Which Fitness Tracker Is the Best?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 26 2014 12:13 PM

Rash Decisions

Now that the Fitbit Force has been recalled, which fitness tracker is best?

140213_fitnessTrackers
From left, Misfit Shine, Nike FuelBand, Basis, Fitbit Force, and Jawbone UP24.

Photo by Seth Stevenson

Last week, Fitbit abruptly stopped selling its new fitness tracking wristband, the Fitbit Force, due to complaints that the device was causing skin rashes. This was a major setback not just for the company but—call me a narcissist—for me. I’d been putting the finishing touches on my review of several fitness tracking devices and had been poised to declare the Fitbit Force my winner. Instead, I’ve had to scramble and name a new champion, non-skin-rash-causing division.

But I’ll get to that. First: What is a fitness tracker, and why would you want one?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

These devices—variations on wristbands, watches, and pendants—promise to monitor your physical activity during the day and, in some cases, the night. They link up via Bluetooth to special apps on your phone or tablet. They keep a careful log of how many steps you’ve taken, how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, how many calories you’ve burned. Should you slack off, they’ll note the idle hours you’ve wickedly wasted.

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Call me a narcissist, again (whatevs, you’re still talking about me), but I’ve long been intrigued by self-quantification. Go ahead: Assess my IQ. Caliper my body fat. By all means, affix sensors to my toilet bowl and examine my excretions. It’s my belief that self-knowledge is power.

Thus I was eager to test out an array of these fitness trackers. I began to venture out of my house wearing six different trackers on my person. Two clipped to my clothes. Four strapped to my wrist (including the Fitbit, which caused me no problems). With my forearm sheathed in a jangle of LED-equipped bracelets, I resembled some sort of cyberpunk Rainbow Loomer.

At first, as I’d expected, I liked tracking myself. It lent a pleasing empiricism to my existence. I learned that on an average day—strolling to the subway, the office, and the lunch spot—I might tally 8,000 steps, 16 flights of stairs, and 2,400 calories burned. (Though I’ll note there were some discrepancies among the trackers’ measurements, which diverged in their step counts by as much as 10 percent.) It suddenly felt like a modest physical accomplishment just to go about my daily business. Other good news: It turns out I often walk 4 or 5 miles in a day without really trying. And when I left the trackers on my wrist during a tennis game, I found that playing for a single hour racked up 6,000 steps—equivalent to 3 miles—which nicely contextualized the workout vis a vis my other, less strenuous daily activities.

On the flip side, I’d never realized quite how sedentary I become on winter weekends. Over the course of one snowy, couch-bound Saturday, I barely eked out 1,000 steps. I was like an obese panda lazing in a zoo habitat.

Perhaps the weirdest revelation involved my heart rate, which some trackers measure using built-in optical readers that can scan your wrist or fingertip. When I was out and about, my pulse rarely climbed above 80 beats per minute. When I’d been sitting on my couch for a while, it dipped to 49. That’s verging into serial killer territory. (I swear, dear reader, I am capable of empathy. I’m just super calm.)

The thing was, after a couple of days with these trackers—having seen the patterns in my activity take shape—the numbers ceased to be interesting. In effect, I’d run a diagnostic on my physical behavior, taken a gander at the results, and decided I’m doing OK and don’t need to keep measuring. Because I live in a city and don’t have a car, I walk around plenty. I don’t require a daily report confirming that fact. Who cares if I walked 11,000 steps today instead of 12,000, or if I climbed 15 flights of stairs instead of 16? In the end, I suppose I’m just not that into me.

Some of these trackers also promise to monitor your sleep habits, but I found this function wasn’t always up to par. At one point, a tracker thought I’d nodded off for a half-hour at my desk in the Slate office. In fact, I was busily working. (Gifted as I am, I still can’t do this job in my sleep.) Sometimes, an overnight report on my Zs would be wildly incorrect, insisting I’d slept for 13 hours when I knew it was only seven.

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