$2.1 billion. That's how much Google will pay for Fitbit, which has only been around since 2007, but is a star in the fitness-tech world. And it's hardly the only one: Garmin, a company founded in 1989 and once known for GPS devices, saw 28 percent growth in its fitness division from the third quarter of 2018 to the same period in 2019. And just a few years ago in 2015, fitness clothing maker Under Armour bought MyFitnessPal, a free app that does little more than let users count calories. The price: $475 million. There's big money behind fitness tech—and for good reason.
The market for fitness technology is vast, strong, and growing. It encompasses everything from weight-loss apps to socks with built-in running sensors. Fitness tech has gone mainstream, as wrist devices incorporate heart rate monitors, step counters, and sleep-detecting technology. Your bathroom scale can now check your heart health, and your full-length mirror can use augmented reality to become a virtual exercise class.
I've reviewed lots of products in all these categories; here's a comprehensive overview of what I've found to be the best assists for your health and fitness.
Fitness trackers are at the heart of the fitness technology movement. They have broad appeal; practically anybody can use them. And you can extend a fitness tracker's capabilities by connecting it to other devices and apps. But their main appeal is that they can create a snapshot of your physical fitness at any given time—how active you are, your weight fluctuation, your resting heart rate, how many calories you consume. When you can see and understand your lifestyle, you're better empowered to make healthy changes.
At the most basic level, fitness trackers count how many steps you take each day, like an old-fashioned pedometer does. They're more accurate than pedometers, however, because they use accelerometers, gyroscopes, and sometimes GPS to identify steps and motion. So what does your step count tell you? It shows how active or sedentary you are. The number of steps you take in a day doesn't really matter, but the average number of daily steps you take over the course of a year can indicate whether you need to be more active.
(Fitbit Inspire HR)
Most trackers also estimate how many calories you burn in a day based on your height, weight, gender, and activity level. Most of them also double as sleep trackers. Some have heart rate monitors built into them, too. And fitness trackers can record exercise activities such as running and yoga, to measure how long you did the activity, how many extra calories you burned, and (sometimes) your heart rate throughout the exercise.
How do you view and make sense of all these numbers? With a companion app, of course. There, you can add more information, such as what foods you eat and your weight, blood pressure, and in some trackers, the phases of your menstrual cycle. Having all this information in one place helps you see what areas of your lifestyle you might want to improve. Do you get enough sleep? Do you move enough? Is your weight stable? What's your average resting heart rate?
A few examples of trackers that do a little bit of everything are the Fitbit Inspire HR and Fitbit Charge 3. These are both excellent options for anyone using a tracking for the first time: They're easy to use, and it's easy to read the data they collect.
If you're more interested in having a full-fledged smartwatch that includes fitness tracking, then the Apple Watch Series 5 (which does a bit of everything except measure sleep) or Samsung Galaxy Fit are the best options. With a smartwatch, you get apps and a lot more functionality, such as the ability to send text messages from your watch. But one major disadvantage is battery life. The best fitness trackers can last a week or more, but smartwatches usually need to be charged once a day.
For runners, cyclists, and anyone else who's already invested in fitness, the best option is a runner's watch that doubles as an all-day fitness tracker. You can track your pace, PRs (personal records), and other advanced metrics for running (or whatever your sport) while counting steps and calorie burn throughout your day. Garmin makes some of the best watches in this category. I'm especially fond of the Forerunner series. The $199 Forerunner 45 tracks advanced running metrics and all-day fitness. The more expensive Forerunner 945 ($599.99) has storage for music, so you can stream a playlist while on a run. The 945 also tracks bicycling and open-water swims, making it a great option for triathlons.
Looking at the number on the bathroom scale can change the tenor of your entire day. Weighing yourself and tracking your weight is as much a psychological game as a matter of health and fitness. With a smart bathroom scale, you can weigh in without having to look at your numbers... or at least delay it until the time is right. The best scales sync your weight, body fat, and other metrics wirelessly to an app or web account, where you or your health care professionals can look at them later.
A really good bathroom scale measures more than just weight. It also captures body fat, bone density, water percentage, bone mass, and sometimes even heart rate. The Withings Body Cardio does all that, and it can report the day's weather forecast, too.
(Fitbit Aria 2)
Many of the big names in fitness tracking offer scales that sync your weigh-ins to the same app you use to track your steps and activities. For example, Fitbit makes the Fitbit Aria 2 smart scale; Garmin and Polar make bathroom scales for their apps as well.
