How to Choose Fitness Electronics

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Trail runner taking a break to look at her fitness watch

Want more efficient workouts? A fitness monitor—or “wearable tech”—such as an activity tracker, smartphone, heart rate monitor or GPS watch can help anyone get more out of exercise.

Features range from simple stopwatches and lap timers to sophisticated measures of speed, distance and heart rate that you can analyze, track and share on your smartphone or computer.


Activity Trackers

Best for general fitness, calorie and sleep tracking

An activity tracker is a moderately priced wristband or pocket device that has become increasingly popular. 

Activity trackers use accelerometers, which are a very accurate and reliable step-counting mechanism.

Besides tracking your steps, distance and calories burned, an activity tracker can even monitor your sleep at night and wake you in the morning with a gentle vibration. Wristband models offer a comfortable fit for 24/7 monitoring of activity and sleep (and they’re waterproof so you can even wear them in the shower). Some wristband models offer heart rate monitoring so you can track your heart rate and gauge your cardiovascular health and fitness.

Many offer wireless connectivity to your smartphone or tablet and include a free mobile app to let you keep track of your targets, celebrate your successes and share your progress with friends.


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Running Watches

Best for timing your workouts and counting laps

Running watches can be as simple as a digital watch with an alarm and stopwatch. Elaborate multifunction watches may also offer lap-counters, lap splits, countdown timers, interval timers and training logs.

Running watches are ruggedly built with some degree of water resistance and typically feature large, easy-to-read displays. Their overall size and weight generally makes them suitable for everyday wear, and long battery life means you don’t need to worry about recharging or replacing the batteries frequently.

However, they offer limited training benefits, because you can’t track distance, speed or heart rate.


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Smartphones with Fitness Apps

Best for tracking speed, distance, elevation gain

There are numerous free apps available to download onto your smartphone that work with your phone's GPS to allow you to track your speed, distance, elevation gain and more while you run, bike or hike. Since many people already own a smartphone, this can be an excellent low-cost option.

Most smartphones can connect to a wireless sensor, such as a heart rate monitor chest strap or a bike cadence sensor, so you can capture additional data while exercising. Smartphones also have accelerometers in them, allowing them to track your steps like an activity tracker.

However, using apps to track your athletic endeavors can drain your phone’s battery quickly and you’ll be exposing your phone to any inclement weather you may encounter. Another consideration is accuracy: A smartphone tends to be less accurate at tracking speed and distance than a GPS watch.

If you choose to use your phone to track your outings, consider purchasing a sturdy, waterproof case and/or holster for your phone, such as an armband, waistbelt or bike mount, because holding your phone while you’re on the go gets tedious.


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GPS Watches

Best for tracking speed, distance, elevation gain

GPS watches include the basic functions of running watches, but also measure how far and how fast you've trained during your workout. They may store the information right in the wristwatch data center and/or allow you to link the information to your smartphone or computer.

Activity-specific models are aimed at runners, cyclists, hikers, mountain climbers and triathletes. They may come with a foot pod or bike cadence sensor to wirelessly send data to the wrist monitor. These devices allow you to continue monitoring data in areas where no satellite reception exists, such as indoor gyms or amid dense forests or tall buildings.

Some models can also be coupled with a wireless heart rate monitor chest strap, letting you capture detailed information about how your heart rate changes with activity.

GPS watches are weatherproof, and you can even swim with some. However, keep in mind that GPS accuracy can be hampered by immersion in water.


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Heart Rate Monitors

Best for monitoring optimum training levels

A heart rate monitor (HRM) measures your heart rate in real time. Most models include training watch features as well. (Note: There’s a good deal of feature overlap between HRMs and GPS sports watches. You may find some products listed in both categories.) Many models let you connect with digital devices and fitness apps so you can track, save and share your progress.

There are two types of HRMs: chest-strap models and strapless models.


Chest-Strap Models

These consist of a chest strap that fastens around your torso and wirelessly transmits continuous heart rate data to a receiver on your wrist.

Basic models time your workout and give you continuous, average, high and low heart rate data. Many advanced models submit a coded signal to prevent other HRMs from interfering with your data.

They can be partnered with a foot pod that attaches to your shoelaces to track your speed, distance and cadence. Some have GPS receiver capabilities to track speed, distance and elevation, mark/find locations and save previous course info.


Strapless Models

With a strapless HRM, you can track real-time heart rate data without the discomfort and wireless interference sometimes associated with chest-strap models.

Worn on your wrist, a strapless HRM measures your heart rate using a sensor that’s built into the case back or wrist strap.

Note that strapless models tend to be less accurate than chest-strap HRMs and do not pair with speed and distance sensors.

For more information about whether an HRM is the right choice for you, see Heart Rate Monitors: How to Use.


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Note: Before initiating any exercise program, consult a physician to design a program that is well-suited for your goals and current conditioning.



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Contributing Experts

Matt French

Matt French is an REI Outdoor School Instructor in California and an active trail runner and ultradistance runner. He has entered numerous trail-running events, including Ragnar Trail Tahoe in California.