery life.
  7. Samsung Gear S3:  Smartwatch with heart rate monitor, water resistant and 3 day battery life.
  8. Apple Watch 2:  Smartwatch with heart rate monitor, GPS, waterproof and 18 hour battery life.
  9. LG Watch Sport:  Smartwatch with heart rate monitor, GPS, waterproof and 16 hour battery life.
  10. Huawei Watch 2:  Smartwatch with heart rate monitor, GPS, and 2 day battery life.

Not on our top ten list, but worth an honorable mention is the Misfit Shine 2 Swimmer's Editon:  Tracks laps and swim distance with industry‐leading accuracy, Automatically tracks steps, distance, calories, and light and restful sleep, Vibration alerts for call and text notifications, movement reminders, and alarms, Smart button enabled to control connected household devices, Non-charging, replaceable battery lasts up to 6 months.

If you use them properly, both smartwatches and fitness trackers can help you achieve your health goals. It does not matter which type of device you use as long as you make sure that it is capable of measuring the activities and data that you need.

The choice between the two is about whether you need the extra features provided by a smartwatch. Just because it is possible to see notifications during a workout does not mean that you should. While sports and other activities are great for your physical health, your mental health will also get a boost from switching off and leaving work in the office. Nothing can ruin a pleasant jog faster than receiving an email that throws your mind back to the worries and stress of work, so bear this in mind when making a decision.

If you do decide to choose a smartwatch, then the Apple Watch 2 is the best choice for iPhone users if you can afford the high asking price. The number of apps on offer certainly make it worth the money. For non iPhone owners, the Huawei Watch 2 is literally packed full of features.

For the athlete who wants to track fitness without constant facebook updates, the best device is the Garmin Vivosmart HR+. Waterproof, a long battery life, integrated heart rate monitor, as well as the ability to use it without connecting to a smartphone make the Garmin versatile and powerful.

Whatever device you choose, remember that the true benefit comes from analyzing the data and creating training and fitness goals. So get out there, enjoy your workout and look forward to getting healthier and a happier body and mind!