What to Know About Fitness Trackers

Fitness trackers collect information on your daily activity, but they're not just for athletes.

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Fitness trackers are an extremely popular smart gadget, but their purpose can be a little confusing if you’ve never owned one. Here’s what you need to know about these wearable fitness devices and how they can help you.

What Are Fitness Trackers?

Fitness or activity trackers are wearable smart gadgets that are typically fashioned as bracelets. (There are also ring, necklace and clip-on trackers.) Similar to pedometers, these devices count the steps you take every day. But they can also measure other data points such as your heart rate, distance traveled and sleep patterns. Fitness trackers then sync up to your smartphone via Bluetooth, giving you access to all this information via their associated app.

While they often share features with smart watches, activity trackers stand apart in the amount of fitness-focused data they collect. Smart watches often have a few activity-focused features, but fitness trackers typically collect more in-depth information.

How Do Fitness Trackers Work?

If you’re wondering how a seemingly simple bracelet can collect so much data, the answer is through sensors — lots of them!

Most activity trackers have a built-in three-axis accelerometer that tracks movement in every direction, as well as a gyroscope to measure rotation. There’s typically an altimeter to keep track of altitude, and bioimpedance or optical sensors that measure your pulse. Some trackers even have temperature sensors, barometers and compasses, all packed into that tiny little device.

What Do Fitness Trackers Track?

Different fitness tracker brands and models offer various features, but almost all activity trackers measure the following data:

More advanced models may also collect additional data, including:

  • Heart rate;
  • Floors climbed;
  • Sleep time;
  • Sleep quality;
  • Specific exercises or activities, including swimming;
  • GPS location;
  • Stress levels.

Many fitness trackers also offer other useful features such as wake-up alarms, fitness coaching, stand reminders and calorie counting. Some can receive calls, texts and emails while connected to your phone.

What Are the Different Types of Fitness Trackers?

Fitness trackers are often grouped into a few categories based on their features.

Entry-level fitness trackers — such as those offered by Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung — collect the basic information listed above and are typically available at affordable prices. The next level up are fitness trackers with heart-rate monitors. These devices usually offer more advanced features and are more expensive. There are even GPS fitness trackers with built-in location positioning, allowing you to track your location even when out of your phone’s Bluetooth range.

Finally, there are also specialized fitness electronics such as running watches from brands like Polar and Garmin. These often have additional features such as lap-counters, interval timers and training logs. Garmin also offers special wearables for swimming and golfing.

Do your kids want to get in on the fun? Many popular fitness tracker brands offer pared-down devices for children, which typically have fewer features and include game-style incentives for kids to stay active.

How Much Do Fitness Trackers Cost?

You can find off-brand fitness trackers for as low as $30 on sites such as Amazon, but an entry-level Fitbit model starts at around $70. Prices go up from there, with the brand’s high-end Charge 4, which includes heart-rate monitoring and built-in GPS, retailing for $170.

Specialized sport watches typically boast high price tags as well. Polar running watches cost around $200, and Garmin golf watches retail for around $300. In general, the more features a fitness tracker has, the more you can expect to pay.

Camryn Rabideau
Camryn Rabideau is freelance writer specializing in fashion, beauty, home, smart technology and general lifestyle content. She holds a degree in fashion merchandising from the University of Rhode Island and jumps at any opportunity to combine her love for fashion and writing.

Camryn is a regular contributor to popular media sites such as Martha Stewart, Food52, InStyle, Taste of Home, USA Today, Reviewed.com, The Spruce, Elite Daily and The Everygirl. She has also worked with several Fortune 500 companies to create engaging articles for their content marketing initiatives. Despite pressure from her peers, she remains on team #NoOxfordComma.