Fitness Electronics: How to Choose
Want more efficient workouts? A fitness monitor—or “wearable tech”—such as an activity tracker, 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.
An emerging trend is “tethering,” which wirelessly pairs your fitness device with your smartphone so that it also serves as a wrist-top extension of your phone’s functions.
Of course, before initiating any exercise program, consult a physician to design a program that is well suited for your goals and current conditioning.
Best for general fitness; tracking steps
Geared to walkers and runners, a pedometer is a pendulum-based unit that counts your steps and translates them to miles. This data can be used to track a workout or tally the distance you walk during a day.
Some advanced pedometers can calculate calories burned, remember several days’ worth of data and offer easy downloading of saved information to your computer.
Note that basic pedometers provide only estimates because your step/stride will not be exactly the same each time.
Shop REI's selection of pedometers.
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 considered the most 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 gently wake you in the morning. 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).
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.
Shop REI's selection of activity trackers.
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.
However, they offer limited training benefits, because you can’t track distance, speed or heart rate.
Shop REI's selection of running watches.
Best for tracking speed, distance, altitude
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 or cyclists. 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 advanced 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.
Shop REI's selection of GPS sports watches.
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.
By far the most common style, 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.
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.
Shop REI's selection of heart rate monitors.
Shop REI's Selection