Fitness Trackers -vs- Heart Rate Monitors

Fitness Trackers are hot ticket items these days when it comes to fitness, losing weight, or personal motivation.  Companies have picked up on this trend and are working harder than ever to market as many different devices as possible to the public.  With so many options, how do you know where to start?  What do you really need from a device and what will work best for YOU with your personal goals?  Well, lets talk about Fitness Trackers!

 
Everything discussed within this article is simply my opinion based off of personal use of different devices and their functionality.  My goal is to simply share what I have found as I dove into the world of tracking my workouts and what I found most useful and why.  So, lets get down to business, shall we?

When it comes to the world of tracking fitness I feel there are two categories in which a device lives.  Either motion/activity based or Heart Rate Monitoring.  Yes, there are grey areas in between, but we will talk about that in a later article.  Today we will focus on these two categories.

Over the last couple of years I have had a chance to purchase and use a few different types of fitness tracking devices to help aid in my workouts and increase motivation and effort.  Although I feel that each device I have used has done a good job at motivating and tracking, I definitely feel that there are some areas where one device outplays the others.  Let us start our break down by talking about motion/activity based tracking.

  

Motion based tracking devices are more popular than ever.  The FitBit and Jawbone are two names I’m sure most of you are at least familiar with.  These devices usually either clip to your clothing or are worn around the wrist, similar to a bracelet.  These trackers do not include heart rate monitoring and base activity levels based on motion and movement.  Like most fitness trackers, when you set up your device you set a ‘goal’ that you would like to reach daily.  It may be steps taken or a certain activity level.  As your device is worn throughout the day it will gather and store data that add up toward your goal.  For these motion based trackers this information is gathered via movement and activity.  If you are running or taking a fitness class, your device will notice the increase in activity and store the information appropriately.  If you are sedentary, such as sitting at a desk, the device will store that information appropriately as well.

Here is where I find the grey are in motion based trackers…  What happens when you are involved in an activity that requires little movement?  Let’s use the example of me running with my stroller.  When I run on my own my arms swing freely with every stride therefore creating movement that this device can easily detect and track.  BUT when I run pushing my twins, my hands and arms are stationary, holding onto the handgrip to push and maneuver the stroller. Now there is much less detectable activity and a motion based tracker does not accurately record this intense workout.

Now, devices that use a Chest Strap to monitor active Heart Rates bring a whole different perspective to fitness tracking.  These devices can accurately monitor and record your heart rate to give you a precise measurement of your bodies effort extended during a workout.  Even if I performing an exercise that promotes very little motion, such as a leg workout (squats, leg press, etc…) a heart rate monitor will accurately be able to track the intensity of your workout based on your active heart rate.  You may not be jumping around but your heart rate will be pounding away due to using all the large muscles in your body to lift the weight, thus creating high calorie burns that a motion based device cannot detect.

To put this theory to the test I took my favorite fitness toy, my Polar a300, to the gym (well, I mean it’s always there with me anyway, but you get what I mean).  My usual gym cardio workout is HIIT on a StairMill.  That nasty looking revolving staircase that most people are scared to even get on.  Believe me, it is as nasty as it looks.  But anyway… I switch between intervals of running the stair and walking.  As you can guess, this is exhausting and one heck of an intense cardio session which leads to pretty high calorie burns.  So day one of the test, I wore just my Polar watch, no chest strap.  This means that my device would only track movement and activity to calculate my calories burned during this workout.  After an hour on this torture device, this was my movement/activity based result.

Motion Based Tracking

I’m sure you were expecting something a little more dramatic, right?  Here is why the number is so low.  During my periods of rest I usually hold onto the railings of the StairMill for stability as I regain composure and catch my breath.  This means my arms are not moving so no activity is being detected.  Is my body still working hard?!  Darn right it is!  My heart is pounding out of my chest, sweat is pouring off my nose and I can barely breath.  I think this is affective cardio!

Moving onto the Chest Strap.  So, the next day when I was at the gym I strapped on my Chest Strap and prepared the same exact HIIT Cardio as the day before.  Intervals of running and walking on the StairMill for one hour.  The difference this time was my fitness tracker was able to read and record my active heart rate during my entire workout to determine how hard my body was working and the number of calories I was able to burn.  After this hour of torture, this was my reading…

Heart Rate based Monitoring

 
The difference is pretty dramatic, right?!  The reason is my chest strap was able to constantly feed my fitness tracker information about how my body was responding to activity.  Even when there was little movement involved, my body was still working hard and my heart rate was proof to that thus providing a more accurate reading.

Now, I am in no way knocking the motion based trackers.  I do feel that they provide great feedback on daily activity and can be great to help motivate you to be active throughout the day, but if you are serious about tracking activity, workouts and calories burned, a Heart Rate Monitor is definitely the way to go.  After running the stairs for an hour and seeing that you only burned 289 calories, it can be a little discouraging.  You’re thinking… Wow, that was really hard and I only burned 289 calories?!  That SO wasn’t worth it!!!  But if you run those stairs for an hour and see a reading of 752 calories burned you may think: WOW!!  I really worked hard!

 

In closing, I feel that both devices are great additions to your everyday activities.  They provide easy to access feedback on how active you are and are great at providing self motivation.  Speaking from personal experience I feel that you will get more bang for your buck (since none of these toys are cheap!) from a heart rate/chest strap based fitness tracker.  Motion based can have the tendency to be misleading and the last thing I want to see is someone who is working toward a healthy lifestyle is to become discouraged because they activity levels aren’t as high as they expected with different forms of exercise.

So what is the best device for YOU?!  That is for you to find out!  Everyone has their own needs when and what works for me may not be what works for you.  All you can do is experiment and find that perfect fit.

Okay, I’ve gone on long enough…  Thanks for sticking around for another Fitness Focused rant and I hope that you found this article useful.  Again, please know that everything stated is simply my OPINION on these devices and I strongly urge each of you to find what works for YOU.

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