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 movement. 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: Mental Benefits of Exercise.]
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 steps per day has been a prevailing exercise-for-weight-management idea ever since.
Fitbit products come with 10,000 steps 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.
Over the past several years, Fitbit has become a market leader in steps and fitness tracking, and the company offers several trackers and smartwatches. While Fitbit products emphasize walking, they also track other types of activity, such as running, biking, yoga and strength training.
Fitbit wearables track a range of fitness measures including:
— Exercise minutes, steps or miles walked and floors climbed.
— 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.
— 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 of $9.99 per month or $79.99 for the year. 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, body temperature changes and your heart and breathing rate. If you don’t sleep well, this information could be very helpful for improving your ability to get the rest you need
The premium membership also provides access to more than 200 more workouts from Fitbit and other popular brands along with other add-on features that make for a more robust and well-rounded fitness tool.
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: $299.95.
— Fitbit Versa 3: $229.95.
— 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 depending on the model.
The range of trackers includes:
— Fitbit Charge 5: $179.95.
— Fitbit Luxe: $149.95.
— Fitbit Inspire 2: $99.95.
— Fitbit Ace 3: $79.95. (for kids ages 6 and up)
Fitbit products are swim proof and designed to sync with both Apple and Android devices. Some devices have Wi-Fi and GPS capabilities.
The Apple Watch, which is designed to sync 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, displayed digitally on the face of the watch. The idea is to “close your rings” to meet all three goals each day.
— Move. The first ring shows the number of active 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, which can also be adjusted according to your needs. The watch will automatically capture an exercise if your heart rate exceeds a target level, which is also 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 one 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 electrocardiogram, or ECG, app to give you more heart-health data. These add-ons don’t require any additional equipment — 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. Some models also offer international emergency calls, a compass, fall detection and an always-on altimeter as options.
The Apple Watch tracks 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 “swim proof,” making them a good option for people who get their exercise in wet environments.
Apple Watch Pricing
There are three series of Apple Watches available from the company currently:
— Apple Watch Series 7. This is the most recently released option. It comes in two sizes — 45 millimeters and 41 mm — and several 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 41 mm model starts at $399. Adding cellular service as well as different case and band options can elevate the price significantly.
— Apple Watch SE. This is a streamlined version of the older series 6 style that starts at $279.
— Apple Watch Series 3. This is an older iteration of the Apple Watch that’s currently available, starting at $199.
Fitbit vs. Apple Watch: Which Is Better?
Borchers says that figuring out which wearable 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 sync with both Apple and Android devices, if you use a PC or carry around a Google phone, the Fitbit is likely going to be the better option for you.
However, if you do want the more granular workout data and you 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.”
[Read: HIIT vs. Cardio for Weight Loss]
Three wearables users share their experiences with Fitbit and Apple Watch products below and highlight which device works best for them and why.
Tried Them All and Stuck with Apple
Meredith Hunt, a runner based in Beverly, Massachusetts, who describes herself as an “avid consumer of wearables” has used both Fitbit and Apple Watch products and says, that while it’s been a few years since she used Fitbit, her impression of it was that “the technology was really basic. The interface wasn’t exciting or advances and looks-wise it appeared cheap.” She also had multiple issues with the band breaking, a common problem that many Fitbit users have also reported.
She disliked the device so much that she bought a Garmin watch to help with her running training. “I was much happier with the quality difference, but as the technology advances, I wanted more of a smartwatch that had more featured beyond just tracking runs and steps.”
Enter the Apple Watch, which she says is “the best smartwatch I’ve used.” But she hastened to add that she also had an iPhone and other apple products, “so outside of that ecosystem, I’m not sure how great it would be.”
Hunt says that the features she likes the most on her Apple Watch are:
— Workout tracking — it’s easy.
— Step counts.
— Notifications from her phone that keep her “connected without having to keep my phone out all the time.”
— Alerts for breathing, a mindfulness function where the watch makes a sound and urges the wearer to take a moment to breathe.
— Alerts for standing, a similar function where the watch alerts the wearer that it’s time to stand up if you’ve been sedentary for too long.
— App integration, which allows the user to add programs such as Spotify directly. “That compatibility crushes other wearables in my experience,” Hunt says.
She says the Fitness+ membership also has a lot of additional workout options that she’s only just begun exploring. On the downside, she notes that the Apple Watch needs to be charged daily as the battery life is limited — a common complaint among Apple Watch users.
FitBit Changed Her Life
Ellen Morfei of Media, Pennsylvania, says that her Fitbit changed her life. “I hate delusion — in me and others. Have all the flaws you want, but own up to them,” she says.
And acquiring a Fitbit helped her do just that for her own well-being. “I had not been owning up to my food consumption — quality or quantity — or my (lack of) movement. Fitbit was a big part of ending my delusions.”
She says finally getting real about food intake, movement levels and sleep quality transformed her whole outlook on life. “I’m down 31 pounds, but that’s not a great measure of how I’ve shifted my health and well-being. I’m 54 years old. I need to stop believing my BS and set up health patterns that would support a healthy life for many years to come. Fitbit was one of a few tools that made a huge difference for me. I’m not deluding myself anymore.”
Being able to see in black and white what she was doing made it hard to rationalize making less healthy choices. She concludes by saying, “I believe in data,” and her Fitbit gave her the figures she needed to make healthy changes in how she lives her life day to day.
Apple Watch Rules the Day
William Driscoll, a biomedical engineer and runner based in Salem, Massachusetts, says that he’s been using an Apple Watch for tracking his running since about 2018 when the Garmin watch he had been using broke. “I dabbled in Fitbit as a pedometer/step counter but did not find it useful for my needs.” Driscoll wanted more advanced run tracking options that would integrate with other apps, such as Strava and iSmoothrun, and he found that Apple Watch worked well with these third-party programs.
“Apple Watch supported the native Strava app on the watch as well as other run apps,” he says, and it was easy for him to transfer all the data from his Garmin (which had been uploaded to another site called Runkeeper) to Strava, “so I was happy to maintain all of that historical data and not rely on the watch platform for my data log and analytics.”
Apple Watch also fit well into the rest of his life, he says. “I didn’t want to have a separate watch/device/wearable for running, a separate watch for work, a separate device for activity tracking and to rely on my phone on my run.” Integrating all of those needs and uses into a single device made things simpler.
Driscoll can also connect with his family through the Apple platform, and they can challenge each other. “It’s nice to see a notification that my niece in Scotland just finished a workout,” for example.
He adds that the Apple Watch’s GPS accuracy is good, and that it connects instantly makes it better than the Garmin, which always took a long time to connect. And the heart rate data the watch collects is “good enough.” He says he’s “tested many medical grade wearables for remote patient monitoring and these current consumer tech devices are all fine for our day-to-day recreational needs.”
For his money, “I think that the Apple Watch serves my needs. If I’m going to spend $400+ every three to four years on a watch/app platform for my daily use, it’s well worth the money.”
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Update 12/09/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.