Pedometers that count the number of steps you take each day have been around since the 1960s. But fitness tech got a real shot in the arm in 2008 when Fitbit, the first wearable fitness tracking device, hit the market.
Since then, Fitbit and several other companies have developed an ever-evolving array of wearable devices that are intended to quietly come along for the ride of your life while keeping tabs on every physical thing you do. This constant monitoring of movement, sleep patterns and basic health data has created a whole new way to look at fitness and how to make sure you're doing the right things at the right times to support optimal health and wellness.
How Fitness Trackers Work
These wearable technology devices use an accelerometer to sense and measure movements of the body. The data is stored and, depending on the type of device, might be immediately viewable on the wrist display or need to be connected to a computer to analyze the data later.
"These devices give you feedback and data about your movements throughout the day." The aim is to help you understand your patterns and where you might be able to make meaningful adjustments to improve overall health.
Today, options for how to do this abound, but two of the most recognizable and popular brands of wearable fitness trackers -- both worn on the wrist -- are the well-established Fitbit and the newer Apple Watch.
[Read: 5 Realistic Fitness Goals.]
Borchers is a devotee of both the Fitbit and the Apple Watch, and says that the Fitbit is more oriented towards getting people moving. "The main goal is steps. You might hear people talking about 'getting their steps in,' and that's because the Fitbit is super big on hitting a 10,000 steps per day step count," she explains.
That 10,000-step goal harkens back to one of the very first pedometers designed in the mid-1960s. A Japanese researcher named Dr. Yoshiro Hatano at Kyushu University of Health and Welfare was investigating ways to slow rising obesity rates and determined that walking 10,000 steps daily was a simple metric to help people find the right balance between calories ingested and calories burned.
He invented a pedometer called the Manpo-kei, which translates as "10,000 steps meter," that would help people meet that goal. The concept of trying to walk at least 10,000 a day has been a prevailing exercise-for-weight-management idea ever since.
Fitbit has that as a default goal, but you can adjust it for your needs. "For some people, 7,000 steps might be an appropriate goal," Borchers says. But for someone who's a marathoner, "they're going to be far exceeding the 10,000-step count" and might want to set it higher. While Fitbit products emphasize walking, they also track other types of activity, such as running, biking, yoga and strength training.
Fitbit recently upgraded its technology, so these wearables also track:
-- Miles walked.
-- Calories burned, which is calculated using your basal metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories at rest) and your activity data. For devices that track heart rate, that information helps calculate a more precise calories-burned estimate.
-- Floors climbed.
-- Progress toward weight loss goals, which the user can update through the app to earn award "badges."
-- Health metrics, including heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature and oxygen saturation that are available with a premium membership.
Borchers says that the Fitbit offers a lot of detail about sleep duration and quality if you opt for the premium membership, which requires an additional monthly subscription fee. That feature gives you access to all kinds of data about your sleep, such as how long you sleep, how long you spend in deep sleep, how restless you are at night, how your temperature changes and your heart and breathing rate overnight. If you don't sleep well, this information could be very helpful for improving your ability to get the rest you need.
There's a wide variety of options and features available from Fitbit, which offers both a line of smartwatches and a line of trackers.
Currently, the company offers three smartwatches that offer a range of fitness options, as well as many of the features you'd find on a smartphone, such as the ability to take incoming calls and send text messages, listen to music and use apps.
The smartwatch models currently available include:
-- Fitbit Sense: $329.95.
-- Fitbit Versa 3: $229.96.
-- Fitbit Versa 2: $179.95.
In contrast, the trackers are simpler devices that don't have quite as many bells and whistles as the smartwatches but can still offer a wide range of health data and some extras based on the model.
The range of trackers includes:
-- Fitbit Charge 4 Special Edition: $169.95.
-- Fitbit Charge 4: $149.95.
-- Fitbit Inspire 2: $99.95.
-- Fitbit Ace 2: $69.95. (for kids aged 6+)
Fitbit products are swimproof and designed to synch with both Apple and Android devices. Some devices have wi-fi and GPS capabilities.
