Tuesday 27 September 2016

It's time to get fitness goals on track

If you want to get fitter faster, then activity trackers and sports watches are handy aids along the road, writes Claire O'Mahony

Claire O'Mahony

Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30

Geraldine Lee with her FitBit wristband in D'Olier Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Geraldine Lee with her FitBit wristband in D'Olier Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

When it comes to fitness, many of us can use a helping hand. That might be the rigours of bootcamp, the inspirational words of a personal trainer, the prospect of bearing more than usual on a beach holiday or - increasingly for many people - the motivation that is an activity tracker.

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Now that fit is the new skinny, there's a huge appetite for activity trackers and sports watches that not only perform a variety of functions - from counting your steps to monitoring your calorie intake and sleep - but that also look great on wrists.

Wearables are big business. According to Adam Lester, technology product and marketing manager at Harvey Norman, the market grew by 200pc for them last year and he expects it to get even bigger. "More and more people are aware of the products; they're reading about them online and their friends have them," he says. "We expect the growth to continue and it's just going to get more popular."

The most basic models can set you back as little as €30, whereas something like the Apple Sports Watch is a cool €400-plus and one of the most popular brands, Fitbit costs in the region of €150. But with so many free or low-cost fitness apps available, is there any necessity to even invest in a wearable activity tracker?

One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year measured a number of smartphone apps and fitness devices from top sellers in the States. The research found that in terms of counting steps, all were fairly accurate. But fans of wearable fitness devices point to the fact that wearables can do so much more than simply tracking steps - heart rate during an activity, route tracking, a runner's rhythm are good examples - and are also more convenient because you're not having to reach into your pocket to look at your mobile, or risk damaging your expensive iPhone by taking it out for a run.

If you're debating between buying a fitness tracker or investing in a smart watch, there are distinctions, not least a price difference of a couple of hundred euro. While the primary purpose of an activity tracker is to allow you to monitor your health, a smart watch also allows you to communicate, check emails, messages and social media, with the added benefit of keeping on top of your fitness. However, a smart watch is usually bulkier than a fitness tracker, tends to have a shorter battery life and is often chunkier.

According to Mr Lester, you want technology that matches what you actually do, or what you aspire to do.

"When somebody comes in we ask them what they're going to be using the tracker for and that's how we choose if it's going to be a standard activity tracker, one of the more advanced ones that has GPS if they're going to be out running or cycling, and then smart watches for business people who want to be able to look at their notifications and emails on a product that looks like a real watch as opposed to a fitness tracker," he says.

All fitness trackers monitor your movements and generally synch with your computer or mobile phone to store data. However, other functionalities can vary hugely and once again it comes down to what you want from your tracker and that might include counting calories or even how much you sweat.

Fitness expert Karl Henry is a fan. "I think they're great," he says. "They provide simple ways of motivation and of tracking your movement; some of them help track your food as well and it all adds up to being more aware of what you do and what you don't do during the day and that can only be a good thing."

He himself uses a Garmin for his marathon training which tracks his runs, with his data then bluetoothed to an app on his phone, which is sent over to a coach in the UK. "I find it really handy. When I run, it's nice to know what speed I'm going at and what my heart rate is. It keeps me focused on what I'm doing."

But a word of warning. As with the high performance trainers purchased to encourage you to go running or the MyFitness Pal account that you hoped would help regulate your diet, a fitness tracker, however expensive and no matter many functions it has, will really only put you on the road to fitness if the desire is there.

"If getting fitter, getting more active and losing some weight is what you want to do, it can definitely help you achieve that goal as they'll make you aware of your step count and what you do during the day and they'll remind you to move more," says Karl. "They can definitely help but they're not going to fix the problem unless you commit to working with them. "

Irish Independent

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