Ranking the best sleep trackers of 2019

A sleep tracker is a device that monitors the duration and quality of your sleep. Many times, this technology is integrated into Fitbits or other fitness trackers, but not always—there are dedicated sleep trackers that you only have to wear at night. Thanks to advances in wearable technology, sleep trackers are compact, lightweight, and easy to use.

They can give you valuable feedback on not just how much sleep you are getting, but also crucial data on your sleep quality: how much you toss and turn, whether you wake up in the middle of the night, and (in some models), physiological parameters like your heart rate, blood oxygenation level, and heart rate variability.

Sleep trackers are great if you want to find out whether you’re truly getting high quality sleep, or if you want hard data on how much you are actually sleeping.

There’s a lot of variation from device to device in terms of usage, number of features, and quality, so we had our research team take a look at the options on the market to identify the best sleep trackers of the year.

The big picture

Sleep trackers help you monitor how many hours per night you sleep, the overall quality of your sleep, and sometimes, your heart rate and blood oxygen levels.

Sleep trackers are great both for fitness enthusiasts who want to make sure they’re getting enough recovery and for people who want to determine whether they’re tossing and turning or waking up in the middle of the night.

As of right now, the Garmin Vivosmart 4 is the top sleep tracker on the market, thanks to its insightful sleep metrics and its ability to directly measure blood oxygenation throughout the night. 

Rankings

1. Garmin Vivosmart 4

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The Garmin Vivosmart 4 is one of the few sleep trackers from an industry-leading brand that actually gives you raw blood oxygenation data, which alone makes it an excellent pick. Garmin’s activity recognition capabilities have improved by leaps and bounds recently, and its heart rate tracking is excellent too.

Why we like it: Garmin is known for providing accurate data, so the Vivosmart 4 is one of the most trustworthy devices that provide SpO2 (blood oxygenation) data. Garmin’s new advanced sleep tracking algorithms have markedly improved the quality and amount of sleep data you get, too.

Flaws: If you don’t like devices on your wrist, you may need to opt for a mattress-based or ring style sleep tracker instead. 

2. Withings Sleep Tracker 

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Withings makes one of the best mattress-based sleep trackers. Slip this under your mattress and you’ll get detailed feedback on your sleep quality. You can even connect it to smart home apps to automatically turn off the lights when you get into bed.

Why we like it: If you can’t stand anything on your wrist or finger when you go to bed, a mattress-based sleep tracker is the way to go. Withings offers nice app functionality and installation is super easy.

Flaws: Though Withings attempts to detect abrupt awakenings from sleep apnea, its lack of blood oxygen data seriously hampers its utility for people with sleep apnea. It can track tossing and turning, and it’s great at determining when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning, though.

3. Wellue O2Ring Oxygen Tracker 

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Wellue is a ring style sleep tracker that is specifically designed to monitor oxygen levels. If you don’t like wrist worn device and want to get SpO2 data, it’s your best bet.

Why we like it: Wellue does one thing and does it well. Your blood oxygen data get transmitted to an app where you can easily review your night’s sleep.

You’ll see several metrics, including your average blood oxygenation, lowest level, your heart rate, and the duration of time you spend below 90% blood oxygenation. If you want deep insights into the minute by minute trends of your blood oxygen, it’s a great tool.

Flaws: The device itself is a bit clunky, and it has a few features that aren’t very useful for sleep tracking. For example, it displays your blood O2 level on the screen in real-time, and you can set vibration alerts if your blood oxygen level dips below a certain level—but of course neither of these are particularly useful if you are asleep. 

4. Fitbit Charge 3

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If you are looking for a sleep tracker that doubles as a fitness tracker during the day, the Fitbit Charge 3 is hard to beat. With great sleep metrics and equally good daytime utility, it’s our number one pick.

Why we like it: Fitbit’s sleep detection technology performs quite well, and the newest version of the Charge will soon support SpO2 sensing which can measure your blood oxygen levels. Its app has great cross-platform support and could hardly be easier to use. 

Flaws: The only people who may struggle with using the Fitbit Charge 3 as a sleep tracker are those who are bothered by wearing anything on their wrist when they go to bed—if that sounds like you, opt for a mattress-based sleep tracker instead. The SpO2 tracking hasn’t been enabled in software just yet, though it’s rumored to be coming soon.

5. Motiv Ring Tracker

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Motiv looks like the future of activity tracking: this tiny ring counts steps, tracks your heart rate, and estimates the quality of your sleep. 

Why we like it: If you want a device that’s discreet and compact, Motiv is the best pick. It’s hard to believe how Motiv fits all the sensors into such a small package, but the end result is pretty impressive

Flaws: Since Motiv isn’t one of the big players in fitness trackers, their app functionality and the accuracy of their sleep and activity tracking is not the best. One sensor it is missing is an SpO2 monitor: you won’t be able to track your 

6. Akasma Fitness Tracker HR

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Akasma makes a basic and very popular fitness tracker that doubles as a sleep tracker. If you want a simple device that does fitness and sleep tracking, it’s a solid option. 

Why we like it: Tracking sleep, counting steps, and monitoring your heart rate has never been easier. This device is super easy to use, and gives you all the basic data you need.

Flaws: Without an SpO2 sensor, you don’t get blood oxygenation data, and the activity recognition accuracy of this device is not as good as a device from one of the bigger companies in the market. Still, if all you want is some accountability on your nightly hours of sleep, Akasma is a good way to go.

7. Fitbit Versa 2

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Top manufacturers have figured out that many people want lots of features all in one wearable device—hence, the rising popularity of smartwatches. The Fitbit Versa 2 is a jack of all trades, but still manages to do a great job at tracking sleep and surprisingly good accuracy at identifying sleep.

Why we like it: People who care about their sleep tend to care about physical activity, exercise, and calorie balance as well. The Fitbit Versa 2 does a great job of measuring all of these, without sacrificing much on the sleep tracking front.

Flaws: Though the Versa 2 has an oxygen sensor, you can’t access the raw data just yet—rumor has it Fitbit is working with the FDA to get the Versa 2 approved for detecting sleep apnea, and until then the SpO2 data is only used to calculate the sleep score metric; you can’t see the raw numbers just yet.

8. Polar Ignite

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Polar is an industry leader in heart rate monitoring technology, so it’s not surprising that they’ve added sleep tracking functionality to their flagship smartwatch.

If you want a sleep tracker that does a great job at tracking heart rate and heart rate variability, this is the best option on the market.

Why we like it: Polar has long been known to be the most accurate brand in heart rate monitoring, and this watch’s ability to double as a fitness tracker and heart rate monitor make it a good pick for athletes.

Flaws: Surprisingly, the Polar Ignite doesn’t do blood oxygenation levels—though the number of serious athletes who have sleep apnea is a lot smaller than the general population. Rumor has it that Polar’s devices actually have the sensors to do SpO2, but the company is still fine-tuning their data processing algorithm.

9. ViATOM Wearable Oxygen Monitor

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ViATOM’s sleep tracker is big and a bit clunky, but it gets you the data you want if you care about blood oxygen levels. 

Why we like it: There aren’t a whole lot of devices that give you detailed access to your blood oxygen levels throughout the night, but ViATOM is one of them. The sleep analytics are decent, but it’s the SpO2 sensing that really sells this device.

Flaws: This sleep tracker can be annoyingly big, and some of the features (like vibration alarms) aren’t particularly useful. The app is okay, but could be improved.

10. Beautyrest Sleeptracker Monitor

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Beautyrest makes a mattress-based sleep monitor that uses small pads that fit under your mattress and wire into a central unit below your bed. It’s a solid pick for people who just can’t stand a wearable device at night, but don’t expect the same level of accuracy.

Why we like it: Since the sensors are under your bed, you’re not as likely to knock them over as you would be with non-wearable sleep trackers that sit on top of your mattress.

Flaws: While Beautyrest purports to track breathing and heart rate, there’s just no way to do that accurately through a thick mattress. Some users report accuracy issues if they are sitting up reading in bed: this can get counted as “light sleep.” Compared to other under-mattress devices, there are also a lot of cables and cords to manage.

Who should buy a sleep tracker?

If you are concerned about the amount or the quality of the sleep you get, a sleep tracker makes it incredibly easy to track. Before sleep trackers came around, you used to have to keep a sleep diary, and all that would tell you is when you went to bed and when you got out of bed.

If you wanted more data on the quality of your sleep, or whether you woke up during the night, you had to go to a sleep clinic. And if you wanted detailed day-by-day data, that was totally out of the question.

Sleep tracking technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years: now, you can get data on your heart rate, your heart rate variability, and your blood oxygenation levels, in addition to data on overall sleep quality and number of times you wake up during the night. 

