What Is Wearable Fitness Technology and How Can It Help You?

By James T. Cains

A new wave of wearable fitness devices, also called fitness activity trackers, has become extremely popular in recent years. What began as relatively simple devices like pedometers, heart monitors, and calorie counters have evolved into all-in-one devices that can connect to the Internet or your smartphone for long-term tracking of your fitness data, as well as sharing of your data with other fitness fanatics.

Here are the main features of wearable fitness devices:

  • Step counter: Evolving from the pedometers of old, activity trackers not only count the steps you take, but they also use accelerometers and altimeters to calculate your overall distance traveled.

  • Heart monitor: Many devices have special sensors that can tell you your heart rate.

  • Calorie monitor and counter: Working with the step counter, this feature can tell you how many calories you’ve burned while walking. You can also track how many calories you’ve consumed throughout the day.

  • Exercise tracker: You can use the device to track how much exercise you do each day and learn how many calories you burn while exercising.

  • Sleep monitor: This feature not only tracks how much sleep you get, but also tells you how restful your sleep is.

  • Goal setting: You can set personal fitness and health goals and receive notifications when you achieve (and more importantly when you don’t achieve) those goals.

  • Connectivity: These devices can connect to apps on your smartphone or the Internet to track your long-term progress. You can also share your fitness data online and interact with others.

Examples of wearable fitness devices

Currently, about 14 companies make wearable fitness devices, and all are competing in what they foresee as a very lucrative market. In fact, industry forecaster IHS Technology predicts that sales of activity trackers will increase from $1.9 billion in 2013 to $2.8 billion in 2019. Here’s a quick look at four of the leading activity trackers available today:

Fitbit

Fitbit has a number of activity trackers that you can choose from, depending on your personal style (whether you prefer a wristband or belt clip), level of commitment (whether you want a basic step counter or all the bells and whistles), and size of your wallet (whether you want to pay $60 or $250, or somewhere in between). Of course, cheaper models won’t have the more advanced features, such as heart and sleep monitoring or notifications, but all models offer the basics of step counting, distance calculation, and calorie burn calculation. Also, if you want a substitute for your wristwatch, the Fitbit Charge and Surge come with displays that show the time and your daily stats. For more information on using the Fitbit, see Using the Fitbit Activity Tracker to Get Fit.

Jawbone

Jawbone makes three activity trackers — one belt clip and two wristbands — that tie into Jawbone’s UP System apps. The trackers range from $50 to $180 and all of them come with the basics. The most expensive of the trackers include a heart monitor, advanced sleep monitor, and workout recognition. None of the trackers come with a display (instead, using LED lights as indicators), but Jawbone’s “Smart Coach” claims to analyze your fitness data and provide you with personalized insights and advice in reaching your health and fitness goals. To find out more about Jawbone UP trackers, see Using the Jawbone UP Tracker to Get Fit.

Nike Fuelband SE

Nike’s entry into the wearable fitness technology is the FuelBand SE, which is a wristband priced at about $100 and comes in several fashionable colors. It does most of what all the other activity trackers do, but Nike’s approach to evaluating fitness activity differs. The Nike FuelBand SE uses “fuel points” to measure the quantity and quality of your activity, recording data directly into a smartphone app. It doesn’t have a traditional watch-like display; instead, it uses LED indicators to show your progress. The indicators can even display the number of fuel points you earn, much like a scoreboard at a basketball game. The smartphone app makes it easy to connect with others, join fitness groups to try to reach goals together, and compete with others for position on the leaderboard. To discover how you can benefit from the Nike FuelBand, see Using the Nike FuelBand to Get Fit.

Polar Loop

Polar Loop offers a wristband activity tracker in different colors, with the same kind of scoreboard display as the Nike FuelBand. This tracker does what all the others do in terms of recording your steps, runs, and jumps, and showing you calories burned while doing so. It also connects to your smartphone for goal setting, reminders, and sleep monitoring. The app includes an activity guide to provide tips on how to reach your goals. It’s also waterproof for swimming. The Polar Loop is about $110; the optional heart rate sensor will set you back another $80. To find out more about the Polar Loop, see Getting Fit with the Polar Loop Activity Tracker.

How wearable fitness technology can help you

As with most things, how much fitness activity trackers can help you depends on your level of commitment. However, one thing is for sure: Activity trackers do motivate people to get off their butts.

If nothing else, step counters make you very conscious of how much you’re walking each day. In fact, you may be surprised by the initial results. For example, you may think you’re plenty active, achieving those recommended 10,000 or 15,000 steps a day, but your tracker reveals that you walk only a few thousand steps per day. That can be eye opening and push you to walk more. You may also be surprised when counting calories, recording your intake and comparing it to how much you burn, which again can push you to be more active.

Going beyond this basic functionality can help you even more. Most activity trackers interact with your smartphone to allow for setting goals and long-term tracking of your progress. The apps also provide you with tips on how to reach your goals. Many apps have social networking features that allow you to connect with others so that you and your fitness friends can encourage, and even compete, with each other.