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Data Crunch: The Best Fitness Trackers

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The New "It" in Fitness

It's a truth universally acknowledged that technology has played a role in making us less active. But at the same time it has seduced us with the promise that it can save us from its ills: Sales of wearable technology that can link to the Internet or work with mobile apps will grow from $8.6 billion in 2012 to almost $30 billion by 2018, notes IHS, an industry forecaster.

Activity trackers like the Fitbit, Jawbone UP24, and Nike+ FuelBand, among others, have created a market for next-generation pedometers, so to speak — well-dressed motion sensors that talk to your smartphone by way of Bluetooth technology and count your steps, calories burned, and even sleep. Thanks to this virtual arms race, one in 10 Americans over age 18 now owns a modern activity tracker, according to a January 2014 survey by Endeavour Partners, a strategy consulting firm.

The latest science on sitting has only fueled this tech boom in get-off-your-butt gadgets. A stream of research suggests that the other 23 hours when you're not working out are crucial in dictating how healthy you are and your weight fate. A 2010 study of 123,216 people, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that the more leisure time spent sitting, the higher the risk of premature death: Women who sat for more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die prematurely than those who sat for less than three hours, no matter how much other physical activity they got.

Wearable trackers can shine a light on the inner couch potato you didn't know you had. Sierra Gullan, 28, of Chicago, regularly logs sub-nine-minute miles and thinks of herself as active, so she was surprised when her Fitbit revealed how little she moved otherwise.

"I work in an office," she explains. She now makes a point of getting up and moving, walking to the store, and hopping on her treadmill at the end of the day, if necessary, to hit her daily 12,000 steps.

Nike's latest iteration, the Nike+ FuelBand SE, motivates users to move for at least five minutes to "win the hour"; it alerts you if you've been sitting for 45 minutes. That's based on the company's noticing that 98 percent of its roughly 20 million users exercised but spent huge chunks of the day sitting down. The Fitbit and Jawbone UP also nudge you to meet your goal with alerts.

Meanwhile, chances are your gym is already plugged in to wearable tech. The chain 24Hour Fitness offered training packages utilizing BodyMedia armband-style trackers for a couple of years, and LifeTime Fitness, with clubs in 23 states, recently launched a program in which trainers help clients choose from among recommended gadgets like the Fitbit. "Movement during the day is almost more important than the time people spend working out with us," says Jennifer Keskey, LifeTime's national program manager of assessments and devices.

Of course, wristband trackers didn't take off due to their technology alone; they had to be more sleek than geek for us to want to wear them. The Fitbit and Jawbone UP come in candy colors, and the Nike+ FuelBand is so trendy that last year Vogue devoted a page in the September issue to "the A-list's chicest accessory." (Gwyneth Paltrow, however, wears a Jawbone UP, and Kelly Ripa a Fitbit Flex.) Sonny Vu, the founder of Misfit Wearables, whose pebble-size metallic Shine is widely praised on style, says, "Our dream is to make something so beautiful you'd wear it even if it didn't work."

Gonna Make You Sweat?

Now that the wearable tracker has more or less dummy-proofed the counting of calories burned (for many but not all activities — more on that later), the hope is that it will rally us to work off more of them.

Temporarily it will, for sure, thanks in part to the Hawthorne effect, a sociological phenomenon in which people behave better when they're being observed. Fitbit, for example, says its users take 43 percent more steps than they did before they bought one.

But these trackers are still too new for anyone to say whether the fancy features offer better results than a plain old pedometer: A 2007 Stanford University analysis of several studies found that people who used pedometers increased the number of steps they took by an average of 2,491 a day.

Still, the numbers — and the constant sight of that wristband — are motivating. Anne Bogel, 35, of Louisville, Kentucky, says her Jawbone UP has changed everything about her day, including what she says to her husband: "I'm going out to pick up some steps." She loves "the little flashy light that the Jawbone app gives you when you hit your goal."