Sleep trackers are great for athletes who want to have accountability data on their sleep. A lack of sleep hinders performance and increases your risk for sports injuries, so keeping yourself accountable with a sleep tracker is incredibly useful for people who are serious about performance.

With a sleep tracker that monitors heart rate, you can also track resting heart rate and heart rate variability, which many performance experts believe could be used as an early warning sign for overtraining. 

People with sleep apnea also find sleep trackers useful, for two reasons. First, they can track how often they wake up during the night, which can provide info on the severity of your sleep apnea and whether any treatments you are using are working.

Second, modern sleep trackers can also monitor your blood oxygenation levels, which can help you figure out how much your ability to breathe is being restricted by your sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea isn’t the only sleep disorder that can be aided by using a sleep tracker—if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, a sleep tracker can help pinpoint what time of night your sleep troubles occur, and can be used as a quantitative, objective measurement of whether treatment strategies, like avoiding screens before you go to bed, are having any effect.

How we ranked

Our researchers formulated our rankings by taking stock of all of the sleep trackers available on the market, then evaluating them on their performance, features, comfort, and ease of use.

Sleep trackers can be broadly divided up into two categories: the first and most common category is wearable sleep trackers, which you put somewhere on your body before you go to bed, and mattress-based sleep trackers, which go somewhere on your mattress (often underneath it).

Some wearable sleep trackers, like Fitbits, can often double as a fitness tracker, and if you want data on your heart rate, a wearable sensor is the only way to get it.

However, some people find that wearing a wristband or a ring to bed is uncomfortable, and actually interferes with their ability to fall asleep.

While we found that wearable sleep trackers tend to offer the best features, we also made sure to include a few of the best mattress-based sleep trackers to cater to users who don’t want to wear something when they go to bed every night.

In terms of features, the ability to track sleep and wake time was non-negotiable: every tracker on our list had to make it easy to figure out how many hours of sleep you got.

Next we looked for basic features like calculating sleep cycle duration and measuring how often you toss and turn. We rewarded products that integrated heart rate monitoring, for two reasons: first, knowing your resting heart rate can tell you a lot about your body’s overall health and fitness level (a low resting heart rate protects you against heart disease, for example), and second, heart rate variability might be able to identify when you’ve been pushing yourself too hard in workouts.

Some of the best sleep trackers featured blood oxygenation as well as heart rate—these devices landed even higher in our rankings.

While it does require an extra sensor on the device, tracking blood oxygenation is a game-changer for people with sleep apnea: to get good data on how low your blood oxygen levels drop at night (not to mention how many times you wake up suddenly), you used to have to rely on sleep clinics.

Comfort was mostly applicable to wearable sleep trackers. We checked to see the range of wrist or ring sizes supported by the device and whether the sleep tracker in question used comfort-friendly design, like soft silicone bands instead of hard plastic, or hypoallergenic metals for any clasps. 

Ease of use applied to all devices: we looked at how easy it was to put on and take off the device, or in the case of mattress-based sleep trackers, how simple the installation was. For all devices, app integration and functionality was critical.

The best sleep trackers have great apps with lots of features that are still easy to use, both on Apple and Android phones. We docked points for poor-quality app design or difficult to understand menus.

Finally, we sorted the remaining products based on their overall quality, as measured by our ratings on performance, features, comfort, and ease of use. The remaining sleep trackers made up our rankings of the best sleep trackers on the market right now. 

Benefits

Sleep trackers can detect drops in blood oxygen levels that result from sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders, and is caused by obstructions to airflow in your throat.

When airflow is obstructed, your blood oxygen levels steadily decline, which eventually leads your body to briefly jolt awake and gasp for air.

These “apnea events” can happen dozens of times during the night. As these apnea events rack up, they seriously inhibit your ability to get a good night’s sleep. People who have untreated sleep apnea are at a greater risk for everything from heart disease to car accidents.

Fortunately, sleep trackers can get you hard data on whether you are having obstructive sleep apnea events at night. While a sleep tracker can’t diagnose sleep apnea as well as a full battery of testing at a sleep clinic, dips in blood oxygen level are nevertheless useful for identifying the existence and the severity of sleep apnea (1).

Sleep trackers can help dexter sleep issues. Sleep apnea is quite common—anywhere from nine to 38% of the population is thought to have at least mild sleep apnea, according to one systematic review study of the subject published in 2017 in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews (2).

Men, older adults, and people who are overweight or obese are all at greater risk for sleep apnea, but one of the biggest problems facing people at risk for sleep apnea is not realizing that they have it.

You are asleep, after all, and the brief awakenings to gasp for air are too brief for you to consciously realize that you’ve awoken. People often go decades before they learn they have sleep apnea.

If you’ve been told that you snore, or if you never feel rested even after a full night’s sleep, you should immediately start to suspect that you have sleep apnea. A sleep tracker can help identify whether you have the dips in blood oxygenation at night that are characteristic of sleep apnea, though you’ll need to pay a visit to a sleep clinic to get a full work-up. 

Sleep trackers help to evaluate sleep quality. How well you sleep affects just about everything in your waking life—your cognitive capacity, your ability to pay attention and focus, and your mood.

Thus, you’d think people would be pretty good at subjectively evaluating the quality of their own sleep—things like tossing and turning, waking up at night, or not falling asleep for a long time after going to bed.

A 2015 study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada put this proposition to the test: they wanted to see whether peoples’ perception of their sleep quality lined up with objectively-measured sleep quality using a research-grade sleep tracker (3).

The researchers had a group of 78 adults over age 55 complete a sleep quality index questionnaire, and use a sleep tracker for the same night of sleep. The results showed that, contrary to expectations, peoples’ subjectively reported sleep quality correlates very poorly with objective metrics of tossing and turning, nighttime awakenings, and sleep duration.

These results make a good case for using a sleep tracker to get objective data on the quality of your sleep. Just like with sleep apnea, your personal perception of your sleep is not a good indicator of the true quality of your sleep. 

FAQ

Q: What is a sleep tracker? 

A: A sleep tracker is a device that you either wear or put under (or on) your mattress that detects when you go to sleep, when you wake up, and the quality of your sleep at night.

They’re very similar to Fitbits and other fitness trackers, except for sleep instead of exercise—and indeed, many Fitbits offer sleep tracking capabilities as well. Thanks to advances in heart rate monitoring technology, top of the line sleep trackers can monitor your heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood oxygenation level.

These first two metrics are of interest to athletes, but blood oxygenation level is very useful for getting more information about possible sleep apnea. In sleep apnea, blood oxygenation levels drop because your airway becomes partially obstructed, which leads to disrupted sleep.

These repeated dips in blood oxygen level may be detectable with a sleep tracker, which can give you unprecedented data about the number and severity of sleep disruptions during the night. 

Q: Can the Apple Watch be used to track sleep? 

A: The Apple Watch is equipped with all of the necessary sensors to track your sleep, including a heart rate monitor and a blood oxygen sensor. Apple hasn’t released its own sleep app just yet, but there are lots of rumors about a sleep tracking app that is under development at Apple (4).

Based on the experiences of other companies, Apple is likely hung up on ensuring that the watch accurately detects when you are sleeping. They also may be trying to get the app approved by the Food and Drug Administration, like their much-praised electrocardiogram functionality.

Until that app comes out, third-party apps like SleepWatch from Bodymatters offer many of the sleep tracking features you’d expect. While the accuracy of these third-party apps is untested, many people still find them very useful. 

Q: How do sleep trackers work? 

A: Sleep trackers have two primary tasks: first, to detect when you are asleep, and second, to objectively monitor the quality of your sleep. Identifying when you are asleep is based on motion sensors that detect the position and the movement of the sleep tracker.

Since your arm is going to be parallel to the floor when you sleep, and your arm movement will be small (but not completely still) when you sleep, this information can be used to detect when you are asleep.

The second task is far easier: once you are asleep, motion sensors in a sleep tracker detect how often and how vigorously you toss and turn, and LED-based sensors detect your heart rate and your blood oxygenation level based on the absorption of certain colors of light in your skin.

Since oxygenated blood absorbs infrared and green light differently than deoxygenated blood, changes in light absorption can be used to track heart rate and blood oxygenation. 

Q: Which Fitbits track sleep? 

A: The Charge 3, Versa 2, Versa Lite, Ionic, and Inspire HR all include sleep tracking. However, the Fitbit Inspire HR does not include the ability to track blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO2), so it’s a less optimal pick than the other four if you want to use a sleep tracker to check your blood oxygenation when you are asleep.

Fitbit is reputed to have some of the best sleep tracking on the market thanks to their enormous amount of user data, so any of these Fitbits make great choices as sleep trackers.

