So, What Exactly is an Activity Monitor?
By Rebecca Rogers, MS, C-HFS
Improving fitness, losing weight and moving more every day can be tough goals to accomplish. An activity monitor can help this process. Activity monitors, or trackers, are a type of technology worn throughout the day to assess fitness and physical activity. Looking at the amount of exercise you get, or do not get, on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis can be the motivation you need to take the stairs more often or walk an extra lap around the block. At the very least, these devices will allow you to be more conscious of your current physical activity level, which is the first step to getting fit.
The best activity monitors available on the market are highly evolved versions of pedometers. These monitors are smarter, more precise, and do a lot more than just count steps. Depending on the type of device, features can include a heart rate monitor, distance traveled, flights of stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep analysis and an inactivity indicator. They can be paired or synced to associated online accounts, mobile apps or other auxiliary devices. These components are important for getting the full benefit of the activity monitor. The website and/or app provide easy-to-read graphs and personal statistics that allow you to chart your progress and visualize your health habits.
Constantly advancing technology has allowed for huge improvements in activity monitors’ readings and accuracy. The heart of an activity monitor is an accelerometer, which works by sensing movement and measuring motion patterns, then translating that information into calories burned, distance covered and sleep quality. An altimeter or barometer counts stairs and hills traveled and other changes in elevation, then converts that information into floors climbed.
Like any piece of equipment, there are flaws in the programming that will cause some components to give inaccurate readings. For instance, activity monitors calculate stride length from pre-set values based on gender, height and weight. If your stride is longer or shorter than the default, or if you are a person who uses a wheelchair, assistive device, or has a lower extremity mobility disability, the accuracy of some of the readings will be affected. In these situations, the information from the activity monitors should be used as a standard to gauge future activity. The device might display you accomplished 14,000 steps when it was actually only 12,000, but the tracking will always be "off" by the same amount. You can still use 14,000 steps as the baseline value as encouragement to complete more movement every day. This is the main purpose of activity monitors, anyway: to give insight into present activity levels and incentive to achieve fitness and health goals.
New activity monitors and upgrades to current models are released frequently. Each device is different and can vary greatly in terms of price and features. If you are shopping for your first activity monitor, I encourage you to purchase one that will be best for you and your needs. Almost all activity monitors cost between $99 and $199 depending on the capabilities of the device. Brands at the cheaper end of this range include the FitBit, Jawbone and Misfit. These track the basic features previously mentioned, such as step count and calories burned, but are not generally ideal for gathering data about sports activities, such as running, cycling, or swimming. Monitors that can analyze this data are more expensive and include GPS tracking capabilities and other sensors that measure variables like pace and cadence. Examples include the TomTom Multi-Sport, Garmin Forerunner and Garmin Vivofit. For people who swim or bike often or athletes serious about tracking performance, the extra expense might be worthwhile. The simpler and cheaper devices are still great for everyday use and give you valuable information on your activity levels. Take time to research the different devices to ensure the one you purchase fits your lifestyles and reads the statistics you want to closely monitor.
Once you have set a fitness and health goal, activity monitors have the benefit of providing motivation, consistency and data tracking. While they cannot do the work for you, they provide information about your daily habits that allows you to see where and how changes need to be made. Whether your health goals are modest or you are hoping for a full fitness transformation, using an activity monitor can go a long way toward helping you understand if the exercise and health habits you keep are contributing to the new you.