And if your device doesn't inspire you to move, its social sweatwork just might. Data from the companies themselves suggest that the baked-in social features — like being able to send cheers or taunts to your fellow Fitbit users or seeing the step counts of others on your Jawbone UP team — may make you more active. Fitbit, for example, says users who join up with friends tend to be 27 percent more active than those using the device solo, and that for every friend you add, you increase the activity level by about 750 steps a day. Nike+ FuelBand stats show that average NikeFuel, or activity, points go from 3,137 in solo users to 3,531 in those linked with three friends. Jawbone likewise says that having one or more teammates makes you walk 10 additional miles a month.

Jennifer Gimelstob, 31, of New Jersey, and her good friend (and former Weight Watchers buddy) connected on their Fitbits to help keep each other on track. "She'll get 10,000 steps by 11:00 a.m.," Gimelstob says. "So I'll pick it up a little because I don't want to be embarrassed."

As for how well these gadgets keep you going toward your goal and off your sofa, a 2014 Endeavour Partners report noted that more than half of those who own a modern activity tracker no longer use it, with a third giving up the gadget within six months. (Fitbit says 62 percent of employees in their wellness program are still participating in month three.)

The cofounder of Beyond Yoga, Michelle Wahler, 35, of Venice, California, was running the mile to her Pilates class instead of driving — and taking walks with her fiance after dinner instead of lounging if both of their step counts were low on their trackers — but stopped when she quit wearing her Jawbone UP.

Experts are at work figuring out what makes the motivation stick — and click — in activity band users, but for now the jury is still out. Bottom line: That wearable tracker buys you some electronic hand-holding, not a handcuff to your treadmill.

Decoding Your Data

The physicist and mathematician Lord Kelvin (in case you don't have Google handy, he's the guy who determined the value of absolute zero) said that if you can't measure something, you can't improve it.

"But the data that consumers receive right now does leave them with a lot of questions, like 'How do I actually make my life better immediately?'" says Rosalind Picard, an MIT professor who's the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. "There's still a lot of work to do to make it clean and simple and actionable for the average person."

Because of the current limits of many trackers (those that don't have heart rate monitoring capabilities) in crediting physical exertion in workouts with little wrist motion — Spinning for one — simply chasing big numbers on the screen may lead a user astray in some instances. For a time, Cate Huston, 28, of London, gave up yoga and cut back on weight-lifting because neither registers well on her trackers (she's gone through a few models), and she stopped swimming and switched to an elliptical trainer to help her meet her aggressive goals more quickly. She was forced to reevaluate when a broken tracker lost 10 days' worth of data. "I finally had to say, swimming is good for me and yoga is good for me, and missing them for the sake of a number on a screen is not good for me," she says.

Plus, if you've got a training goal, such as improving your 10K time, you'll need a tech upgrade. Tasha van Es, 41, of Pepperell, Massachusetts, who competes in marathons and triathlons — and who loves herself a good gadget — wears the Misfit Shine, but for training, nothing beats her Cyclemeter app, which offers sport-specific feedback that trackers can't match. "In the Shine you can change your activity-points target to a higher level, but it doesn't give me any sense of, Is this a reasonable goal?" she says.

Even if it's a black box to the rest of us, scientists, of course, can tease useful information from the data we're all collecting and deploy the insights to better their products. The Jawbone UP 3.0's latest app attempts to add value to the data by making suggestions based on your past behavior. Opt in and via push notifications you'll get reminders to, say, go to bed at 10:30 if your goal is to get eight hours of sleep. The most recent Jawbone tracker, UP24, is also the first to attempt to integrate wirelessly such a device into other aspects of your life. When you wake up in the morning, for example, you can have the Jawbone send a trigger to switch on your Philips Hue lights or start brewing your coffee, presuming your machine has an Internet-connected power plug.

These devices will become smarter over the next few years — providing more useful recommendations — based on how much information they have about you. "When the Nike+ FuelBand version 6 comes out in the future and you buy that as your first tracker ever, you're going to be missing out on how smart it could be with your historical activity data," says Daniel McCaffrey, a wearable-tech consultant at Endeavor Partners. "As opposed to if you got in on the first Nike+ FuelBand, which would allow your new FuelBand to evaluate all that longitudinal data you've been supplying."