Q: How accurate are sleep trackers? 

A: Compared to the accuracy of consumer device like Fitbits and other fitness trackers, sleep trackers still have a ways to go. While activities like walking, running, and swimming can be recognized fairly well, scientific research has found that commercially available sleep trackers vary widely in their ability to track sleep.

Identifying wake time is particularly challenging: one critical review noted that wake detection accuracy varies widely among commercial devices (5). However, the challenges in identifying wake time seem to balance out with identifying when you fall asleep, such that the total amount of time you spend sleeping ends up being estimated fairly accurately.

One study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research reported excellent estimation of total sleep time using a commercial sleep tracker in both healthy adults and insomniacs (6).

The good news about sleep tracker accuracy is that improvements in sleep tracking come along all the time, and are driven by software improvements, not necessarily hardware improvements. So, even with the same device, you can expect the accuracy to get better over time. 

Q: Are there non-wearable sleep trackers? 

A: Yes, non-wearable sleep trackers are usually mattress-based devices that sit on top of or underneath your mattress, and use data from motion sensors in the device to detect when you toss and turn at night.

Mattress-based sleep trackers are nice if you don’t like wearing anything on your wrist or your fingers when you are asleep, but they do have several disadvantages. First, they can get fooled by your partner tossing and turning in bed, or if you roll off the area of the mattress where the sensor is.

Second, devices that sit on top of your mattress (including some smartphone apps that use your phone as the sleep tracker) can easily get knocked off onto the floor. Third, if you want to track heart rate, heart rate variability, or blood oxygenation levels, you need a wearable device anyways.

For most people, wearable sleep trackers provide better features than a mattress-based sleep tracker, but if you absolutely can’t stand wearing a device while you sleep, a mattress-based tracker might be a good fit. 

Q: What is a sleep tracker ring?

A: Sleep tracker rings are like Fitbits for tracking sleep, except they sit on your finger instead of your wrist. Sleep tracker rings are newer innovations in sleep tracking technology that have been enabled by advances in sensor and battery technology.

If you hate having a big clunky device on your wrist when you sleep, a ring might be a better choice. They are super small and very easy to use.

The only downside to sleep tracking rings is that they don’t have the daytime functionality that many wrist-worn sleep trackers have—really all they do well is track sleep, and their battery capacity can’t measure up to wrist-worn devices.

Still, it’s a rapidly growing market, so expect to see big players step into the sleep tracking and fitness tracking ring arena soon. 

Recap

Sleep trackers are devices that monitor when you go to sleep, when you wake up, and the quality of your sleep in between.

Basic devices will estimate your total sleep time and offer some metrics of tossing and turning, but the best devices can provide deeper insights, like your resting heart rate and heart rate variability while you’re asleep.

Further, you can even get data on your blood oxygen level from a device that has an SpO2 sensor, which can help identify sleep apnea events.

Tracking your sleep with a sleep tracker can be a great way to get objective data on your sleep, whether you are just trying to be a bit healthier by getting more rest or whether you are a serious athlete trying to optimize performance.

The objective nature of sleep trackers is a big help, because most people have very poor intuitions on the quality of their sleep, and many people who have sleep disorders like sleep apnea don’t even realize it. A sleep tracker helps hold you accountable, and can give you objective data about your sleep that you’d otherwise have no way to access.

For FitBug’s #1 sleep tracker recommendation, click here.

Ranking the best exercise bikes of 2019

Exercise bikes are great for getting your cardio in, especially when the weather isn’t favorable for outdoor workouts. Keeping an exercise bike in your home or apartment makes it super easy to get a workout in during the wintertime, early in the morning, or late at night.

Exercise bikes are suitable for just about everybody, since they don’t put as much stress on your body as something like running, but still allow you to get a much better cardio workout than walking. Exercise bikes tend to take up less space than an elliptical machine, too, and they’re not nearly as loud as a treadmill.

If you’re going to get just one piece of cardio equipment, it should definitely be an exercise bike. Our researchers scoured the market for the best exercise bikes for home use, searching for options that work well for everything from basic cardio for weight loss to intense HIIT training for serious athletes. Read on to see our picks for the top exercise bikes.

The big picture

Exercise bikes make it easy to get a high quality cardio workout right at home. Our top pick for exercise bikes was the Sunny Health Pro Indoor Cycling Bike, thanks to its versatile settings, easily adjustable seat height and handlebar position, and excellent range of resistance. 

Rankings

1. Sunny Health Pro Indoor Cycling Bike

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Sunny Health Pro makes an exercise bike that’s as good as anything you’ll find in a high-end health club or spin class. The heavy flywheel allows for a wide range of resistances, and it’s just as well-suited for easy low-intensity exercise as it is for intense spin workouts. 

Why we like it: Adjusting resistance on the fly is super easy thanks to the conveniently placed resistance knob, and the seat height and handlebar position are both adjustable, making this exercise bike great for people of all sizes. 

Flaws: Since it’s so customizable, there are more moving parts you need to check for tightness every so often. It’s also only rated for a maximum user weight of 275 pounds, and the aggressive seating position can be an issue if you have mobility problems—if you are very heavy or don’t have decent upper body mobility, a different exercise bike might be a better option. 

2. Assault AirBike Classic

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The Assault AirBike Classic is a long-time favorite among serious athletes thanks to its ability to facilitate a hardcore full-body workout. Unlike a traditional exercise bike, the handles on this bike move against resistance as well as the pedals, burning more calories and pushing your body’s power output up. 

Why we like it: If you are planning on doing HIIT workouts on a bike, the Assault AirBike is far and away the best model on the market if you want maximal caloric expenditure. Since the resistance automatically ramps up with your effort, even super-fit athletes will be able to max out on the AirBike. The strong structure also supports users of up to 350 pounds. 

Flaws: If you’re a beginner, the Assault AirBike might be a little intimidating at first. It’s easy to get the hang of, but it’s not the best choice if you have mobility issues in your arms, shoulders, or your spine.

3. Yosuda Indoor Cycling Bike

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Yosuda makes a very solid upright exercise bike that’s a good middle ground between aggressive bikes for high intensity workouts and more laid-back models for low-intensity exercise. 

Why we like it: The seat height and handlebar height are both highly customizable, and the integrated iPad mount is a nice touch. 

Flaws: At a max user weight of only 270 pounds, this may not be the best option for bigger users. The flyweight is also not quite as heavy duty as other models, meaning the max resistance is somewhat lower on this bike. 

4. XTERRA Fitness Bike FB150

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If you want an upright exercise bike that is simple and barely takes up any space, XTERRA is the way to go. This exercise bike folds up when not in use, and has an easily accessible resistance knob.

Why we like it: For people who live in a small apartment or don’t have much space in their home to dedicate to fitness equipment, something with the tiny footprint of the XTERRA is a lifesaver. The FB150 even has heart rate monitoring via special hand grips, a feature that’s typically only found on higher-end models. 

Flaws: If you’re looking for bells and whistles, you’re unlikely to find them on the XTERRA. It also only offers eight levels of resistance, which might be too limited for your workout needs. 

5. Concept 2 BikeErg

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Concept is famous for their rowing ergometers; this bike extends their technology to the exercise bike world as well. Simple, sleek, and incredibly well-engineered, this exercise bike is a good choice for serious athletes. 

Why we like it: The Concept 2 BikeErg is compatible with wireless heart rate monitors, and can Bluetooth into apps like Zwift for custom workout feedback. Even at super high workout intensities, this exercise bike feels as smooth as butter. 

Flaws: If all you need is a bike for some low intensity calorie burning, the Concept 2 BikeErg is probably overkill. It’s better suited for people who want to bang out serious interval workouts, HIIT sessions, or time trials. 

6. Kinetic Road Machine Smart Bike Trainer

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If you have a bike you’re already very comfortable riding, why bother getting a different bike to ride indoors? The Kinetic Road Machine lets you use your usual bike indoors with only minor modifications. 

Why we like it: The Smart Bike Trainer uses wireless connectivity to sync to your smartphone, allowing compatibility with apps like Zwift and allowing real-time feedback on metrics like your power output. Its wireless connectivity also means it’s easy to pair with a wireless heart rate monitor. 

Flaws: Since the Kinetic Road Machine requires a full sized bike, it takes up a much bigger amount of floorspace than a basic exercise bike. If all you want to do is burn a few calories, a simpler model might be a better choice, though if you’re most comfortable on your own bike, it’s a great pick. 

7. Marcy Recumbent Exercise Bike

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Though recumbent bikes aren’t the right choice for everyone, within this category, Marcy makes one of the best models. This is a great pick for older adults or people with mobility issues, thanks to its “step-through” design: you don’t need to lift your legs up and over the frame of the bike. 

