Best Fitness Trackers: 2021 Buying Guide
If you are in the market for a fitness tracker, you’ve probably noticed that there is a huge number of options out there. Companies like Fitbit tend to dominate the conversation, but there are many other fitness tracker brands that deserve a look.
Many of the non-Fitbit brands have devoted followers, and many trackers get consistently high marks. That’s great news for consumers: it means that there are options for every budget. The not so great news when it comes time to make a decision: how does one pick from the seemingly endless options? Do you go with the big name and choose a Fitbit? How do you pick a model if you’ve determined your budget?
Fortunately, we’ve got answers.
This Fitness Trackers Guide will cover the basics of fitness trackers, including features, apps, and tracking functions. But first we’ll give you a breakdown of our favorites at popular price points and for particular features.
Our Top Five Best Recommended Fitness Trackers
Heart Rate Tracking
Shopping by Price
Finally, price is one of the key categories of fitness trackers. You can spend anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars depending on the features you want. If you are on a tight budget, you can still find something that will give you the basics like tracking your steps. Spend a bit more and you can get heart rate tracking, spend even more than that and get GPS or a higher water rating.
It’s worth it to save up to get the device you really want, if that’s a possibility for you, and if you truly see yourself getting a lot of use out of the device. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best fitness trackers you can get for more budget-friendly prices.
How to Shop for a Fitness Tracker
Simply plugging in “fitness trackers” to a search engine produces mind-boggling results. The reality is you have to think through what you want and need before you get started. You’ll need to ask yourself whether you want things like heart rate monitoring or GPS, and what sorts of activities you usually do.
Here are some of the initial things to consider when you begin your search.
The wrist fitness tracker is the most popular, but it’s not the only option. If you’re not sure if you want to wear something around your wrist all the time, it’s worth it to look at some of the other options. You can get trackers that are rings or necklaces (Ringly makes a lovely ring); you can even find trackers that just clip on to your clothing.
If you do want a wrist activity tracker, you still have some great style options available to you. Several devices look great and can be customized through changeable bands. Other devices are low profile and don’t look like a flashy tracker.
Another consideration is whether you want a smartwatch, which will likely focus less on fitness and more on keeping you connected. However, many new models are hybrids of fitness trackers and smartwatches, which means you have more options than ever.
Also, keep comfort in mind! You’ll probably want to wear it 24/7, so it should be comfortable enough to sleep in and wear with different sleeve lengths and so forth. Some bulky trackers are very uncomfortable for those with smaller wrists or for those who wear long sleeves. Others might just not feel right to you. Definitely try on devices with long-term wear in mind.
The display is an important part of your fitness tracker, and it’s well worth it to check out the style and functionality of the devices you’re interested in. Displays have a range of options and specs including:
- Touch screen
- Side buttons
- Color or black and white
- Visibility in various light conditions
- Size of screen
In addition to the looks of the display, it’s important to find one that has an intuitive interface. There’s nothing worse than spending the money on a fancy tracker only to struggle with using it. Some devices have a steep learning curve but are still useable once you get to know it, but others are touchy, buggy, or overly-complicated and simply not worth it. User experience is absolutely key in your enjoyment of your device – otherwise it will probably end up in a drawer sooner rather than later.
The features of fitness trackers include things like activity and sleep tracking and heart rate monitors, which we’ll cover next. The features of fitness trackers usually make or break the decision for you. It’s a good idea to establish early on in your search just what you want out of your fitness tracker.
Part of the features consideration might also include data and metrics. If you are seeking a tracker that will play a pivotal role in training, improving your health, or addressing concerns such as weight or sleep issues, the data and tracking that accompanies it should be fairly high on your list.
Related to data (and also user experience), another feature you might be interested in is feedback or motivation. Some fitness trackers and their associated apps do a great job of keeping users motivated by letting them compete with other users, offering virtual rewards, or providing words of encouragement. If this appeals to you, there are plenty of trackers that offer a really positive experience for the user.
Next, we’ll break down some of the most popular features of fitness trackers.
Activity tracking is, of course, the most important part of a fitness tracker. Most will track steps first and foremost, and if that’s the main thing you want, you have a lot more options. If you’re looking for trackers that differentiate between different activities and/or actually track different activities, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the different trackers’ abilities.
