2 Aug 2021
11 min read
“The Garmin heart rate monitor has been most important to my training since the pandemic because it is the only way to monitor how my training is going.”
One of the most rewarding things about working out is seeing our fitness improve and many of us like to measure that progress with a fitness watch or fitness tracker.
We’ve come a long way from the trusty old stopwatch of yesteryear. These days fitness watches don’t just measure sporting performance, but have state-of-the-art functionality to help you monitor your general health.
You’re also spoilt for choice when it comes to the range of fitness watches available. That’s why our guide will give you an introduction. It’ll take you through what they offer, how they can assist in a variety of sports, and from Garmin to Samsung, Polar to Fitbit, we’ll also show you some of the best on the market to meet a range of budgets.
When it comes to choosing a fitness watch, fitness tracker or smart watch to track your fitness, there are certain aspects to consider.
When deciding what fitness watch to buy it comes down to the features you want, the type of device you’re comfortable wearing, brand preference, and often the biggest one of all – price. Here we run through some seven popular options so you can make your choice.
Having GPS to track accurate speed, pace and distance data from your run or ride is a real boon at this entry-level price point – the cheapest fitness tracker on our list. But the Huawei Band 4 Pro fitness tracker goes even further than that with VO2 max measurements and recommended recovery times based on your heart rate data. Check out HUAWEI Band 4 Pro
The Fitbit Charge 4 includes GPS so you can sync with your smart device to show where you’ve walked, run or cycled along with pace, elevation, heart rate zones, and calories burned. It also tracks sleep and has Fitbit Pay capabilities, so you can use it to make purchases. While there are more high-tech alternatives on the market, the advantage of Fitbit keeping it simple with this one is that is extends the battery life too. Check out Fitbit Charge 4
With so many of us having iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 3 is a great option as a compatible fitness tracker and music player on the go. With built-in GPS you can track all manner of exercises including swimming – both open water and laps in the pool. Does everything asked of it, although it does mean it can be a bit greedy with the battery life, so keep a charger handy. If you want to spend more you could upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 5. Check out Apple Watch Series 3
Garmin is the fitness watch specialist, and the Forerunner 245 is the perfect pick for the runner serious about their performance. It’s not about the frills, but it’s compact, light, has accurate built-in GPS and a clear display. It attempts to calculate your VO2 max and how much recovery is needed, and unlike older models, Garmin is now catering for those who like their tunes while they run, so has onboard music storage. Check out Garmin Forerunner 245
A rival to the Garmin Forerunner 245, it tracks almost every sport you can think of including triathlon and open-water swimming. Includes sleep monitoring and heart rate data, although for accuracy it’s worth investing in a cheat strap. It also calculates training load to give you a guide to when you should rest up and when you should push it harder, and even give you some suggestions for your daily workout. Check out Polar Vantage M2
It’s certainly a stylish looking option and although a little chunkier looks more like a classy timepiece than a classic fitness watch. It also offers an array of health data including blood pressure readings, blood oxygen saturation levels and ECG monitors that you won’t find on cheaper fitness trackers. It’s almost like having your personal GP on your wrist and it can even notify emergency contacts if you suddenly take a fall! Check out Samsung Galaxy Watch 3
A dedicated running watch allowing you to sync lots of different profiles from basic jogging to intervals, racing and track workouts. You can create routes in advance using the Suunto app that will highlight nearby tracks popular with other Suunto users. Heart-rate is measured from the wrist sensor, where accuracy is a perennial problem for any fitness tracker where movement is involved – so consider investing in a compatible heart-rate strap. Check out Suunto 9
Fitness trackers have multiple features to help you monitor performance. Some you’ll find more useful than others, but it depends on what you want to measure and why. Here are the some of the main features:
Fairly self-explanatory, step counters work through an accelerometer in the device that senses movement and uses it to estimate steps. It can be a useful way of understanding how much exercise you’re taking during your regular day. If using it to set a target, such as a goal of 15,000 steps a day, it can also provide a bit of encouragement to get up from your desk or couch more often.