Why we like it: Marcy capitalizes on the best advantages of the recumbent exercise bike: its ease of use for people with mobility limitations. If you have arthritis, for example, exercise is known to be an effective way to reduce pain, but getting on and using a traditional exercise bike is difficult because of the mobility limitations that come along with arthritis. 

Flaws: Though getting on the bike is easy, you do have to lean pretty far forward to adjust the resistance. A handle-mounted dial would be better and easier to use. Like other recumbent bikes, this model is not as well-suited for intense workouts. 

8. Schwinn M717 170 Upright Exercise Bike

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Schwinn is a household name when it comes to bicycles, and their upright exercise bike sports several cutting edge features that make it stand out, while still remaining easy to use. 

Why we like it: The Bluetooth connectivity makes it simple to track your workout intensity, and you can select from several pre-programmed workouts or make your own custom workout. The seat position is less aggressive than spin-class style exercise bikes, which is helpful if you have mobility issues. 

Flaws: The electronic gadgets on this exercise bike all require external power, so it does need to be plugged in. It also takes up a reasonably large amount of floor space, so it’s not the best choice for a cramped apartment. 

9. Nautilus Recumbent Bike

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Nautilus is a huge name in fitness equipment, so it should be no surprise that they make a pretty decent recumbent bike. 

Why we like it: This model has a large customizable screen with several pre-programmed workouts, and is very easy to use even if you have mobility issues.

Flaws: Like other recumbent bikes, it’s hard to get an intense workout on the Nautilus Recumbent Bike. Aggressive spinners should opt for an upright bike instead. The media tray and USB charging are a little old-hat; it’d be nice to see more modern features like Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity. 

10. Body Rider Exercise Bike

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If you are looking for an exercise bike that gives you a whole body workout, Body Rider makes a nice model with movable handles for increased caloric expenditure. 

Why we like it: If you’re in the market for an economy-style exercise bike that still gets you a whole-body workout, there aren’t many options on the market. Body Rider fills that niche with a bike that takes up only a small amount of floorspace. 

Flaws: Due to the small footprint of the Body Rider, it’s not quite as stable as some higher-end models. The seat is also not the most comfortable on the market, and some users find that the bolts on the moving parts tend to loosen over time. 

Who should buy an exercise bike?

Cardio should play a central role in your overall fitness routine. The World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise every week, alongside two or more sessions of resistance training (e.g. weight lifting), for good health (1).

If you want further benefits, you should aim for double that amount: up to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. Given how sedentary many peoples’ working lives become, hitting 150 minutes or more of cardio every week is difficult unless you plan for it explicitly in your routine. 

While many different types of exercise are suitable for getting in your cardio, and exercise bike offers a few benefits that make it a very good choice. First of all, exercise bikes are suitable for everyone from obese people trying to get started on a weight loss program to elite athletes doing intense workouts.

Unlike running, which can put a lot of stress on your legs, an exercise bike is not likely to lead to overuse injury. And unlike walking, which tops out in terms of its cardiovascular demand, you can get all the way up to your maximum heart rate on an exercise bike. 

Whether you are a serious athlete or just trying to increase your weekly amount of exercise, and exercise bike is a great purchase. It doesn’t take up much floor space, and some models are even foldable so they can be stored while not in use.

Other cardio equipment options, like an elliptical machine, rowing machine, or treadmill, definitely have their uses, but an exercise bike is definitely the most versatile and is definitely the best default pick for a cardio machine for your home gym. 

How we ranked

When formulating our rankings of the best exercise bikes on the market, we took into consideration the versatility of the exercise bike, comfort and ease of use, its warranty and reputation for reliability, and its compatibility with other devices like heart rate monitors. 

When we looked at versatility, we specifically wanted exercise bikes that are adjustable for a wide range of body sizes. This means a large range of seat heights to accommodate short and tall users, and ideally adjustable handlebars as well—torso length varies from person to person almost as much as leg length does.

Versatility also meant the ability to adjust resistance, but we found that this wasn’t an issue: there are no respectable exercise bikes out there anymore that don’t let you select different levels of resistance.

We did eliminate any bikes that allowed only a narrow range of resistances, or that didn’t go high enough on the high end. With high intensity interval training (HIIT) becoming more popular, older exercise bikes designed only for sub-max workouts sometimes can’t hit the resistance levels a real athlete will need in a workout. 

For comfort, first and foremost was the fit of the seat. If you’re going to be on the bike for an hour or more, a comfortable seat makes a real difference. Handlebar comfort was an additional goal, as poorly designed handles can lead to calluses, back pain, or neck pain.

We also took into consideration how easy it was to alter the seat height and handlebar settings: if you share your exercise bike with your partner, you might have to adjust the bike before every workout.

The ease with which you can adjust the resistance is an additional consideration that’s important if you’ll be doing interval style training, since you’ll be changing the difficulty often. We factored all of these into an overall comfort score for each bike.

We also examined whether the exercise bike in question was a traditional upright bike or a recumbent bike. recumbent bikes can be more comfortable, especially for people who are older, are overweight or obese, or have restricted range of motion in their spine or their arms.

However, it is more difficult to get an intense workout in on a recumbent bike, so traditional bikes won out in most cases. We did include a few of the best recumbent exercise bikes in our rankings for people who prefer the recumbent format though. 

In terms of reliability, we examined the warranty terms: for an exercise bike, you want something with at least two years of coverage, and more if possible. We also searched through user reviews to identify products that had reliability or quality control problems and eliminated these from consideration. 

Lastly, we looked for other perks offered by each product, like its ability to link up with a compatible heart rate monitor. We factored versatility, comfort, and reliability in along with any extra perks to come up with our final ratings, and ranked the remaining exercise bikes in order. We were left with the best exercise bikes on the market right now.

Benefits

It’s easier to get an intense workout in on an upright exercise bike compared to a recumbent exercise bike. If you go to a gym or health club, you’ll likely see both traditional upright exercise bikes as well as recumbent bikes. This might get you wondering which is better.

The answer shouldn’t surprise you—it depends. Older adults often find recumbent bikes more comfortable because they don’t require quite as much range of motion in your spine and your hip.

Ditto for people who are overweight or obese. However, research shows that the recumbent bike is not as effective at eliciting high heart rates compared to a traditional upright exercise bike. A study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise compared the cardiovascular responses to a ramped exercise protocol on an upright versus a recumbent bike (2).

The researchers found that the volunteers hit significantly higher maximum heart rates on the upright bike, and also had greater oxygen intake. This suggests that your body position on the bike affects the amount of work you can do, and as a result, the quality of your workout.

Whether the increase in maximum power output on an upright bike is important for you depends on your goals. Do you find an upright bike difficult to use? If so, you’re probably not going to get as long of a workout in if you use an upright bike, so a recumbent exercise bike is probably a better fit.

On the other hand, if you want to do HIIT workouts or hit the highest heart rate zones during your workouts, opt for an upright exercise bike. 

Ramping up the intensity on an upright bike will work your hips more, but the same isn’t true for a recumbent bike. Another major difference between upright exercise bikes and recumbent exercise bikes is how they recruit your muscles as you pedal harder.

A study published in the journal Clinical Biomechanics used motion capture data to study how increasing power output on the recumbent bike affected power production in your legs (3).

The researchers demonstrated that ramping up the resistance on a recumbent bike increases power output at your ankle and your knee, but not at your hip. This has some important implications for exercise bike selection, as opting for a recumbent versus an upright bike will affect which muscles get strengthened and toned if you do intense workouts. Again, these differences are less important for low intensity cardio, but for hard workouts, an upright bike is the way to go. 

Exercise bikes are perfectly suited for high intensity interval training workouts for weight loss. A lot of new research has found that high intensity interval training is an excellent way to improve cardiovascular fitness and create weight loss, but sometimes it can feel like you need to be fit already to get a HIIT workout in, especially if it’s a sprinting or hill running based routine.

For people who are overweight or obese, these activities are way too demanding on their body, and they’re likely to get injured before they get fit. Exercise bikes fix this problem. Since most of your body weight is supported by the seat, you don’t face the same amount of pounding that you get from running, but unlike walking, you’re able to hit your max heart rate. And unlike swimming, you don’t need to have particularly good technique to get a good workout in.

Physiological research confirms that high intensity intervals can be equally effective, and more time-efficient, than traditional moderate intensity exercise for weight loss.

This was the conclusion of a 2017 study published in the journal Obesity Reviews by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia (4). The study involved pooling the results of many different randomized controlled trials that compared HIIT workouts to standard moderate intensity exercise protocols for weight loss.