The Apple Watch, which is designed to synch with other Apple products, is arranged a little differently and helps you set and achieve daily fitness goals using a set of three circular graphs, called rings, on the face of the watch. The idea is to "close your rings" to meet all three goals each day.
-- Calories. The first ring shows the number of calories you burn each day. "The watch sets a recommendation for you based on your age, your weight and your activity level," Borchers says. You can adjust that target if you'd like. For example, if you're more sedentary and "never hitting my goal, the watch might recommend that I lower that goal," she explains. If you're trying to burn more calories to lose weight, you can set the goal higher, so that the watch will remind you to keep moving throughout the day.
-- Exercise. The second ring tracks how much exercise you engage in throughout the day, whether that's steps taken, loops cycled or laps swum. It automatically sets an exercise goal of 30 minutes daily. The watch will automatically capture an exercise if your heart rate exceeds a target level, which is adjustable. If you're going to do a light yoga workout, for example, you can start the exercise tracker manually to capture that as exercise.
-- Stand ring. The third ring helps remind you to keep moving throughout the day. "That feature gives me a cue 10 minutes before every hour that I need to get up and move around," Borchers says. The idea is to make sure you're standing up for at least 1 minute once an hour so you don't get too sedentary.
The Apple Watch tracks heart rate and will notify you if it detects an irregular heart rhythm or a rate that's abnormally high or low. The highest-end model also offers a blood oxygen and ECG app to give you more heart-health data. These add-ons don't require any additional equipment -- delicate sensors in the watch are able to detect your heart rhythm through contact with the wrist to provide this information.
All models have a safety feature called Emergency SOS that can help emergency responders locate you. The two more expensive models also offer international emergency calls, a compass, fall detection and an always-on altimeter as options.
The Apple Watch does some minimal tracking of sleep if you wear it overnight, but the data is limited and focuses on how many hours you've been asleep. It doesn't provide as many insights about sleep quality as the Fitbit does.
The Apple Watch comes with wi-fi connectivity, and you can add GPS and cellular connections as added features. All Apple Watch products are listed as water-resistant to a depth of 50 meters and "swimproof," making them a good option for people who get their exercise in wet environments.
There are three series of Apple Watches available from the company currently, with the most recently released option being the Apple Watch Series 6. These come in two sizes -- 40 mm and 44 mm -- and a rainbow of colors and case materials. You can swap out the band for virtually any style or color you want. All these variations make for different prices, but the base 40 mm model starts at $399 and the base 44mm model starts at $429. Adding cellular and GPS as well as different case and band options can elevate the price significantly.
The Apple Watch SE is a streamlined version of the series 6 that starts at $279. The series 3 is also currently available, starting at $199.
Which Is Better?
Borchers says that figuring out which one is the better option depends on what your goals are and what sort of information is most important to you. For example, if you want a lot of information about your sleep quality but aren't as bothered about excessive data on workouts, then the Fitbit is the better option. And, because Fitbit products synch with both Apple and Android devices, if you use a PC or carry around a Google phone, the Fitbit is going to be the better option for you.
However, if you do want the more granular workout data and have an iPhone, then the Apple Watch will likely be the better fit.
If you have the means, consider getting both, Borchers says. "I started out with a Fitbit, and it was a great introduction to getting data and having my activity tracked and logged. Then, I switched to the Apple Watch. I have an iPhone, and it's more compatible with that, and it's (the Apple Watch) a little higher tech and data-driven. For me, that was the right switch to make," she says.
However, Fitbit products tend to be a little less expensive, and they do offer more data about sleep. So really, it all comes down to what makes the most sense for your health needs, interests and budget. "Both have their place on the market for a reason. It's just choosing which is right for you," Borchers says.
No matter what your goals, Borchers adds that these wearable devices can be really useful and supportive of developing better health and fitness habits. "It's just an extra motivator to get up and get moving to help with your overall physical activity level."