If you’re going for a jog, you’ll want to be able to measure how far you’ve run and how long it took. From here, your fitness tracker can work out metrics such as the speed you were travelling in minutes per mile. This is the basic functionality that lets you analyse your training session and compare it to previous attempts. Most fitness watches now also include elevation, which tracks how much uphill and downhill you’ve run or cycled too.
The health and fitness industry seems obsessed with calorie counting and focuses a lot on calories burnt. While it is far from the only or best means of tracking progress, it’s one that many of those with a weight loss goal turn to. As such, most fitness trackers will give you a guide to the number of calories burnt through the day.
Heart rate can be used in a number of ways to track health and fitness. Keeping tabs on your resting heart-rate can give a guide to general health, as can heart rate variability (HRV), which needs to be measured accurately, but is increasingly being used to track fatigue. Measuring heart rate during intense workouts, such as interval running on the track, can also help you stick to planned effort levels and help improve performance. Fitness wearables where the heart-rate is measured through optical tracking on the wrist may not always be reliable for more intense training, and a chest-strap could be preferable.
Health and fitness isn’t just about training hard, it’s also recovery and the importance of a good night’s sleep is becoming more recognised. Health trackers purport to help measure not just how many hours you sleep, but the quality of that sleep too. They track movement ie. if you toss and turn a lot, and may also incorporate heart rate readings into the analysis to try and gauge how much REM and NREM sleep you have. So, you don’t have to become an expert in deep and light sleep, it’s usually translated in a digestible way. ie. good or poor sleep quality, but for most of us, ‘more is better’ is probably a good starting point.
Tracking your fitness and having your favourite playlist all on one device has some obvious advantages and means less gadgets to take with you during your workout. Lots of smart devices offer the opportunity to download music or podcasts, but you might also consider some that give you the ability to stream through WiFi or 4G, which will give you more options. Fitness watches such as Garmin, Samsung, Apple Watch or Fitbit are compatible with streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer.
Another neat feature your fitness tracker may have is the ability to make contactless payments. Using NFC technology, it negates the need to take cash or a card when you go out to exercise and might want to pick up some refreshment afterwards. Apple and Samsung lead the way here having already partnering with all the high street banks. If you’ve a Fitbit or Garmin then Santander is an option, but expect more to follow suit as it’s an area that will continue to grow.
You don’t have to spend a fortune on a fitness tracker when you’re starting out. You can always upgrade to a more expensive, feature-laden feature tracker later. The important aspect is that you will enjoy using and continue to use it once the novelty has worn off. You should be comfortable with how it works, how you use the data and what it means, even if that’s just time spent exercising and distance covered. You also want to make sure it’s comfortable to wear, so while fitness apps can be downloaded on to our smart phones, many people prefer a built-for-purpose wearable.
Broadly speaking fitness watches and fitness trackers perform similar functions and there is no differences in terms of biometric data issued for men and women. However, like almost every offer health and fitness product there are plenty of fitness trackers and watches marketed specifically to different genders. These often take the form of different colours or ‘women’s’ options being more compact to suit a smaller physiology, on average.
Yes, in the past decade that has been a big surge in fitness watches that help measure swim metrics such as distance covered, speed through the water, stroke rate and even the type of stroke you are doing. These can work for both laps in the pool and open water, where the watch’s GPS can help you track where you have been and how far you’ve swum. Some will be more accurate in the open water than others, so best check the reviews before you buy.
There is no one best brand, some people swear by Garmin, others love everything Apple related. Stick to what you know and you’re unlikely to be disappointed. There’s a school of thought that Garmin and Polar are sport-first no-nonsense brands for the serious athlete, and those such as Apple and Fitbit are more stylish, lifestyle, health-led products. While this might be true to an extent, when you start comparing the features, you’ll see many of them cover the same functions and when users make a purchase choice they are rarely disappointed.
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