The results showed that HIIT was equally effective as moderate intensity training, and when you factored into account the amount of time spent exercising, HIIT gives you more benefit per unit time—it’s the most time efficient way to lose weight. An exercise bike and a HIIT routine is a perfect combo for weight loss. 

FAQ

Q: Can you lose belly fat by riding a stationary exercise bike? 

A: Yes, exercise bikes recruit a wide range of muscles, so they’re great for weight loss. While you can’t do targeted fat loss (with an exercise bike or with any other machine), exercise bikes are a great way for overall fat loss.

They pair well with high intensity interval training: by doing a HIIT workout, you can burn a lot of fat in a short amount of time, without the injury risks you might have in HIIT routines that involve calisthenics or sprinting. 

Q: What kind of exercise bike is best for home use? 

A: For most people, an upright exercise bike with rigid handlebars and an adjustable seat height is the best option for home use. recumbent bikes make it somewhat more difficult to hit an intense workout, but can be a good alternative if you have back problems or mobility issues that prevent you from being able to use an upright exercise bike comfortably.

Serious athletes looking for the best whole-body workout can benefit from an exercise bike with integrated moving handles, like the Assault AirBike, but getting used to an exercise bike like this can take some adjustment. Unless you fit into these special categories, it’s very hard to go wrong with a standard upright exercise bike, as long as you can adjust it to fit your body size. 

Q: Are exercise bikes any good? 

A: Yes, exercise bikes are arguably the single best piece of cardio equipment for your home. Treadmills are loud and take up a lot of space, and both walking and running have disadvantages: walking can’t get your heart rate up as effectively, and running carries the risk of overuse injury.

Elliptical machines are even bigger than treadmills, and ditto for rowing machines. An exercise bike is compact, affordable, and well-suited for both low intensity and high intensity workouts. 

Q: Is an exercise bike better than a treadmill? 

A: An exercise bike is certainly more versatile than a treadmill: on a treadmill, you can walk or run, and if you want an intense workout, you pretty much have to run (or walk uphill, if your treadmill supports steep inclines).

Running is great exercise but carries a high risk of overuse injury. Exercise bikes allow you to get everything from a leisurely low-intensity workout to an intense interval session at your maximum heart rate, and since they don’t involve any pounding on your legs, they carry a lower risk of injury. 

Q: Is a recumbent bike better than a regular exercise bike? 

A: If you are trying to get an intense workout in, a regular upright exercise bike is a better choice than a recumbent bike. That’s because of research that shows that you can’t reach as high of an aerobic intensity on a recumbent bike compared to an exercise bike.

However, recumbent bikes are unbeatable if you have back, spine, or arm mobility issues that get aggravated on a regular exercise bike. People who are overweight or obese also may find a recumbent bike more comfortable, because they spread out your weight over a larger surface. Some upright bikes can be very uncomfortable for heavier users because the bike’s seat has a very small surface area. 

Q: How do you make your exercise bike seat more comfortable? 

A: If your exercise bike seat is causing discomfort, you can try swapping it out for an aftermarket seat—it might take a little handiwork, but swapping out the seat usually is not too difficult. Another option is using a seat cover that sits on top of your original seat. Finally, you can also try getting special cycling shorts that have a padded area where the seat sits. 

Q: Can you make an exercise bike out of a bicycle? 

A: The easiest way to use your standard (outdoor) bicycle as an exercise bike is to get a trainer. Unless you really know what you are doing, you should stick with a standard bike trainer stand that keeps your rear wheel locked into place and spins it on a resistive bearing.

Our research team liked the Kinetic Road Machine Smart Trainer, which lets you connect the trainer to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Unless you really know what you are doing, you should stick with a standard bike trainer that keeps your rear wheel locked into place and spins it on a resistive bearing—while you can get “rollers” which allow both wheels to spin freely, like a treadmill for a bike, these are notoriously difficult to use and first-time users almost inevitably fall over. 

Q: What muscles does an exercise bike tone? 

A: Exercise bikes focus mostly on your lower body, but an upright bike will also tone muscles in your chest, arms, and back, which help support your weight while you pedal.

The biggest muscular demand, though, comes from the muscles that contribute directly to the downward stroke of pedaling. That would be your calves, quads, and glute muscles, though the hip flexors and hamstrings also get a decent workout on the “recovery” from the down-stroke of the pedal. 

Q: How many calories do you burn on an exercise bike? 

A: Caloric expenditure on an exercise bike depends to a great degree on the intensity of the cycling you are doing. At a light effort, such as a leisurely pedaling rate, an average-sized person might burn around 300-400 calories per hour (5).

At a more vigorous effort in intense cycling, an average-sized person might burn 800 calories per hour. The specifics depend on your body size as well, with heavier people burning more calories per hour at a given metabolic intensity. 

Q: How much does an exercise bike cost? 

A: Exercise bikes can cost as little as $110 for a basic model all the way up to $500 or more for sophisticated, high-end models. Some types of bike trainers specifically for cyclists can be even more expensive if they offer metrics like power output and smart programming of workouts. 

Q: What does an exercise bike do for your body? 

A: An exercise bike is a great way to get a cardiovascular workout. People who get at least 150 minutes of cardio every week tend to live longer and have lower rates of diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer to depression. Since it’s not always easy to fit cardio into your routine, having an exercise bike at home makes it simple to take care of your physical health, even if you are busy. 

Recap

An exercise bike is a fantastic addition to your home gym. Exercise bikes are the best option for cardio equipment thanks to their ability to cater to a wide range of needs and a wide range of fitness levels.

Whether you are a hardcore athlete training for top performance or a casual user who just wants to lose some weight, you can get a great workout on an exercise bike. For most people, the best option is an upright exercise bike, as these make it easy to get a good workout in.

Recumbent bikes are a good alternative for older adults, people who find standard exercise bikes uncomfortable, and people with mobility issues in their spine, neck, or shoulders. From intense HIIT workouts to low-key pedaling to get your heart rate up a little, an exercise bike is a great way to improve your cardiovascular fitness. 

For FitBug’s #1 exercise bike recommendation, click here.

Ranking the best Fitbits of 2019

A Fitbit is a wearable device used to keep track your overall daily physical activity levels. The original Fitbits were fairly simple belt clips or wristbands that just counted your daily steps.

Now, however, the latest Fitbits are incredibly advanced activity trackers, counting how many flights of stairs you climb, how much time you spend doing different types of exercise, and what your total energetic expenditure is. Even the phrase ‘Fitbit’ has come to mean something more broad than just the line of activity trackers made by the San Francisco based company recently purchased by Google.

Much like Kleenex, the word ‘Fitbit’ now means any kind of wearable device that’s explicitly designed to track your activity, especially if it’s worn at the wrist. People call these “fitness trackers”, but really they are physical activity trackers: even if you do not exercise, a Fitbit is incredibly handy for monitoring your overall daily physical activity.

With this explosion in popularity of Fitbits, they are more and more being seen as a key component for weight loss and long-term health. Our research team set out to determine which model of Fitbit is the best, and whether any of the alternatives offered by other companies are worth a look. 

The big picture

A Fitbit is a great tool to track your physical activity levels, estimate your daily caloric expenditure, and even keep track of your sleep. After reviewing a wide range of products for features, ease of use, and accuracy, we found that the Fitbit Charge 3 is the best Fitbit on the market right now, thanks to its great cross-platform app compatibility and its ability to capture sleep, activity, and heart rate data with good precision. 

Rankings

1. Fitbit Charge 3

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The Fitbit Charge 3 is the best Fitbit on the market thanks to its great activity tracking features, heart rate monitoring, and an elegant touchscreen. If there’s a feature that exists on any fitness tracker on the market, you’ll find it on the Fitbit Charge 3.

Why we like it: The Fitbit Charge 3 is totally waterproof, has excellent step counting and activity recognition capabilities, and has pretty solid smartwatch connectivity features, like app alerts on your Fitbit.

It monitors your heart rate round-the-clock and provides info on your sleep quality as well. It also performs well in scientific studies that validate its performance against research-grade devices. 

Flaws: If you want a fully fledged smartwatch, the Fitbit Charge 3 comes up a little short, but aside from that, it’s hard to fault this Fitbit for much. 

2. Garmin Vivosmart 4

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Garmin has risen from being a narrowly-focused manufacturer of sports GPS watches to a heavy hitter in the fitness tracker and smartwatch industry. The Vivosmart 4 has the unmistakable sleek look of a Fitbit, with a mono color screen that displays heart rate, step count, and other quick stats.

Why we like it: Garmin has great expertise in cardiovascular fitness, and they put it to use in this fitness tracker: the device features a heart rate monitor that can improve estimates of your caloric expenditure, estimate your maximum cardiovascular fitness, and tell you your resting heart rate. On top of that, it’s got fantastic battery life, only requiring a recharge once per week on average. 

