Best fitness trackers 2021 | CNN Underscored
While Fitbit was one of the first companies to go beyond simple step counting — giving insight into calories burned, sleep data and more — several brands have built an impressive fitness community around their products, allowing people to connect with others who are also on a mission to lose weight, get fit or improve their endurance and speed.
That’s why, over the course of a month, we tested seven highly rated, beloved fitness trackers. We ran. We walked. We lifted. We compared ease of use, build quality and accuracy. After a more-active-than-usual couple of weeks, we found one fitness tracker that tops them all:
Fitbit Inspire 2
Since first releasing fitness trackers in 2014, Fitbit has been considered the most accessible brand for all health warriors — from novices to experts.
Though both Fitbit models we tried excelled during our testing, the Inspire 2 was slimmer and less complicated to both set up and understand than the Fitbit Charge 4. Its sleek build ensured it didn’t catch on clothing (or anything else) while working out, and the thin screen seemed less prone to bumps and scratches, so in a way it felt less shatterproof than others. Some of the other trackers, like the Fitbit Charge, were just slightly bigger, but still big enough to notice the difference. (We concede that comfort is wholly subjective, but we ultimately found the slimmer Inspire 2 less obtrusive while wearing and therefore think it would be comfortable even for those with smaller wrists. For those looking for more heft and slightly larger faces, the Fitbit Charge 4 or Garmin Vivosmart 4 might be more ideal.) Despite its slightly smaller screen, we never struggled to read our stats in the Inspire 2, even while quickly peeking during intense workouts.
Setup was a cinch and took place within the Fitbit app, which is available on Google Play, iTunes or Microsoft. Just create a free profile, sync via Bluetooth, charge your tracker and you’re ready to get started. For better accuracy, it’s essential to fill out your personal information, including your height and whether you’re wearing the tracker on your dominant or nondominant wrist. Your height often determines your gait — the length of your step — and the Inspire 2 is supposed to track differently based on which hand you’re using (though we did not notice a significant difference in tracking when we tested on different wrists).
You can also set up step goals (we aimed for 10,000, for instance) as well as weight loss, water intake, wellness, sleep and more. When you log in to your Fitbit app, your home page automatically displays a semicompleted circle of how many steps you’ve taken for the day. A quick scroll will show you active minutes (when your heart rate was raised), your average resting heart rate and additional data. You can also set and log your water goals.
Fitbit Inspire 2
You have the option to turn on a notification to remind you to get in at least 250 steps per hour to meet your movement aspirations for the day. This was something that, as we’re now working (and exercising and cooking and existing 24/7) at home, we found to be incredibly helpful; on several occasions, the feature (which you can also find on the Garmin and Withings trackers) gave us the prompt we needed to drag ourselves out of our seat and walk upstairs or grab the pup for a quick around-the-block jaunt.
Fitbit claims that it can automatically tell what type of fitness you’re partaking in, from swimming to biking to more than 20 other activities, but we didn’t find this claim to be entirely accurate in our testing. While the Fitbit Inspire 2 did recognize when we were doing cardio, it read strength training as king (our assumption is that’s because our heart rate would only rise here and there during those sessions); when we biked, it picked it up as swimming. This wasn’t an anomaly pegged only to Fitbit, as none of the trackers consistently identified strength training. Despite that hiccup, we did like how the Fitbit app told us exactly when we were in our most active, fat-burning mode and when we were at rest. We found this information to be helpful, mainly as it gives insight into how many additional calories to burn to meet goals.
One of the most significant — and interesting — features of the Fitbit Inspire 2 is the sleep tracker, which lets you know when you wake up throughout the night, how deep or light your rest is and how much time you spend in the REM cycle. Our tester, a self-professed problematic sleeper, found this tracker to be the most comfortable to wear throughout the night (an issue we had with other trackers, which you can read more about below). And you won’t have much worry about charging the Fitbit Inspire 2, as it can hold a charge for up to 10 days; we never needed to recharge it throughout our testing, even after a few days of heavy use.