But you don't necessarily need a scale made by the same company for it to work with your other health and fitness devices. For Apple Watch users, any scale that works with Apple Health will do. The QardioBase 2 is one example. It's a fantastic scale with a beautiful design, and it has a switch that lets you turn off impedance measurements, making it safe for people who are pregnant or have implanted electrical devices, such as pacemakers.
Heart Rate Monitors
If you're serious about fitness, you need a heart rate monitor (HRM). They're usually either chest straps or watch-style devices, and they read your pulse while you work out. (They're not meant for monitoring your heart rate 24/7 for medical purposes while you're inactive. For that, you should look for a heart rate monitor that's FDA-approved or the equivalent in your country.
A fitness HRM reads your pulse while you're running, lifting weights, interval training, bicycling, or doing any other kind of activity. How high you push your heart rate during a workout and how long you keep it there affects the benefits of that workout. For fitness purposes, there are five heart rate zones. They're based on your minimum and maximum heart rate, sometimes called HRMax. Zone 1 is around 50 to 60 percent of your HRMax, and that's what you'd see during very light activity. The scale goes up in increments of 10 until you're at maximum effort, which is 90 to 100 percent of your HRMax.
The exact numbers for heart rate zones are based on a person's health, weight, age, and other factors. A doctor can help you figure out these numbers. Some HRMs and their companion apps have a test that helps you estimate your HRMax and calculate heart rate zones or even determine your V02Max, another number that athletes use to help them train.
Generally speaking, exercise in zones 2 and 3 is considered fat-burning. Working out in zones 4 and 5 is meant to benefit cardio health and endurance training. Polar's heart rate monitors, including the Polar OH1, have excellent tools for finding your heart rate zones as well as feedback screens you'll see after a workout that explain the benefits of that particular activity for your heart and body.
As for wrist-based HRMs, some are fitness trackers or running watches with a heart rate sensor built in; some are standalone HRMs that look like armbands. Fitness trackers and running watches often let you see your heart rate in real time—so while you're running, you can glance down and see your pulse. Chest-strap HRMs and standalone HRM armbands don't have screens, so to see your heart rate while working out, you need to pair them with a compatible app that can show it. Otherwise, you'll see the heart rate data at the end of the workout after you sync the device with an app.
Some fitness apps have special features for HRMs, such as announcing your pulse via audio. Imagine you have headphones on while running and are listening to workout music: Every so often, a voice chimes in to say, "Heart rate: 155 beats per minute. Distance: one mile."
(JBL Reflect Fit)
While the majority of HRMs are chest straps and watches, some are headphones that take your pulse from your ear. One example is JBL's Reflect Fit. Ear-based devices aren't nearly as mainstream as chest straps and wristwatches, but they are available. The reason for putting an HRM on the ear is because the skin there is quite thin, making it easy to take an accurate reading. There's also been some experimentation with building HRMs into the straps of sports bras by makers such as Sensoria and Mi Pulse.
Nearly all HRMs are water-resistant enough to handle sweat and rain, but only a few can read heart rate accurately during a swim. The Garmin HRM-Swim and the Polar OH1 can.
The price for a good HRM varies based on whether it's used strictly for measuring heart rate ($60 to $100) or has additional features. The Wahoo Tickr X ($99), for instance, doubles as a run-tracker and can count reps when you lift weights. And as mentioned, plenty of running watches and fitness trackers include a HRM. That usually pushes the price above $199.
Smart Home Gym Equipment
Perhaps you're lucky enough to have seen the old TV commercials for Total Gym that starred action-movie hero and black-belt master Chuck Norris. The ads are legendary, but the home gym equipment was a clunker compared to what you can get today. Now, the best home gym technology not only is beautifully designed but also brings interactive classes right into your living room.
Among the most well-known of these products is the super-high-end Peloton Bike. (Maybe you've seen the Peloton memes showing the smart stationary bike in unrealistic locations for all but the one-percenters of the world.) If you can afford one of these $2,245 bikes, you ride it while following along with a class on a display set in front of the handlebars. You can join a spin class virtually and compete with others around the world who have joined the same class. You must also pay a monthly subscription fee for the classes on top of buying the bike, but it could be a worthwhile investment if you spend that much per year on studio classes. Peloton also has a treadmill called Peloton Tread with a hefty starting price of $4,295.
At-home gym systems have evolved not only by incorporating classes but also in their design. Some are so handsome and discreet that they blend in with your living-room furniture. The sleekest of all the home-gym tech options are smart fitness mirrors. When not in use, they hang on your wall or lean against it like normal full-length mirrors. Turn one on, and you get an augmented reality experience: An overlay of information appears, such as fitness classes you can join from home. As you participate in the class, you use the mirror to check your form as well as to see what's happening in the class.