Flaws: The display screen is not particularly crisp, and Garmin doesn’t have the same kind of activity tracking features you would expect from a bona fide smartwatch. The heart rate monitor is a nice feature but it can struggle in activities with lots of aggressive arm motion, like sprinting. 

3. Apple Watch Series 5

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The Apple Watch is undoubtedly the dominant smartwatch on the market—it completely crushes the competition when it comes to functionality. Beyond just being a smartwatch company, Apple has been putting in huge amounts of work into its fitness tracking capabilities, and many of these new features are incorporated into the Apple Watch Series 5, which makes a remarkably good fitness tracker. 

Why we like it: Apple’s heart rate monitoring technology is some of the best on the market, and their activity recognition has improved leaps and bounds in recent years. Alongside these features, you get phenomenal smartphone integration and app functionality as well. 

Flaws: If all you want to do is count your steps and estimate your daily caloric expenditure, an Apple Watch is definitely overkill. Plus, if you don’t have an Apple phone, there isn’t much you can do with an Apple Watch. If you are looking for something simple, rugged, and with great battery life, you’ll want a different device. 

4. Fitbit Versa 2

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The Versa 2 is Fitbit’s take on the dual-purpose smartwatch / fitness tracker. It has a large, color touchscreen and comes paired with Amazon Alexa as a virtual assistant. The Versa 2 incorporates all of the activity tracking features Fitbit is famous for. 

Why we like it: If you’ve started with an older model of Fitbit but want to upgrade to something that take better advantage of smartphone connectivity, the Versa 2 is a good pick: you get all of the industry-leading fitness tracking features that Fitbit has developed, plus some standard smartwatch capabilities.

Flaws: Compared to the dominant smartwatch on the market (the Apple Watch), the Versa seems a little clunky. For example, you can only send quick replies to text messages, and voice messaging only works on Android.

The Versa 2 also does not have standalone GPS capabilities like Garmin’s flagship smartwatch, so it’s a little hampered on the sports end as well. It can, however, “piggyback” off your smartphone’s GPS connection to show you running or cycling speed. 

5. Fitbit Ionic

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In many ways, the Fitbit Ionic is similar to the Fitbit Versa 2. It is a fully fledged smartwatch that still offers all the fitness tracking tech you’d expect in a Fitbit. 

Why we like it: For runners and cyclist, the Ionic is the clear winner over the Versa 2 thanks to its integrated GPS.

You can go for a run and leave your smartphone at home, and still get accurate speed and distance data. The sharp edges of the Ionic are also a nice contrast against many other smartwatches that use softer, smoother lines in their design. 

Flaws: Compared to the Versa 2, the Ionic doesn’t have Amazon Alexa integration, but aside from that, it shares many of the same features and flaws.

It’s probably overdoing it if you mostly care about calories burned and steps taken, and it doesn’t have quite as much capabilities as an Apple Watch for users who already have an iPhone. 

6. Fitbit Inspire HR

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The FItbit Inspire is a simpler, sleeker version of the Charge 3. It still features many of the same basic features, like steps taken, calories burned, and heart rate, so if all you want is a simple device that tracks heart rate as well as daily steps, the Inspire HR is a good pick.

Why we like it: Since the Flex 2 was discontinued, the Inspire HR is the best model of Fitbit still in production for people who are not technology geeks. If you want something that has all the great technology Fitbit has to offer, but without any complicated features and functionality, the Inspire HR works great for your needs.

Flaws: Compared to the Charge 3, the Inspire HR has fewer exercise modes and apps, shorter battery life, and not quite as many sensors. The Inspire HR, for example, can’t analyze blood oxygenation level, but the Charge 3 can. 

7. Fitbit Ace 2

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Researchers and doctors say that establishing good physical activity habits starts in childhood. If you’re looking for a Fitbit that works great for kids, the Fitbit Ace 2 is exactly what you’ve been searching for. The Ace 2 is simple, colorful, and fun: it tracks steps, minutes of activity, and even sleep. 

Why we like it: Exercise is incredibly important for kids, both short-term and long-term. The Fitbit Ace 2 is an excellent way to help engrain good fitness and health habits at a young age, with just three simple numbers: steps taken, minutes of activity, and duration of sleep. The Fitbit Ace 2 is also completely waterproof, so your kids can even take it swimming. 

Flaws: As you might guess, the functionality of the Fitbit Ace 2 is pretty limited compared to the flagship devices that are designed for adults. Once your kids are a little older, they might want to graduate to a more sophisticated Fitbit. 

8. Fitbit Flex 2

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The original Fitbit Flex was the breakout device from Fitbit: the iconic unmarked black wristband catapulted Fitbit from an obscure Bay-area startup to a household name. The Flex 2 is Fitbit’s follow-up, and features the same sleek, hyper-minimalist look with upgraded features. 

Why we like it: The actual tracker in the Fitbit Flex is a tiny rectangular box that slides into the bracelet, which means you can pick up many different colors and styles of wristband to pair it with different outfits.

The Flex 2 has activity recognition that can identify when you are running, swimming, biking, or using the elliptical, and it uses tiny colored LEDs to show your progress towards your daily goals.

Flaws: If you are looking for more advanced features available on-board, you’ll have to look elsewhere, as there’s no real screen on this device. Moreover, it isn’t being manufactured anymore, so the Flex 2 isn’t going to get whatever new features Fitbit comes out with in the future. 

9. Lintelek Fitness Tracker

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Thanks to the success of name-brand Fitbits, many off brand fitness trackers have cropped up that offer many of the same basic features for a fraction of the price.

One of the best of these is the Lintelek Fitness Tracker, a simple wristband that is a good choice if all you care about is knowing your daily steps, energy expenditure, and heart rate.

Why we like it: At first glance, it’s almost impossible to distinguish this device from a name-brand Fitbit, since it’s got all the features you’ll find on the latest flagship models: daily steps, energy burned, and heart rate. 

Flaws: Since Lintelek is a smaller company, it’s not clear how accurate their step counting and heart rate monitoring is. If you are mostly using your fitness tracker just to count your steps to make sure you get close to or above 10,000, that’s probably not a big deal, but if knowing your heart rate accurately or getting proper activity tracking is important to you, opt for a higher end device. 

10. LetsFit Smart Watch

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Think smartwatches are just for high-end users? Think again. LetsFit aims to bring smart watch technology to the masses with its smartwatch technology that doubles as a fitness tracker. 

Why we like it: Though you definitely aren’t getting the level of functionality and reliability that you’d get in an Apple Watch, you still get a surprising amount of functionality, like a large touch screen, long battery life, heart rate tracking, and step counts.

Flaws: If you’re expecting cutting-edge apps and abilities, you’re bound to be disappointed with the LetsFit: it can’t compete with top of the line smartwatches, but that shouldn’t be surprising. As with other off-brand Fitbit manufacturers, the accuracy of the heart rate tracking and step counting is probably not as good as a Fitbit or Garmin or Apple brand device. 

Who should buy a Fitbit?

Given how important your overall physical activity level is for weight loss, weight maintenance, and long-term health, it isn’t hard to make a case that just about anyone can benefit significantly from a Fitbit. People are notoriously bad at estimating the actual amount of exercise that they get—sometimes overestimating how active they are by four-fold, or more.

A Fitbit can keep you honest about how physically active you really are. Daily steps are an excellent way to get a rough estimate of your overall physical activity level, though they aren’t perfect—some activities, like riding a bicycle, won’t generate any steps. Fortunately, newer technology in Fitbits is taking care of this problem by directly detecting what activity you are doing, and logging it directly. 

Fitbits are also a great way to estimate your total daily energy expenditure, especially if they have a heart rate monitor incorporated into the device. A Fitbit can take the guesswork out of estimating your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE—an important number whether your goal is to gain muscle mass, drop body fat, or maintain the same weight after a diet.

So, whether you are an athlete trying to bulk up or a regular Joe trying to lose weight, a Fitbit can make it much easier to be honest with yourself about how many calories you are really burning on a typical day. Fitbits can also help highlight low-activity days, spurring you to either increase your daily activity or decrease your energy intake. 

Perhaps the only group of people who won’t benefit as much from a Fitbit are people who don’t use a smartphone, or only rarely do. Though Fitbits have advanced quite a lot in terms of technological capacity in the last few years, to actually take advantage of these advances you need a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone.

While most Fitbits have a rudimentary screen, you’ll get far more detailed data in the app that comes with the device, like data on your recent history of daily steps or long-term trends in your overall physical activity and heart rate.