A few things to understand regarding activity tracking:
- Without GPS, your steps, distance, and other running/walking/cycling data might not be completely accurate
- Not all trackers count flights of stairs – if this is important to you, make sure your device has an altimeter and will log that info
- If the tracker doesn’t measure heart rate, the “calories burned” count will only be an estimate based on steps or movement
- If you are a swimmer, make sure your device is both waterproof and capable of tracking swimming
Trackers cannot gauge things like exertion, so, even though most companies’ algorithms are top quality, your tracker will never be able to tell you exactly how many calories you’ve burned, or even differentiate between a harder workout (say, running on the beach) versus a standard (running on the road). However, many apps will let you update that information, and some trackers allow you to do that from the display (before or after the activity).
The best advice we have in this category is to make sure the tracker you’re eyeing can track the activities you want it to. Whether you want it to track reps, your golf game, or rowing. Typically these are called multisports devices.
Most wearable fitness trackers track sleep. However, they can be very different in quality and accuracy. If sleep tracking is important to you in your fitness tracker, it’s definitely worth doing some research on which devices are the best and most accurate.
What you’ll notice in different trackers is that some claim to know when you fall asleep, while others require you to press a button when you go to bed. Some are pretty accurate but many have to be updated through the app in order to have the right data about when you fall asleep or wake up. The best sleep tracking will be able to determine sleep stages by studying your heart rate and your movements during the hours you sleep.
It can be incredibly useful to have a sense of your sleep patterns and behaviors, especially if your focus is on overall health. However, if you have a sleep disorder or suspect there might be more going on, it’s best to check with your doctor or find a dedicated sleep tracker for more nuanced information.
Whether or not the device has GPS is a significant factor for many future fitness tracker owners. It can be very handy, especially for runners. You can track your routes, try out new routes, and get more advanced data about your runs or cycling.
There are two types of GPS options in fitness trackers:
- Built-In GPS: The device comes equipped with GPS
- Linked GPS: The device pairs with your smartphone to extract GPS data
Having built in GPS means you don’t have to take your phone with you. However, if you want GPS, it will cost you. Fitness trackers with GPS capabilities cost significantly more – especially built in GPS. They also tend to have a much shorter battery life.
If you are shopping for a GPS-equipped fitness device, be sure to check for those two features (built in versus linked) and consider the battery life. This is particularly important if you are a long distance or trail runner who wants a GPS device that will last your entire run.
Heart Rate Monitoring
While many fitness trackers now come standard with HR, if this is a key feature for you, you should consider both the accuracy of the monitor and the data that you get from it. Heart rate monitoring comes from optical sensors that essentially read the blood pulses in your veins. The best HR fitness trackers have the most advanced sensor technology, but heart rate monitoring – like sleep tracking – can be touchy.
Some of the best ways that your HR data is used in various trackers is to determine things like VO2 Max and cardio fitness score, stress levels, and more. It’s an excellent addition to devices that are used for a holistic health focus. Most of the newest devices can track your heart rate pretty accurately. Of course, do remember that this information shouldn’t take the place of a visit to your doctor, nor should you use your data to make any huge lifestyle changes without consulting with a medical professional.
Having a fitness tracker means interacting with an app of some sort, so it’s a good idea to know what the app is like before you commit. Fitbit is widely considered to be the best in fitness tracker apps – it gets consistently good reviews and offers regular updates. Even so, it can be buggy and plenty of users experience dissatisfaction with it. The app you’ll like will definitely be subjective, but reading user reviews and trying it out whenever possible is a good move before you buy.
Some people who use fitness trackers use other apps in conjunction with their tracker’s app – MyFitnessPal is one example – so if you are interested in doing that, check for compatibility before you buy. Additionally, there may be some specific features you want, like the option to track food, so make sure your research takes into account as much of your wants and needs as possible.
Waterproof vs. water resistant
Having a waterproof device might be important to you, in which case it’s good to understand what names like “waterproof” or “water resistant” actually mean. This designation matters if you intend to swim, shower, or run in the rain with your fitness tracker.
No device is completely waterproof. Instead, devices may have some level of water resistance, and your device’s specs should tell you exactly how resistant it is. This measurement is usually an ATM rating, so you’ll see trackers listed as something like “5 ATM,” but it might also be explained in meters: “water resistant to 50 meters.” Those ratings are exactly the same.