Fitness mirrors are especially good for yoga, floor pilates, bodyweight calisthenics, and other exercises that require little more than a few square feet and a mat. Two smart mirrors on the market now are Echelon Reflect ($1,639.98 for the 50-inch version) and one simply called Mirror ($1,495). Both can connect to a HRM chest strap so you can track your pulse as you complete the class or compare your heart rate from previous classes. Mirror also recently started offering one-on-one training sessions ($40 per session) via a video call with a trainer.
If you want something in between a smart mirror and the Chuck Norris workout of yore, Tonal ($2,995, plus tax, delivery, and $49 per month) fits the bill: It's a wall-mounted display with bars and pulleys attached that you use for strength training.
When all else fails, fitness apps can save the day. I can't think of a single fitness-related goal or activity that doesn't have an app for it. If you don't want to buy a fitness tracker or can't afford one, you can use an app and your phone. If home-gym equipment doesn't make sense for you, apps can coach you through workouts. You can even read your heart rate with some mobile phones with an app that uses the camera and flash to take your pulse through your fingertip. Some apps are free; some require a one-time purchase or subscription. Let's look at some examples.
For free workouts, I like The Johnson & Johnson Official 7-Minute Workout. This app has a variety of workouts for people of all fitness levels. Some are only seven minutes long, but you can find others that go longer. Most workouts need nothing more than a little bit of space and maybe a chair or a mat. They're great for people who are just getting started with exercise and for frequent travelers, as you can do the workouts in a hotel room quickly and easily.
Runners likely already know there are plenty of run-tracking apps, such as Runkeeper and Strava. These apps use your phone (or a compatible watch or fitness tracker) to record your pace, distance, mileage, and more.
On iOS devices, you can turn on a setting in the Apple Health app to turn your phone into a pedometer, no fitness tracker required. Apps such as MapMyFitness can do the same thing. MapMyFitness can also track non-sport activities as part of your fitness plan—for instance, shoveling snow, raking leaves, or walking briskly.
Counting calories? Looking to manage your weight? MyFitnessPal is one of the best apps for logging the foods you eat to count calories and get a nutritional breakdown of your meals. Most apps in this category come with a barcode scanner so you can easily get nutritional information from packaged foods. Weight Watchers has an app that goes with its online subscription-based program for losing weight, as do a few newcomers to the space, including Noom and Lifesum. Weight Watchers and Noom include access to coaches through the app as well as community aspects so you won't be alone on your fitness journey.
What about apps that offer challenging workouts and exercise classes? If you want hardcore training by an MMA champion, Touchfit: GSP gives you a series of videos by fighter George St-Pierre (hence the GSP in the name) that get harder or easier depending on how difficult you rate each exercise. Jillian Michaels has a similar app with video-based workouts, and her app comes with a diet plan. I'm a fan of the bubbly and perky Cassey Ho, whose Blogilates workouts are always so much harder than they seem like they'll be.
You can live-stream classes and join them virtually with apps and sites such as Forte.fit and Openfit (which recently acquired Gixo, another live and on-demand exercise class app). Both Forte and Openfit offer a range of classes, everything from core and ab workouts to cardio-intensive classes, with options for on-demand and live. Then there are apps and sites that specialize in one type of class, such as ballet, barre, and yoga. And through apps such as Trainiac, you can even get a personal trainer to work with you on a personal fitness plan.
Apps and Devices for Improving Sleep
Technology can both help and hurt your sleep. It depends on how you use it.
You may have heard, for example, that the blue light from screens—mobile phones, tablets, and computers that we put just a foot or two from our eyes—can disrupt our sleep. (I'll admit I used to be skeptical of this claim until one of the world's leading chronobiologists told me it was true.) This blue light is similar to the light from the sun. When we view it, our bodies believe it's daytime and don't produce melatonin, a chemical that helps it fall asleep. Some people have a stronger response to blue light than others.
What do we do about blue light? There's a setting on most computers and mobile devices that reduces or eliminates blue light between hours that you set. You can set your computer to emit a more reddish hue between the hours of, say, 6:30 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. If your device doesn't have a blue light or "night shift" setting, you can install an app to do the job. F.lux and Iris are two good options.
In addition to minimizing exposure to blue light at night, sleep experts say it's important to get adequate exposure to natural light during the day. Too often, people blame their computers for poor sleep but don't realize that exposure to sunlight helps keep the body on an appropriate sleep schedule.