For less than $100, the Fitbit Inspire 2 is the best choice for anyone who wants better clarity and more robust data about their health, fitness and wellness lifestyle. Each tracker also comes with a free year of the Fitbit Premium Membership, which provides data-driven personal recommendations as well as access to hundreds of workout videos from Fitbit and meditation and mindfulness lessons. We think that’s plenty of bang for your buck.
When working toward a specific health goal, a fitness tracker can prove vital, helping to self-monitor daily activities and provide motivation to stay in action. As certified fitness instructor DeBlair Tate, who provided guidance during our testing process, put it: “When your progress is tracked accurately and consistently, a pattern of results becomes clearer. It provides a sense of ownership for health and fitness goals. When you aim to reach those numbers daily, you gain that fulfillment of accomplishment that motivates you to create more goals.”
But how accurate, exactly, are fitness trackers? We did notice some discrepancies in steps — up to 500 to 800 steps — when we wore two trackers at once. This was true regardless of brand. That’s normal, though, since technology and functionality are all different. As Keegan Draper, National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and fitness specialist for Mindbody, explained, wrist straps will differ from hip-mounted trackers and chest or arm straps.
In terms of steps, he says more accurate measurements would come from a hip-mounted step counter, whereas a wristwatch could pick up on other movements and track those. “It is very likely two different trackers give different step counts,” Draper noted. “But, overall, your daily fitness tracker will be relatively accurate, and having some sort of monitor and tracker is better than none.”
- Accuracy: Though numbers will vary, as we explored above, to test accuracy, we wore two trackers at once and compared the results. We also compared the steps to the included pedometer in our phone and tested the built-in GPS to measure distance.
- Readability: While the numbers on all fitness trackers are fairly small, we noted how easy it was to read the screen — as well as how quickly we could glance at the screen to see our heart rate in the middle of a workout.
- Navigation: All of the trackers allow you to scroll to find steps, activity, heart rate and so on. We rated how easy this was to explore.
- Activity recognition: For many trackers, you can also select what type of workout you’re doing before you begin for better tracking accuracy. Some automatically recognize activities, so we tested that too.
- App usability: We rated how straightforward the app was, what it tracks and how it presented information.
- Ease of setup: When you’re buying a tracker to lower your heart rate and improve your health, the last thing you want is to be stressed. We looked at how easy and fast it was to follow instructions, download the app, connect to Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi and get started.
- Battery life: We recorded how long each device lasted on a full charge.
- Compatibility: Many fitness trackers require you to download their own app, and some allow you to sync with other apps, like Apple Health, Google Fit, MyFitness Pal, Peloton and many others. We looked at how many third-party apps each tracker could pair with.
- Overall comfort: The purpose of a fitness tracker is to wear it all day, and in some cases, all night. This means comfort is key. We rated on fit as well as how it felt during and after a workout, against sweat or in the shower.
- Design: We noted how aesthetically pleasing and diverse the tracker was, including how many colors and designs were available.
- Waterproofness: We took each of these trackers into the shower to ensure they held up to their waterproof rating.
- Warranty: We noted the warranty, if any, for each device and rated its offering.
Fitbit Charge 4 ($99.95, originally $149.95; amazon.com)
In all transparency, the Fitbit Charge 4 offers every feature we liked about the Fitbit Inspire 2, but we found the design of this model to be less comfortable. The screen and the band are wider, which can feel bulky for someone with small wrists. If you’re on the fence about buying an Apple Watch, though, this is very similar in terms of alerts, connectivity to your calendar and messaging, so it could be a cheaper alternative. It is compatible with Spotify, so you can listen to music via Bluetooth headphones while exercising, but a premium membership is required.
The screen is more advanced than the Inspire 2, which we appreciated, but it’s also easier to scratch.
Garmin Vivosmart 4 With Pulse Ox and Heart Rate Monitor in Rose Gold With Gray Band ($106.12, originally $129.99; amazon.com)
In terms of look and feel, the two Garmins we tested were similar to the Fitbit Inspire 2. They have thinner bands in various colors and feature the swipeable home screen. While we preferred Fitbit to track workouts and steps, Garmin was better for walks and runs, since it’s known for its GPS accuracy and its ability to help with pacing, from within the app. It even provides trails or loops you can follow in most cities.