Besides, just having it on your wrist is a status symbol that shows you care about your health, an icebreaker (Van Es finds herself chatting with fellow tracking types she would never speak to otherwise) and a visual cue to make healthy decisions. "Based on how habits form," McCaffrey says, "I'm much more likely to become a healthier person if I'm reminded of it daily."

Track Pack

These buzzed-about devices all tally your steps and calories on your smartphone. What sets them apart? FITNESS editors sweat-tested them to spell it out.

Misfit Shine: Unlike other gadgets, this disk can be worn while swimming and in a special hip clip or necklace, plus its coin-cell battery lasts about three months. Lights on the dial show your progress, but users may want more detail than "pretty active" or "kinda active." ($120, misfit.com)

Fitbit Flex: Instead of a numerical display, light-up dots let you know what percentage of steps you've achieved; a tiny buzzer vibrates when you've hit your goal. ($100, fitbit.com)

Nike+ FuelBand SE: You'll see NikeFuel points, which may be less concrete than a mileage total (not displayed). But they act as a universal way to measure activities, so you can easily compete with pals. Loaded with social media motivation and "badges" for good behavior. ($149, store.nike.com)

Polar Loop: The band buzzes you with options, suggesting that if you want to meet your goal you can, say, run for five minutes, walk for 30 minutes — or play guitar, standing, for two hours. When paired with the H7 Bluetooth Smart chest strap (for an additional $80), this becomes a heart rate monitor. ($110, polarloop.com)

Jawbone UP24: In addition to its many social sweatworking capabilities, it vibrates to let you know if you haven't moved within the hour and pushes timely activity prompts to your smartphone based on your stats. The band doesn't show data, so you've got to check your phone. ($150, jawbone.com)

Power Tools

These gadgets go beyond gathering the usual activity stats. Here's how to pick the right piece for your fitness mission.

To pace your run: Garmin Forerunner 220. This GPS watch calculates your speed and distance as you stride. Pair it with a chest strap ($50 extra) to track your heart rate too. ($250, buy.garmin.com)

To get good posture: Lumo Lift. Place this magnetized clip-on at lapel level and it will vibrate whenever you slump. ($79, lumobodytech.com)

To get a coach: Basis Carbon Steel Edition. It offers a step-by-step process to create one of several dozen healthy habits, such as running. Wrist sensors record your heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature to gauge intensity. ($199, mybasis.com)

To see your intensity: Adidas miCoach Smart Run Watch. A wrist sensor tracks your heart rate, a built-in GPS records your runs, and workout downloads appear on-screen. Uploads workouts wirelessly. ($400, adidas.com)

To answer your cell mid-sweat: Samsung Gear Fit. The touch screen displays your heart rate via a wrist sensor, and if your Samsung phone is on you, the band acts as a switchboard for picking up calls and emails on the fly. ($199, samsung.com)

Healthy App-Etite

See our picks for fitness apps that can help pump up and map out your activity totals.

Moves: Test the tracking trend without the money commitment by downloading this activity tracker app to your smartphone. (iOS, $2.99, or Android, free)

Runtastic GPS Running, Walking & Fitness Tracker: Tallying speed, elevation and distance and graphing your progress, this tracking app was just updated to let you monitor your hydration. (iOS or Android, free)

Pact: This app rewards healthy behavior in the form of cold, hard cash — 30 cents to $5 a week on average. Name your activity goal and the amount you'd be willing to pay if you fall short of it. Hit your mark by checking in at the gym or using a GPS to track runs and you'll earn cash from other members who dropped the ball. (iOS and Android, free)

Active Fitness: Free and for Windows phones, this app lets you record outdoor workouts like hiking, kayaking and mountain biking and presents your data in beautiful real-time charts. Compete and compare with other users. (Android only)

Temple: Make daily habits like drinking water, eating right or doing your mileage into a simple one-tap interface. Reminders kick in when it's been too long since your last check in. (iOS only, free)

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2014.

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