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Fitness tracker buying guide

What's the best fitness tracker or sport watch for you?

I've written about car audio for Crutchfield since 2003, after four years as Crutchfield Sales Advisor, and 10 years as a music teacher. I'm an avid music listener, with a real love of classical and film music. I love having a great system in my car, and I'll still match the system in my 98 Ford Ranger (may it rest in piece) up against anything else I've heard for great SQ. I attended West Virginia University, where I received a Master's Degree in Music Performance and a Bachelor's Degree in History. Let's Go Mountaineers!

More from Ken Nail

Ken hiking in the mountains

Start small, but think big (That's me, standing on top of the world in the Blue Ridge Mountains)

There's a growing consensus and awareness that many of the health problems we're fighting as a nation — obesity, heart disease, diabetes among them — can be linked to a sedentary lifestyle and lack of regular exercise. Studies have shown that even moderate amounts of regular exercise can do much to improve our physical and mental well-being.

Steps to success

New technologies have paved the way for an array of wrist-based fitness wearables that can help us get moving, track our activity, and measure our fitness. Whether you're just getting started, are training for an ultra-endurance event, or fall somewhere in between, there are fitness trackers and watches that are a good match for you.

Fitness trackers with smartphone apps

Smartphone apps make it easy to keep track of your activity or training

Smartphones and social media

Today's activity trackers are designed to work hand in glove with your smartphone. Most will link up wirelessly with dedicated apps to save your activities, giving you a handy digital training log you can easily reference. When picking an activity tracker, it's smart to check whether the tracker's app will sync and transfer automatically with popular fitness apps, like Strava. These apps make it easy to share your activities with your friends, and see how your performances stack up against your peers. 

TomTom Touch Cardio

Wrist-based heart rate monitors can offer insights to your fitness and guides to train by.

Heart rate monitors

Wrist-based heart rate monitors are a feature found on many fitness trackers. They offer an easy way to monitor your heart rate during exercise and keep track of your heart rate during exercise over a long period of time. Changes in your heart rate can be an excellent indicator of changes in your overall aerobic fitness. Additionally, you can determine specific heart rate zones for training, to best meet your specific fitness and training goals. 

waterproof vs water resistant watches

A "waterproof" watch, like the Garmin Forerunner 935 (left) is safe for the longest swims, while the "water-resistant" TomTom Touch Cardio (right) is safe for showers, rain, or a short dunk in the water.

Waterproof versus water-resistant

If your fitness routine includes swimming laps, water aerobics, or other pool time, be sure that you select a "waterproof" fitness tracker, not one that's merely "water-resistant." There are a lot of technical distinctions about what makes a device "waterproof" versus "water-resistant." One measure is IP ratings. Also known as Ingress Protection ratings, they range from IPX0 (absolutely no protection) to IPX8 (continuous underwater use). Another is ATM ratings, or water pressure ratings. 1 ATM means a device can withstand pressures equivalent to a depth of 10 meters, while 5 ATM withstands 50 meters, and so on. Devices designed for swimming will typically be rated 5 ATM or better. 

To be on the safe side, always look for the specs — IP or ATM — and avoid marketing jargon. 

Which fitness tracker is right for you?

Fitness trackers come in a variety of styles. Some are designed for those just starting an exercise program, or those who want to add a little more activity into their daily routine, while others are targeted towards advanced athletes engaged in training for a range of events. The fitness tracker that's right for you depends upon your goals and interests, both current and prospective. To keep things simple, we'll break them down into three categories: activity trackers, running watches, and multi-sport watches. 

Garmin vivosmart 3

The Garmin Vivosmart 3 activity tracker has a built-in HR monitor

Activity trackers

We've all seen activity trackers on the wrists of friends or coworkers. In their simplest form, the bracelet-sized devices measure the time you spend on your feet, moving around — steps, in other words. These simple devices have grown more elaborate over time, and you'll find an array of additional features in many newer models.

Who they're right for

Spending more time on your feet can be an effective way to begin shaping up. An activity tracker is a useful tool to that end. And many devices will let you track and log other activities as well, so you can branch out into other fitness activities and use your activity tracker to record them. 

Features to look for 

If steps are all you're interested in, simple is good. But if you plan on going to the gym regularly, for weights, yoga, or other training, look for models that feature other activity tracking features, as well as a stopwatch and timer. For more advanced training pick up a model with a built-in heart rate monitor. And if you're an occasional runner or cyclist, look for a model with GPS.

See our best-selling fitness trackers

Deb riding her bike with the Garmin Forerunner 235

Running watches often do more than record your runs. Here, our own Deb Gilbert records her ride with a Garmin Forerunner 235.

Running watches

Not that many years ago, running watches were simply stopwatches that fit on your wrists. The advent of GPS tracking changed that model forever. GPS tracking enables today's running watches to accurately measure distance and running pace, providing real-time feedback during your run, and detailed info to review afterwards. And many running watches offer features that can be used for other sports and activities as well. 

Who they're right for

If you're serious about running, a running watch is pretty much a "must have" tool. As mentioned, you'll enjoy real-time feedback on your pace and distance. And you can take advantage of built-in timers and programs to set up interval training workouts when you're building speed, or time walk breaks when you're increasing distance. The face of a running watch is designed to be easy to read when you're running, something that may be hard to do with even the most sophisticated activity tracker.   

Features to look for 

All GPS running watches will do a good job recording time and distance. If that's all you're interested in, a simple model is fine. If your goals are set a little higher, consider getting a model with a heart rate monitor so you can train more effectively. If you dabble in other activities, look for features that support them. Finally, it's nice to have a customizable display, so you can have the numbers you most interested in front and center when you're training or racing. 

Ken riding his bike

Multisport watches are great when you're going the distance in a triathlon (Crutchfield's own, Ken Nail never stops moving).

Multisport watches

Triathletes pretty much created the demand for multisport watches. After all, when you're swimming, biking, or running just about every day, having functions to track these sports on one device is highly desirable. Multisport watches feature the versatility to handle a wide variety of activities and sports. 

Who they're right for

Beyond triathletes, another growing market for multisport watches is outdoor adventures and ultrarunning. Watches like the Garmin fenix 5 track swimming, biking, and running, and other sports, plus throw in features like a compass, altimeter, and maps as well. Their long battery life also is perfect when you're taking on the long distances and times of ultramarathons. 

Features to look for 

If your interests and activities take you onto trails — for hiking, running, or climbing — you'll be smart to purchase a multisport watch that supports those activities. In particular, search for mapping features like built-in topo maps and "bread crumb" features that let you retrace your steps if necessary. If your activities go beyond swimming, biking, and running, you'll find watches with features for skiing, golf, and much more. 

See our best-selling sport watches

Looking for a fitness tracker? 

At Crutchfield, you'll find a wide range fitness trackers, plus running and multisport watches. Whatever your goals, we can help you find the right one for you. Contact our advisors if you have any questions or want some smart help. 

Shop our full selection of fitness trackers and sport watches

Last updated 7/25/2017
  • Peter W Williams from Kennedyville

    Posted on 1/4/2018

    Very helpful in general and specifically WRT to Garmin products. It would be more helpful if it included other makes of monitors for comparison purposes

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