Even though people who are not smartphone savvy have a definite disadvantage when it comes to capitalizing on all of the strengths of a Fitbit, pretty much all Fitbits still offer the basic phone-free functionality of counting your daily steps. Even if all you do is try to hit 10,000, you will be in a much better place health-wise than if you didn’t track your physical activity. 

How we ranked

To formulate our rankings, our research team first made a list of all of the activity monitors that are currently on the market and still receiving software support from the manufacturer.

From the devices on this list, we examined and rated these devices based on their functionality, ease of use and comfort, and, when possible, the accuracy of their measurements. Manufacturers typically do not disclose accuracy data, but independent lab testing is available for some of the most popular devices, because these are highly sought after by scientists who want to study the effectiveness of exercise programs or weight loss programs in an objective way.

So, many of the top devices on the market have had the accuracy of their step counting, activity tracking, or heart rate monitoring validated against research-grade equipment. If this was the case, we included this information in the rankings, and rewarded devices that were accurate at tracking activity, monitoring heart rate, and counting steps. 

For functionality, we had some basic features we looked for first: step count was non-negotiable, and estimates of energy expenditure were mandatory too. Beyond this, we quantified whether the device in question had heart rate (which vastly improves estimates of energy expenditure, it should be noted) and any more modern innovations, like specific activity tracking.

Among those devices that attempted to track activity, those that supported the broadest range of activities (like elliptical use, or swimming) scored the best. Screen size and quality was important, too: especially for older adults, a screen that displays large, clear, easy to see step counts or energy expenditure estimates are far better than small, unlit screens like you’d find on older Fitbits.

Software quality mattered too: Name-brand Fitbits have great app compatibility on Apple and Android, and offer phone-to-Fitbit features like text notifications, alarms, and reminders.

For off-brand Fitbits, we evaluated how easy it was to use the app, the quality of the features offered by the app, and how much you gained in terms of functionality compared to using the device by itself.

We considered wear location as well, but for almost everybody, a wrist-worn device is the best choice: there are still a few Fitbits that clip onto your waistband, and these are actually more accurate when it comes to counting steps, but they’re far easier to lose, and don’t offer the features that the flagship devices offer. 

Finally, we rated devices on their comfort and ease of use. To get the most out of a Fitbit, you should really wear it every day. Some devices even offer sleep analysis, which means that you’ll have to wear the device to bed, too—this being the case, you’ll want your Fitbit to be very comfortable.

Soft, flexible, but resilient wristbands were better than hard plastic ones, which can get uncomfortable after a few hours, and get brittle after several months of regular use. We also looked to see whether any of the metal in contact with the skin was hypoallergenic: surgical stainless steel, for example, is less likely to irritate skin compared to nickel-based finishes.

Ease of use affects how simple it is it to get a Fitbit up and running as soon as you get it, as well as the ease with which you can swap between different modes, view different types of data, and charge the device. Speaking of charging, battery life factored into our ease of use ratings as well, with devices offering a longer battery life scoring better.

For flagship devices, like the Fitbit Charge 3, battery life is great even when using all of the myriad features, like Bluetooth notifications and heart rate monitoring. In contrast, some off-brand Fitbits have frustratingly short battery lives; these devices did not make our final rankings.

After assessing the features, functionality, ease of use, and comfort, we sorted the remaining devices according to a weighted average of their score in each category. The remaining products constituted our list of the best Fitbits on the market right now.

Benefits

Taking more steps per day significantly improves your long term health. Your physical activity levels are one of the biggest things about your lifestyle that influence your long-term health.

Scientific research has found that your daily step count, as measured by a Fitbit, is a great predictor of your overall health. Many studies have found similar results, but one example is a 2015 study on a group of adults in Tasmania that were followed for ten years (1).

At the study’s outset, the study participants used an activity monitor to track their daily steps for a week. This daily activity level was used as a predictor of all-cause mortality (i.e. death for any reason) over the course of the study.

The researchers found that higher daily steps were protective against mortality by a significant amount: compared to people who were sedentary, the people who took at least 10,000 steps per day had a 45% decreased risk of death. These results demonstrate how powerful the effects of an active lifestyle can be, and a Fitbit can help you get there. 

Getting a Fitbit will help you increase your daily physical activity. The first study we looked at showed some strong evidence that increasing your daily physical activity levels has some great health benefits, but a bigger question remains: Is a Fitbit actually going to help you increase your physical activity?

Put differently, does a couch potato who gets a Fitbit actually start being more physically active? Since physical activity is such a powerful determinant of long-term health, scientists have been eager to test whether Fitbits and similar devices can increase daily physical activity levels.

One study that investigated this effect was published in 2016 in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology compared giving office workers a Fitbit to several other incentives, including cold hard cash (2).

While cash increased physical activity in the short-term, the effect didn’t last: the Fitbit group was outperforming the people receiving cash after a year of follow-up. Similar research in older women supports the idea that simply giving someone a Fitbit is a great way of increasing their physical activity levels—that study found that getting a Fitbit led to an almost 800-step increase in daily physical activity (3).

Since a Fitbit puts a number on something you used to just have to ballpark, there’s immediate feedback on whether your physical activity levels are adequate or not. 

FAQ

Q: How does a Fitbit work? 

A: A Fitbit uses tiny sensors that detect movement to accomplish all of the incredible feats they do. A complete flatline from the sensor—no motion at all—means that you are probably not wearing your device at all, since even napping on the couch generates small motion, from breathing, your pulse, adjusting your posture, and so on.

Walking also generates very stereotypical back-and forth motion in the sensor, which is how a Fitbit counts your steps. These sensors can also detect the orientation of the device (i.e. if it is horizontal or vertical), which helps with accuracy of these detection algorithms.

With recent advances in data processing from these sensors, top of the line Fitbits can identify all sorts of different activities with pretty impressive accuracy: using an elliptical, riding a bike, swimming, climbing up stairs, and running are some of the activities that can be automatically tracked using a Fitbit.

Even sleeping is amenable to detection: by combining orientation data with motion data, a Fitbit can even guess when you’re asleep. Sleep recognition tends to be one of the least accurate algorithms, due to the understandable difficult of identifying when the user is asleep. Notably, accuracy is improved on Fitbits with heart rate data, as this provides further information that can aid with identifying what activity you are doing. 

Q: How useful is a Fitbit? 

A: Fitbits are absolutely phenomenal for tracking your physical activity. Historically, tracking your physical activity was a pain, and usually required some pretty rough estimation if you wanted to know how many calories in a day you burned. With a Fitbit, all of that hard work is taken care of for you.

Estimating your daily caloric expenditure takes all of two seconds—tap a button on your device, or open the app, and just look at the number. It’s hard to overstate how much of a game changer this is for people trying to lose weight or increase their physical activity. Hard numbers are great for keeping your accountable, and since the Fitbit counts everything up for you automatically, you have no excuses. 

Q: What should you look for in a Fitbit? 

A: Definitely the two features you should not compromise on are step count and energy expenditure. Pretty much all Fitbits on the market right now offer these features, so think about additional features that you might find useful, like heart rate and automatic activity tracking.

Heart rate is a great feature to go for if you can afford it, because it can improve estimates of your daily energy expenditure by a significant amount. Another feature you will find in almost all Fitbits today is Bluetooth connectivity, which is essential if you want to use your smartphone to pull data and statistics from your Fitbit. 

Q: How does Fitbit track sleep data? 

A: Sleep is a tricky activity to detect, because it is mostly characterized by not moving. However, FItbits use a few tricks to identify when you are sleeping and to analyze the quality of your sleep.

While the exact algorithm is a trade secret, scientific research on similar devices gives us an idea of how the Fitbit does it. First off, it looks at the data from the motion sensors in your Fitbit. When you sleep, your Fitbit is almost motionless, but not quite. Your pulse, breathing, and tossing and turning in bed all generate motion in the Fitbit, and the sensors are accurate enough to detect all of these.

By identifying these small motions, your Fitbit knows that you are wearing your device, as opposed to having it just sit on your dresser. Next, it incorporates orientation data: if you are wearing your device on your wrist, and your wrist is oriented parallel to the ground, it’s far more likely that you are in bed than standing up.

Finally, Fitbits incorporate data from their secondary sensors, like the heart rate monitor, the clock, and likely a light sensor too: A low heart rate in a dark room, in the middle of the night, all ups the odds that you’re in bed.

Of course, sleep tracking is not perfect. It’s likely to be one of the least accurate activities your device tracks, because it is so hard to identify sleep. Still, when you are asleep, the Fitbit can see how often you toss and turn—again, motions that are picked up by the sensors on the device. These give you direct data on the quality of your sleep, as well as how much time you spend in deep versus light sleep. 

Q: How does a Fitbit know how many calories you burn?

