What is wearable technology?

Fitness and technology are not a new combination but the power and ubiquity of smartphones and a new class of wearable devices has seen fitness technology take a huge leap forward over the past few years, allowing us to track activities in great detail and receive instant feedback. 

No matter what your chosen sport there’s probably a device and app that can provide more insight into your performance, help improve your motivation and offer simple monitoring of fitness and health goals.

What is wearable technology?

Wearables are accessories with integrated technology, and can come in various forms including wrist bands, necklaces and clothing. A classic, and archaic, example would be the infamous Casio TV remote and calculator watches but the most common wearables you’ll see today are fitness activity bands like the Jawbone, Fitbug or Fitbit and smartwatches like the Pebble, LG G Watch and Samsung Gear range. We'll mostly be covering activity trackers in this article so to find out more about smartwatches read our dedicated guide.

Wearables are increasingly popular for fitness and health. Most work by connecting to your smartphone so they can utilise the powerful hardware and software to display information such as notifications and location, and pass activity data back to apps on the smartphone.

This is really useful for working out since you can integrate wearables with an app like Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal for accurate and automatic tracking, as well as getting up-to-the-minute data on how many steps you’ve taken, your current route and in some cases your heart rate and temperature. This all helps build a profile of your health and monitor fitness as you work toward a goal, be it losing weight or running a marathon. 

Also related to activity trackers is the relatively recent introduction of smart digital scales like the Fitbit Aria. These take data from a fitness band and combine it with your weight, BMI and body fat percentage so you can track numerous aspects of your health and fitness.

Finding the best activity tracker

The first thing to look at is what you want to achieve with your wearable. It could be that you simply want a smarter pedometer, something like a Jawbone Up, Fitbug or Fitbit. These track steps and distance then sync that data to a smartphone or computer. Combine this with additional information such as water intake and food (which is entered manually) and they’re an inexpensive way to monitor health and work toward a goal.

For more advanced features such as heart rate monitor, GPS tracking and smartwatch functionality you’ll need to spend a bit more on devices such as the i-gotU by Mobile Action Technology or the Samsung Gear Fit. As well as providing additional data for serious workouts, these may be more suited to particular sports and activities such as long distance running and cycling where a step counter doesn’t work as well or does not provide enough detail.

Another thing to check is software and hardware compatibility to ensure a wearable will work in conjunction with your smartphone and favourite app. For example, the Samsung Gear Fit only works with selected Samsung smartphones and is largely designed around syncing with Samsung’s own S Health app.

Also important is build quality, durability and battery life. Any device designed for fitness tracking should be at least somewhat resilient to the elements but if you’re into any sports that involve immersion in water or dirty and dusty conditions then check that it will be able to withstand some punishment.

When comparing any fitness bands though you should keep in mind that some of the features they tout are not particularly useful or accurate. Calorie counting is a standard function but this is a very rough estimate which isn’t based on actual data (accurately counting calories requires expensive equipment) so you should not be using it to guide your eating habits. We’d also question the usefulness of sleep tracking, which is often promoted as a major feature. This is simply using the step tracker to monitor movement and does nothing beyond telling you when and how much you moved during the night - interesting perhaps but of no help if you have a genuine sleep problem.