Fitness monitors

Want more efficient workouts? Fitness monitors can help anyone—not just the tech obsessed—get more out of exercise. Basic models track your distance or speed; advanced models can link detailed information to your computer for tracking and analysis.

Which monitor is right for you? This article provides an overview of your options. Just be aware that some of the category names may overlap or get used interchangeably.

For a quick look at the types of information you can monitor—temporal, spatial, bodily and environmental—watch our video:

Activity tracker

Activity Trackers

These moderately priced wristbands or pocket devices not only track your steps, distance and calories burned, they even monitor your sleep at night and gently wake you in the morning. Many offer a free mobile app to let you keep track of your targets and celebrate your successes.

The Fitbit line of trackers is the best known brand in this emerging category.

Chronograph Watches

Chronograph watch

These can be as simple as a digital watch with a chronograph timer (a stopwatch) or a more elaborate, multifunction "training watch." They are ruggedly built and offer some degree of water resistance.

Best for: Running, walking, swimming and everyday use.

Basic models: Most give the time, a lap or split capability, alarm and, perhaps, a countdown timer.

Advanced models: Pay a bit more and you usually get added lap-counting and lap-split capabilities and a countdown timer. Beyond this, the next step up are sophisticated wrist units more accurately described as miniature computers. Look for heart rate monitors, speed & distance monitors or altimeter watches.

Pros: These low-cost watches make it simple to time your workout and count laps. They're small and practical for everyday wear.

Cons: They offer limited training benefit. You can't track distance, speed or heart rate.

Shop REI's selection of chronograph watches.

Pedometers

Pedometer

These count your steps or motion and calculate it to miles (i.e., number of steps x step length = miles). It can be used to track a workout or tally the distance you walk during a day.

Best for: Walking and running.

Basic pedometers: These pendulum-style units clip to your waistband or belt. Manufacturers often suggest positioning them near the top of your hip bone. Many have clocks. They count steps, calculate distance (based on steps taken) and estimate calories burned.

Advanced pedometers: They may be a belt-clip model or a wristwatch with a clock, timers and stopwatch, plus a sensor, foot pod or GPS to more accurately detect and calculate speed. Some use an accelerometer that can be carried in your hand or pocket. Some can download workout data to a computer.

An accelerometer is an electromechanical device that measures acceleration. Also used in products such as cameras and washing machines, accelerometers are considered the most accurate and reliable step-counting mechanism available. Their downside: They may shorten a device's battery life.

Pros: Basic models are inexpensive and, if properly calibrated, sufficiently accurate for many users. Sophisticated pedometers enhance accuracy and provide considerable data.

Cons: Basic pedometers provide only estimates because your step/stride will not be exactly the same each time. High-tech models are usually much more expensive.

Shop REI's selection of pedometers.

Heart Rate Monitors

Heart rate monitor

A heart rate monitor (HRM) measures a person's heart rate in real time. This information can be used to maintain your optimum training level during exercise. Most models include training-watch features as well.

There are 2 types of HRMs:

  • A wireless chest-strap version that transmits signals to a wristwatch receiver. This is the most instantaneous and data-rich choice. It's also the most popular.
  • A fingertip sensor has no straps to wear and looks like a wristwatch. You just press 1 or 2 buttons to view your heart rate. This is a more comfortable option, but offers less data, less convenience (you must press and hold to get a readout) and is a little less accurate than a sensor that touches your chest.

Best for: Running, cycling, gym workouts and walking.

Basic HRMs: They can be either fingertip or wireless models. They deliver a limited amount of information such as average, high and low heart rates reached during your workout. Basic speed and distance data may not be an option.

Advanced HRMs: They provide more sophisticated data. In addition to heart-rate information, most offer post-workout feedback that tracks your performance versus your goals. Wireless, coded chest-straps allow gym workouts to avoid interference from other people's wireless monitors. Some have optional foot pods that can be strapped to a bicycle or treadmill to give you speed, distance and cadence. Some interface with a home computer for tracking and analyzing workouts.

High-end HRMs: They combine heart rate monitors with speed-and-distance-monitor features. See our Speed and Distance Monitors discussion below.

Pros: A wireless chest-strap unit gives you constant on-the-go information for maximum workout efficiency. Fingertip models are nice because they don't require you to wear a chest strap.

Cons: Not everyone likes wearing a chest strap. With fingertip models, you have to stop in order to take a reading and the readings are less accurate.

Shop REI's selection of heart rate monitors.

Speed and Distance Monitors

Speed and distance monitor

These units measure how far and how fast you've trained during your workout, and they often include a heart-rate monitor. They also provide training-watch features and most allow data to be downloaded to your computer. Specific models are aimed at runners or cyclists.

There are 2 types of speed and distance monitors (SDMs):

  • A GPS-driven version (such as Garmin's Forerunner series) provides accurate speed and distance information in a highly convenient, 1-piece wristwatch unit.
  • An accelerometer version uses a sensor, foot pod or bike hub to send the data to your wrist monitor. This is nearly as accurate as GPS-based models and usually less expensive. Some advanced accelerometer models include heart rate monitors.

Best for: Running, cycling and walking.

Basic SDMs: These use an accelerometer (a sensor, foot pod or bike hub) to wirelessly send the data to your wrist monitor. These calculate your speed and distance with many models including a basic heart-rate monitor, too.

Advanced SDMs: These include the popular Garmin Forerunner series. They use GPS technology to determine your speed and distance and store it right in the wristwatch data center. Some GPS-driven SDMs can be outfitted with an optional foot pod to keep you operational in areas where no satellite reception exists.

Pros: GPS-based units are the most accurate and offer 1-piece comfort and convenience with no stride calibration required. Accelerometer-based units are also quite accurate, much less expensive and are the only SDMs to work indoors.

Cons: GPS-based units are expensive and might not work in some areas—canyons, dense forests, indoor gyms, amid tall buildings—so you may want a compatible foot pod. Not all are compatible with Macs. Accelerometer models are less accurate, less convenient and require you to calibrate your stride.

Shop REI's selection of speed and distance monitors.

Altimeter Watches

While not truly fitness monitors, "wrist altimeters" offer electronic functions popular with hikers and climbers headed to the high country. They include the functions of a basic chronographic watch—time, stopwatch, water resistance and alarm—plus an altimeter, barometer and, sometimes, a compass and ascent/descent data.

Best for: Hiking, climbing and skiing.

Basic altimeter watches: They usually include a barometer and thermometer. Barometric pressure readings are used to estimate your elevation.

Advanced altimeter watches: More sophisticated models include a compass (sometimes called "ABC" watches because they feature an altimeter, barometer and compass) and ascent/descent information. Many also offer an altimeter/barometer "lock" to help you recognize weather changes vs. elevation change, which is a nice feature for overnight backpacking.

Pros: When calibrated, these work well to tell you how much elevation you are gaining or losing. The barometer also delivers basic weather forecasting.

Cons: All are based on barometric pressure readings and thus provide estimates only. Altimeters must be regularly recalibrated at known elevations to optimize accuracy. There is a learning curve to master their use. They provide little or no training data.

Shop REI's selection of altimeter watches.

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