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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.

Bali Indonesia 2 April 2020 : Woman  using smart watch and smart phone, Apple watch

(Getty Images)

Since then, Fitbit and several other companies have developed an ever-evolving array of wearable devices that are intended to quietly accompany you 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, health and wellness.

How Fitness Trackers Work

Fitness trackers, like Fitbit and Apple Watch, use both sensors and algorithms to monitor your physical activity and health, explains Mary Sabat, an ACE-certified personal trainer, nutritionist and owner of BodyDesigns in Alpharetta, Georgia.

“These devices typically include an accelerometer to measure movement and distance, a heart rate monitor to track your pulse and sometimes a gyroscope to detect orientation and rotations,” Sabat says.

Some also have GPS capabilities to track outdoor activities while providing accurate distance and location data.

All of this data is collected, processed and displayed on the device’s screen or synced with a companion mobile app for additional analysis and tracking, Sabat adds.

The point of all this wearable fitness technology, notes Kayla Borchers, a private practice physical therapist in Columbus, Ohio, is to provide you with more information about your body and your performance. The ultimate aim is to help you understand your physical patterns and where you might be able to make meaningful adjustments to improve overall health.

Fitbit

Borchers, a devotee of both the Fitbit and the Apple Watch, says the Fitbit watch is more oriented toward 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, Dr. Yoshiro Hatano at Kyushu University of Health and Welfare, was investigating ways to slow rising obesity rates. He 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,” which would help people meet that goal. The concept of trying to walk at least 10,000 steps per day has been a prevailing guideline in the exercise-for-weight-management field ever since, but recent research has called its validity into question (a 2021 study, for instance, suggests 7,000 steps may be a better goal).

Fitbit products come with 10,000 steps as a default goal, but you can adjust them for your needs. Marathoners, for example, would far exceed 10,000 steps, so they might want to set their step count goal higher, Borchers says.

What Do Fitbit Products Track?

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 calorie-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 are available with a premium membership.
  • Sleep.

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, such as how long you sleep, how long you spend in deep sleep, how restless you are at night, your sleeping heart rate and even your level of snoring. 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 workouts from Fitbit and other popular brands, along with other add-on features that make for a more robust and well-rounded fitness tool.

Fitbit Pricing

Currently, the company offers several smartwatch models with 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.

As of mid-June 2023, the smartwatch models currently available are priced as following:

  • Fitbit Sense 2: $299.95.
  • Google Pixel Watch 4G LTE + Bluetooth/Wi-Fi: $399.99.
  • Google Pixel Watch Bluetooth/Wi-Fi: $349.99.
  • Fitbit Versa 4: $199.95.
  • Fitbit Versa 2: $149.95.

In contrast, trackers are simpler devices that don’t have quite as many bells and whistles as smartwatches. However, they can still offer a wide range of health data and some extras, depending on the model.
As of mid-June 2023, the range of trackers currently available includes:

  • Fitbit Charge 5: $149.95.
  • Fitbit Luxe: $129.95.
  • Gorjana for Fitbit Luxe Special Edition: $199.95
  • Fitbit Inspire 3: $99.95.
  • Fitbit Ace 3: $79.95.

Fitbit products are swim-proof and designed to sync with both Apple and Android devices. Some devices have Wi-Fi and GPS capabilities.

Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is a more versatile smartwatch, Sabat says. It includes fitness tracking capabilities and other features, such as messaging, phone calls, mobile apps and integration with the Apple ecosystem.

The Apple Watch 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. It also sets adjustable recommendations based on your age, weight and activity level, Borchers says. For example, if you’re more sedentary and never hitting your goal, the watch might recommend that you lower that goal, she explains. If you’re trying to burn more calories to lose weight, you can set the goal higher.
  • 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. Apple Watch estimates the energy expenditure of a wide range of physical activities.
  • Stand ring. The third ring helps remind you to keep moving throughout the day. The idea is to make sure you’re standing up for at least one minute once an hour so you don’t have prolonged periods of being sedentary.

What Does the Apple Watch Track?

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 (or more in the case of the Ultra) 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 currently available from the company:

  • Apple Watch Ultra. This 49-millimeter case watch is the most expensive option from Apple. The series is designed for adventure athletes and comes with a choice of three band styles: Alpine Loop for outdoor adventures, Trail Loop for endurance athletes and Ocean Band for extreme water sports and recreational diving. The Ultra is water-resistant to 100 meters and swim-proof for recreational diving to 40 meters. It includes a depth gauge with a water temperature sensor and is dust-resistant. Perhaps the best feature is its long battery life – up to 36 hours with normal usage and up to 60 hours on low power settings. Apple Watch Ultra starts at $799.
  • Apple Watch Series 8. The Apple Watch Series 8 comes in two sizes – 45 and 41 millimeters – and several colors and case materials. All these variations make for different prices, but the base 41 mm model starts at $399.
  • Apple Watch SE. This streamlined version of the older series 6 style comes in two case sizes, 44 or 40 millimeters. It’s water-resistant to 50 meters and swim-proof. The Apple Watch SE starts at $249.

Fitbit vs. Apple Watch: Which Is Better?

Like any product, the right fit depends on your goals and the information most important to you, Borchers says.

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 watch is the better option. And, because Fitbit products sync with both Apple and Android devices, if you use a PC or have a Google phone, the Fitbit is likely going to be easier to integrate.

However, if you do want 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,” she recalls. “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.”

No matter what your goals are, 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.”

User Reviews

What do users say? Here’s one person’s first-hand experience with Fitbit and Apple Watch.

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.

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 advanced 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 features beyond just tracking runs and steps,” she explains.

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.”

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.

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