They’re sleek, connected and promise a smarter way to work out. Fitness watches are part of a hot ‘wearable tech’ trend that even Apple is said to be getting into, but with different features and software, not to mention the different commitments these devices demand from wearers, can they actually help you get the most from exercise?
We spent some time with three of the models available in Canada to see how effective they are at encouraging a healthier lifestyle. Here's a look at the Garmin Vivofit, TomTom Runner Cardio and Samsung Gear Fit.
Strap yourself in
All three models are "watches," in that they tell the time as a basic function and are worn on the wrist. But they're aimed at anyone wanting to track their fitness lifestyle, and offer different features.
In terms of hardware, the Garmin Vivofit is very comfortable. The thin, flexible, interchangeable band houses a small display that makes it look no different than a digital watch.
It’s not an LCD or a touchscreen, and doesn’t even have a backlight, so don’t expect it to be useful during a nighttime jog. However, that also means a stellar battery life; the power cell only needs the be replaced once a year.
Next to the display is a single button. You can switch between step count, step goal, distance travelled, calories burned, time and date.
Everything about the design says simplicity. Fitting, considering it’s only capable of measuring movement (while awake or asleep).
The TomTom Runner Cardio is a little more specific, as its name suggests. Runners will find the thicker strap very comfortable and find the bigger display — with a backlight — more useful.
The interface is not simple, though. A clunky four-way directional button moves you through menus. There are a lot of options and a lot of clicking before you can get going.
That’s partly due to the fact that it does more than the Vivofit. An onboard GPS accurately maps your run. It also has a heart rate monitor and measures things like pace, elevation and number of strides.
The battery life is also great — about 10 hours when using the GPS, but it can go longer in treadmill mode. For the average wearer that could mean weeks between charges, although the drawback to the power system is that it awkwardly charges through a USB dongle.
In terms of a premium feel, the Samsung Gear Fit has the other two beat. The most noticeable element is its curved, rectangular touchscreen. Bright and easy to use, the Gear Fit doesn’t look like a traditional watch or a fitness device — it looks like a hot, new tech accessory.
A single power button wakes it from sleep, and you navigate the menus using touch controls. It tracks your steps, your heart rate, your location (if your phone is nearby with GPS activated), your movement during sleep and can let you control your phone’s music and read notifications.
All these features consume power, which means you can expect to charge the Gear Fit (also with an awkward dongle) once every two days.
Features aside, the goal of these devices is to help you achieve a better workout. The watches all measure your workout data and sync to online services or apps.
The Runner Cardio is not designed to be worn all day, so you need to remind yourself to put it on before you hop on the treadmill or go for a run outside. Then it takes a few button presses to actually start it tracking, and a few more to tell it you’ve stopped.
The Runner Cardio takes that workout data and can either sync to an app (iPhone only) or upload to a computer. You can choose to use TomTom’s easy-to-understand MySports service or upload to popular running trackers like RunKeeper. TomTom’s device is aimed at people who care about running, but anyone can jump in and start using it.
The Gear Fit is a different beast that requires some extra investment. Firstly, you need a Samsung Phone to even use it. We were provided a review unit of the Samsung Galaxy S5.
Working out with the Gear Fit takes just a few taps to get going. Using Samsung’s S Health app, the data is transferred to your phone at regular intervals. You can track your progress in great detail without having to worry about manually uploading anything, and it even awards medals for reaching certain workout goals.
The Vivofit — with the fewest features on paper — is surprisingly good at getting you moving. The most helpful feature is a red line that appears on the display when you’ve been stationary for too long.
Since all the Vivofit does is measure steps, all you need to do when working out is … go. Handy if you work a desk job and need a little reminder to take a walk once in a while.
It syncs with either the Garmin Connect app or with a tiny Bluetooth USB stick. Both are a quick process, but like MySports and S Health, require an account to be set up.
Will it actually help?
All three devices are capable of kickstarting your workout, but there are some stark realities that become apparent as you use these devices.
The truth about step counters (and, to a lesser extent, heart monitors) is that they will never be 100 per cent accurate. Both the Gear Fit and the Vivofit inadvertently encouraged the wearer to swing their arms while walking, lest a measurement be missed, for example.
On rare occasions, both the Gear Fit and Runner Cardio gave heart readings that were at lower levels than my actual heart rate. At one point I was running at full tilt and the Runner Cardio said I was at 85 beats-per-minute, when it should have read more than 140 bpm. After resetting it and shuffling it on my wrist, it began to work properly again. I had a similar experience with the Gear Fit. But again, these were one-off anomalies.
And measuring movement during sleep is fine, but what do you do once you know you move too much after you doze off?
It seems, in the end, using these devices to quantify data about your body’s activity requires a belief that the numbers are meaningful. Olympians and astronauts can see a direct benefit from having their heart rate and breathing monitored, but can the average person?
“When you are self aware, when you are able to train in the right zone, that does make your workout more effective,” says Dr. Greg Wells, a sports scientist at the University of Toronto. “Wearable technologies can provide insight to where you’re at and where you need to be.”
Knowing that right ‘zone’ can take professional help to understand. Wells points out that recent studies into fitness devices indicate they tend to be like gym memberships: They spark a surge in activity, followed by a drop-off. Still, he remains optimistic about the usefulness of these devices when they're used in tandem with a fitness regime.
if gathering information about yourself can help you track your progress and help you figure out where you need to be — fantastic. It’s wonderful and extremely helpful.”
And that’s what these three devices can do: Help you be the manager of your own health.
However, that management comes at a cost. The cheapest watch is the Garmin Vivofit at $190. Next comes the Gear Fit at around $200 — and remember, this requires having a Samsung smartphone as well. Finally, the Cardio Runner can run you — pun intended — $300. These gadgets are a big financial commitment for someone looking to just go for a run.
That being said, as the field of biometrics (measuring your body’s signals) expands into consumer technology, we will likely see more of these fitness products hitting the market in the near future. They will promise a lot, but people need to remember that just like a gym membership, having one doesn’t automatically give you a healthy lifestyle.
As Wells puts it, when it comes to exercise: “You still need to actually do it.”