Garmin’s app and interface are similar to Fitbit but feel clunkier and more difficult to navigate. There are various sections, including a daily screenshot, challenges you can give yourself, calendar reminders and more, but it doesn’t offer the same community-like feel or ease of scrolling as the Fitbit app.
The Vivosmart 4 does display reminders to breathe and relax if your resting heart rate seems to be going haywire, which is a valuable feature, particularly in today’s climate. And if you want your steps to be front and center, you can make them first on your menu — or, if you want activities, you can do that too. It’s up to you and fully customizable.
This tracker also claims to have more advanced sleep monitoring, including REM cycle and blood oxygen saturation levels via its Pulse Ox sensor. Ultimately, though, we found it uncomfortable to wear while sleeping and ended up taking it off halfway through the night, so we didn’t get an accurate read.
Garmin Vivofit 4 ($69.94, originally $79.99; amazon.com)
This smaller and less expensive tracker offers many of the same apps and offerings as the Vivosmart, but it does have one standout quality that may be enticing for some: a button. Of all the trackers we tested, it was the only one to offer a button to navigate the on-screen menu. This isn’t a necessity, but for those who prefer something tangible, it could be a decision-making feature. Like all Garmin devices, this one also connects to Google Play, iTunes and up to 15 other apps, so you can easily integrate various subscriptions into your tracker. You can also get a weather reading if you’re trying to decide whether to do an indoor or outdoor workout. Our biggest gripe with this device, however, is its home screen, which we found to be the most difficult to read unless we were in total daylight.
Withings Hybrid Smartwatch Steel HR ($179.95; amazon.com)
Of the seven fitness trackers we tested, this is the only one that could be mistaken for a watch. And for many people, this is a major selling point. Its screen offers a clock, a stopwatch and all of the info traditional trackers have, like heart rate, calories burned and other data. For small wrists, though, we found this device to be too large.
With Withings, you download its Health Mate app to receive information on your heart rate as well as to track your weight, activities and sleep. Like trackers, you can also receive text or phone alerts and connect it to Amazon Alexa to give verbal cues. To collect data on fitness, you scroll to place the tracker in “workout mode” and select from running, swimming and so on. As a bonus, it also claims to track Ping-Pong, windsurfing, kitesurfing and other unique activities. When you’ve finished sweating, you’ll see info on the duration of your activity and calories you expended. And its battery life is one of the most impressive we observed — even after wearing it for several days, it never fell below 70% charge.
It’s a solid choice for those who want a bit more out of their fitness tracker and are willing to spend a bit more.
Xiaomi Mi Band 4 ($39.99; amazon.com)
Though at first glance this fitness tracker looks very similar to its more expensive competitors, the experience doesn’t compare. When we were setting up the device, our internet browser detected a security risk and said the website was unsafe. Then, when we did download the app for Xiaomi called Mi Fit, it had significantly less information than the others we tested. You can see your steps, and you can select between walking, running and cycling, but the tracking features weren’t as reliable as others. Plus, the app heavily pushes the company’s “skins,” which are personalized home screens for the tracker, rather than focusing on health and wellness.
The tracker is comfortable to wear and has a sleek look (though the band is only available in black), but you need to remove the watch face to charge the device. It’s not a big deal and doesn’t take long, but it’s an added step that other trackers don’t require. While this isn’t the least expensive device on our list, we found it to have the fewest features — not to mention that its app and website seem unstable and should be updated to build trust with consumers.
Letsfit Fitness Tracker ($20; amazon.com, currently unavailable)
This tracker was the least expensive out of our pool, but we were impressed with its design and functionally. It’s the only tracker that doesn’t require you to set up a profile to begin using the device. That means you can take it out of the box, charge it for an hour and get started. It doesn’t have super-advanced data like the others we tested, but if you merely want to track your steps and your heart rate, it’s an affordable way to have a pulse on your health (no pun intended). You can download the VeryFitPro app to see your stats, but you can do so without giving your email or any information.
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