How else can technology help us sleep better? You can track your sleep to learn more about your sleep patterns. What time do you get into bed? What time do you fall asleep? How often do you wake up during the night? When do you get out of bed for good? You can't change a behavior if you don't know what it is. Sleep trackers can help you collect the data you need. Most fitness trackers now include sleep tracking, the Apple Watch being an exception.
If you don't like wearing a wristband while you sleep, other sleep trackers go on your bed instead, including smart mattresses with tracking technology built in. These devices are often more accurate than wristbands, because they include sensors for respiration, and they can more accurately sense how you shift while you sleep. The most advanced, such as the Sleep Number 360, make adjustments during the night that are tailored to you—say, warming your feet. You can spend from about $900 to $4,299 for one of these beds. At the top end is the California King Sleep Number m7 Smart Bed with temperature-balancing and pressure-relieving features.
A company called Eight Sleep also sells smart mattresses with thermoregulating features for a slightly lower price. Its newest product, The Pod, costs $2,495 for a queen-size mattress.
There are simpler solutions than buying a new mattress, of course. The Nokia Sleep is a sleep-sensing pad that you slip under your mattress, and at $99, it's a comparative bargain. Or you could consider a smart pillow that plays white noise and detects snoring, such as the REM-Fit Zeeq Smart Pillow, although a PCMag analyst found it rather disappointing when she tested it.
Once you have data, you can look for reasons you wake up in the night or ways to get more sleep. I recently looked over sleep data from my Fitbit Charge 3 and noticed that when I get into bed before 10 p.m., I sleep at least 20 minutes more per night than when I stay up later. It's a small change, but cumulatively, I can get up to two more hours of sleep per week. And a colleague once kept waking up in the middle of the night. He tracked his sleep and noticed it always happened at the same time. He eventually discovered that a certain noise occurred every night at the same time. For him, ear plugs did the trick.
Other Ways to Track
Within the fitness tech market, there are plenty of darlings but just as many duds. It's tough to predict what's going to take off and what's going to flop.
Smart water-bottles that track your water consumption and remind you to drink always seemed like a cash-grab gimmick. Just because you can put a sensor on something and hook it up to your mobile phone doesn't mean you should. Companies such as Thermos and Hidrate decided to try anyway. The results are about as lacking in innovation and utility as you would imagine.
When smart clothing came along, I approached those products—bras, capris, tops—with an optimistic but skeptical eye. A pair of Bluetooth-connected running socks by Sensoria (now in version 2.0) showed a lot of early promise. They give feedback to runners about their form in real time, commenting on heel strikes, cadence, and the like. Promising as they may be, they're still very much under the radar of most runners and tech enthusiasts. Keep an eye on smart clothing as a category, and you'll see a lot of products "coming soon." Witness the smart yoga outfit from Pivot, which claims it will give you feedback about your alignment as you go through postures using the company's app for yoga classes (but isn't yet available).
Under Armour has been pushing a whole line of smart sneakers for nearly two years. These shoes have a sensor that collects data about runs. It sends the data to the MapMyRun app (which Under Armour owns) for analysis and review. The shoes last about a year and don't cost much more than a typical pair of running sneakers, between $100 and $140.
Some fitness enthusiasts have been sold on the idea that the secret to maximizing their fitness potential is in their blood. A service called InsideTracker will send a phlebotomist to your home or office to collect a blood sample and send it to a lab, costing you anywhere from $299 to $589, depending on the service you choose. When the results are in, you get a detailed reading of biomarkers in your blood (iron, glucose, calcium, sodium, etc.) plus recommendations for changes, mostly dietary, that might adjust them into an optimal range. To reduce your zinc, eat fewer bagels and more zucchini! (For $49, you can upload your blood data from a screening you've done elsewhere and get a similar report.)
Bear in mind that InsideTracker isn't FDA-approved and therefore does not give medical diagnoses, something a nutritionist/registered dietitian flagged as a potential problem when I asked for her insight about it. She said if certain biomarkers are outside the ideal range, the reason might be something unrelated to food and general lifestyle. "If you have hepatitis, we need to know that you have hepatitis," she said.
Your blood may or may not give you pointers for improving your health. But what about your poop? Human biome analysis kit uBiome creates a picture of your gut health from a tiny swab of fecal matter you send to a lab. Right now, the service seems to be more in the business of collecting data than providing actionable information. It told me my gut had a high level of artificial sweetener (which I don't eat at all) and that I have a possible intolerance to gluten (not even a chance).
There is no stone, or muscle, left untouched when it comes to fitness tech. And should your muscles get sore from all the activity, you could always try zapping the pain away using a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit, such as the Power Dot 2.0 and its companion app.
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