Thinking about getting an activity tracker? Here's a quick guide.


What are activity trackers and what do they measure?

  • The simplest mechanical pedometers just count steps—no batteries or electronics needed.
  • Activity trackers for your wrist, waist, or pocket are usually accelerometers. They electronically detect up-and-down, side-to-side, and back-and-forth motion. (It's the same technology that smartphones use to switch the screen from vertical to horizontal viewing.) Wearable accelerometers measure if you are moving, but can be fooled. Standing or cycling might look like sleeping if the device does not move in the right way. Some activity monitors detect heat, sweat, or pulse for more advanced tracking.
  • Inclinometer-based trackers are uncommon (and expensive). They measure movement and angle, so they can tell if you are sitting, standing, or lying down as well as walking or exercising.

What features should you look for in an activity tracker?

Dori Rosenberg, PhD, MPH, is a Group Health assistant investigator who studies how daily activity affects health. She suggests asking yourself a few questions if you're thinking of buying an activity monitor:

  • Where do you want to wear the tracker—on your wrist or clothing, or in your pocket?
  • Are you willing to charge the device, or do you want one powered by a watch battery?
  • Do you want a waterproof device?
  • What information do you want? Most trackers count steps. Some also measure pulse, calories burned, and intensity of movement. Some vibrate or have a visual prompt to remind you to take breaks from being inactive by standing or moving around.
  • How do you want to get the information: on the device screen or through a website or smartphone app?
  • How important is accuracy? Not all devices have been carefully checked to see if they accurately measure activity and calories used.

Read consumer reviews of devices, Dr. Rosenberg says, and ask people who use them to find out which trackers are comfortable, easy to use, and have the features you want. Finally, she says, you might not need equipment to be more active. Some people just set simple alarms to remind them to stand and walk around. You can also gradually build more exercise into your daily routine with these five tips.


by Chris Tachibana

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From Group Health Cooperative