When it comes to water ratings, higher numbers are always better. That rating of 5 ATM/50M means that the device will resist water up to 50 meters below the surface if you are not moving. Thus, if you want a fitness tracker that can be fully submerged and that you can swim laps with and not sorry, you’ll want at least 10ATM to be safe. (Yes, you *can* swim with a 5ATM/50M device, but we highly recommend going higher.)
Here are some general guidelines for water ratings:
- 1 ATM/10 Meters: Splash/rain resistant
- 3 ATM/30 Meters: Splash/rain resistant; quick shower okay
- 5 ATM/50 Meters: Splash/rain resistant; showering and accidental submersion okay; light, surface swimming okay
- 10 ATM/100 Meters: Splash/rain resistant; fine for showering and swimming
Battery + Charging
The battery life of your fitness tracker will depend heavily on its features. Devices with GPS will usually have a much shorter battery life, for example, and you’ll need to charge it much more frequently. Many fitness trackers last 4-5 days with a single charge. Still, others use standard CR2032 batteries and only have to be changed every few months. Consider charging time, too, as you make your decision.
When it comes to notifications on your device, there are two kinds you might consider: smart notifications from your phone (texts, missed calls, apps, etc.) and inactivity notifications or alarms. Many of today’s fitness trackers blur the line between smartwatch and fitness tracker, so plenty of devices can keep you connected. The nice thing about those kinds of devices is that it is another reason to leave your phone at home when you work out.
Inactivity reminders or additional silent alarms can be really useful to help you stay on track. Some of the devices that offer those kinds of notifications will also let you set alarms to remind you to be somewhere, to take medications, or to get moving at various intervals. There are plenty of options in this category, so it’s worth checking out if having reminders or alarms is important to you.
1. Fitbit Charge 2
We have a lot of love for the Fitbit Charge 2. The price is affordable, it looks great, and it is jam packed with useful features. It has gotten consistently high marks from reviewers and from customers (see the thousands of 5 star reviews on Amazon), and many have considered it to be Fitbit’s best product to date. We love the extras like guided breathing. The accessories are outstanding, too.
- Find our full review of the Charge 2 here
- See how it stacks up against the Alta HR
- Shop for the Charge 2 now
The Charge is getting an upgrade with the just-announced Charge 3, out this October! Get all the features of the Charge 2, plus water resistance and upgraded design and features. Check it out and preorder here.
2. Garmin Vivosmart 3
The Vivosmart 3 isn’t the flashiest fitness tracker out there, but it is a solid device that has some pretty cool tricks. The stress tracking capability of this tracker is fantastic and it works great overall to help you focus on overall wellness. It’s also water resistant to 50 meters and counts reps and sets for weight lifting. It’s holistic health features make it a great option for newcomers to fitness trackers who want to work toward a healthier overall lifestyle.
3. Garmin Vivoactive HR
The Vivoactive HR is a wonderful smart fitness watch that does a ton of tracking that other devices do not. It tracks swimming, of course, but it also tracks golf – which so many trackers do not. It also includes Garmin’s GPS, heart rate monitoring, and
plenty of notifications and data. And, it has a long lasting battery (up to 8 days!).
- Read our full review of the Vivoactive HR
- Check out how it compares to the Fitbit Blaze
- Shop now for the Garmin Vivoactive HR
4. Xiaomi Mi Band 2
Inexpensive fitness trackers can get a pretty bad rap. So, it may come as a surprise, but there are actually several fitness trackers in the under $50 category. Many of them, like the Mi Band 2, are actually pretty solid devices. The Mi Band 2 gets the job done: It tracks steps, sleep, and heart rate. It has a long lasting battery and is IP67 water resistant (basically splash proof). It offers some notifications and alarms and is comfortable to wear. Given the price it’s a good option for those on a budget or those who just want some basic data on their behaviors and health.
Other Options Under $50:
5. Garmin Forerunner 935
Garmin is known for GPS, so it’s no surprise that the best GPS fitness tracker comes from them. In fact, if you want a good GPS device, you can’t go wrong with any of Garmin’s trackers. We chose the Forerunner 935 because it is an amazing premium fitness tracker. Sure, you’ll pay a bit more, but this thing has it all: excellent sport and activity tracking, accurate HR monitoring, smart notifications, and more. The Forerunner 935 was specifically designed for triathletes and marathon runners, so it has everything serious athletes need to train and improve.