A: Basic models of a Fitbit use internal equations to predict your daily caloric expenditure, based on your sex, height, weight, age, and most importantly, your total daily physical activity, as measured by your daily step count that’s detected on the onboard sensors in the device.

Precisely how these equations work is a proprietary secret, but they’re likely based on scientific research that uses sophisticated methods of tracking 24-hour metabolic expenditure. Newer models of Fitbit likely use additional data to predict your caloric expenditure, like the type of activity you are engaging in and especially your heart rate.

If you are riding an exercise bike, for example, you aren’t going to be racking up any steps, but your heart rate will be high (and so too will your caloric expenditure). While Fitbits certainly aren’t perfect when it comes to estimating caloric expenditure, they’re vastly more accurate than ballparking your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) on your own.

Unless you are a physiology researcher with a cutting-edge lab at your disposal, a Fitbit is the most accurate way to track your energy expenditure. Do make sure you update your body weight on a regular basis, though, because if your body weight goes down by a significant amount, but your Fitbit does not know this, it will overestimate your calories burned. 

Recap

A Fitbit is a great device if you want to track your daily physical activity, energy expenditure (i.e. how many calories you burn in a day), and the quality of your sleep. All of these are important determinants of your health, and research shows that getting a Fitbit will spur you to significantly increase your daily physical activity levels.

It’s not hard to see why: once you have a hard objective measurement of your physical activity levels, there’s no way to kid yourself about your health. Many people focus on 10,000 steps per day, which is a laudable goal, but even small increases in your daily physical activity are connected to boosts in long-term health.

If you want a way to accurately count your daily steps, or estimate your total daily energy expenditure, a Fitbit is the best piece of commercial technology to achieve these goals. 

For FitBug’s #1 Fitbit recommendation, click here.

Ranking the best heart rate monitors of 2019

A heart rate monitor is a wearable device that measures how fast your heart is beating. These devices are great for monitoring your workout intensity, your recovery, and even the quality of your sleep and overall long-term health outlook.

Heart rate monitors got their start with sports like cycling, swimming, and running, where using a good heart rate monitor allows athletes to complete workouts at a tightly controlled intensity for maximum improvement with minimal risk of overtraining or injury.

Soon, athletes and coaches began to realize that heart rate tracking was useful beyond just workout planning—monitoring resting heart rate and heart rate variability could be used to keep track of recovery too. At the same time, new scientific research was showing that resting heart rate and heart rate variability were both strong predictors of long term health.

Whether you want to maximize workout performance or keep track of your overall health, a heart rate monitor is a great tool. Our research team set out to find the best heart rate monitors on the market right now. 

The big picture

Heart rate monitors can help you get a better workout, or track your energy expenditure and cardiovascular fitness throughout the day. For most users, the best balance between accuracy, usability, and features is going to be a high-quality wrist-worn heart rate monitor.

Our research team found that the Fitbit Charge 3 is the best heart rate monitor on the market right now, thanks to its accuracy, broad range of activity tracking features, and its excellent battery life. 

Rankings

1. Fitbit Charge 3

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Fitbit has been the king of activity trackers, going back to their first device, which only counted steps. Fitbit has come a long way since then: the Fitbit Charge 3, our top pick, features round-the-clock heart rate monitoring, 15 different exercise modes, and comes with automatic activity tracking as well as sleep analysis. 

Why we like it: Fitbit’s activity tracking is unparalleled, and for a wrist-worn device, the heart rate accuracy is surprisingly good. The Fitbit Charge 3 is also one of the few devices that has been scientifically validated against research-grade devices. Finally, the seven-day battery life means you don’t have to worry about constantly charging your heart rate monitor.

Flaws: Though the Fitbit Charge 3 has great cross-platform support, serious athletes may miss the GPS tracking that’s offered by more sport-oriented brands like Garmin and Polar. 

2. Garmin Vivoactive 3

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Garmin’s Vivoactive 3 is an everyday smartwatch that packs serious sports capabilities and solid heart rate tracking. It’s got smartwatch exclusives like contact payment and broader app support than most heart rate monitors, while retaining all of the advantages of Garmin’s industry-leading GPS. 

Why we like it: If you want all the advantages of the latest smartwatch technology but don’t want to sacrifice any of the performance data you expect from a heart rate monitor and sports watch, Garmin’s Vivoactive 3 is the way to go. There are very few features available anywhere on the market that aren’t available on this jack-of-all-trades. 

Flaws: One consequence of the broad range of features in the Garmin Vivoactive 3 is that it’s hard to do all of them well at the same time. As with many other wrist worn devices, the heart rate tracking is good, but not great. The smartwatch features aren’t quite as slick as what you’d get on a dedicated platform like the Apple Watch, and while the GPS is world-caliber, it does suck up a lot of battery life. 

3. Apple Watch Series 5

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When it comes to a pure smartwatch, nobody can compete with Apple right now. The Apple watch has a full suite of apps to support just about any function you could imagine, from Apple Pay to push notifications and even recording voice memos—right on your watch. To top it off, the Apple Watch is very competitive heart rate monitor, and offers features no other tracker has, like its electrocardiogram.

Why we like it: The heart rate monitoring on the Apple Watch is surprisingly good—often outperforming other devices that are typically considered more in-tune with sports-specific activity tracking.

It almost goes without saying that the features offered by the Apple Watch are unparalleled, but one that’s worth pointing out is the integration of GPS tracking, which supports running, walking, or cycling for up to five hours. Plus, if you are using the GPS, you can even get turn by turn directions. 

Flaws: For starters, anyone without an iPhone is out of luck—the Apple Watch is useless if you don’t also have an iPhone to pair it with. This significantly reduces the number of people who can viably use the Apple Watch as a heart rate monitor.

While all the features and the beautiful screen are great, they also gobble up a tremendous amount of battery life, especially when you are using the GPS—other GPS-enabled heart rate monitors offer more than twice the battery life of the Apple Watch for activities like running or cycling. 

4. Garmin Vivosmart 4

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Do you wish you had a Fitbit-sized heart rate monitor that also had GPS and smartphone notifications? Look no further than the Garmin Vivosmart 4. This slimmed down heart rate monitor counts your steps, tracks your activity, monitors your heart rate, and to top it all off, has Garmins’ industry-leading GPS technology built in. 

Why we like it: Often you have to make a tradeoff between a slim, efficient heart rate monitor and one with all the features you want. Garmin Vivosmart 4 offers a way to have your cake and eat it too. The battery life is great, and it’s comfortable for everything from yoga to swimming to everyday wear. 

Flaws: Stats nerds may not like the lack of access to the full suite of data, features, and apps available on other Garmin devices, and some users find that the smaller optical sensor struggles to pick up heart rate accurately during extremely vigorous exercise. 

5. Polar H10 Heart Rate Monitor

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For serious athletes who need super-accurate heart rate monitoring, the Polar H10 offers unparalleled accuracy. Instead of an optical sensor, like most heart rate monitors use, the Polar H10 uses an electrical sensor to directly sense your heartbeat. 

Why we like it: When it comes to accuracy, no other device can compare to the Polar H10. Polar has been an industry leader when it comes to heart rate monitoring for a long time, and as a result, this is the best device on the market right now for serious athletes who need to know their heart rate during workouts as accurately as possible. 

Flaws: The Polar H10 needs to be paired with another device (like a watch or an ANT+ equipped cardio machine) to broadcast your heart rate. You can, however, pair it to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and the H10 even plays well with other devices in our rankings, like the Apple Watch. The Polar H10 is great for working out, but it’s not well suited for everyday wear—chest straps get uncomfortable pretty quickly after a workout. 

6. Scosche Rhythm +

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The Scosche Rhythm + was the breakout device for Scosche, and is still a great option. Many fitness enthusiasts believe this earlier device is more reliable than the Scosche Rhythm 24, which came out more recently and has longer battery life, but also has occasional accuracy and connectivity issues. 

Why we like it: The Scosche Rhythm + is the best device on the market if you use a Peloton bike or go to a place like Orange Theory Fitness for heart-rate based workouts, as it can “talk” to exercise equipment using the ANT+ protocol (as well as Bluetooth, which helps it sync to your phone).

Flaws: Like the Rhythm 24, the Scosche Rhythm + struggles with sprinting or other activities that involve extremely vigorous arm movements. It can also run into connectivity issues at times, and isn’t the most comfortable device to wear when you aren’t working out. 

7. Wahoo TICKR X

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The Wahoo TICKR X is a chest strap heart rate monitor that, like the Polar H10, has to be paired with another device to read out your heart rate. It does, however, offer an accurate heart rate reading since it’s mounted so close to your heart. 

Why we like it: The accuracy is great, so the Wahoo TICKR X is a great choice if you need a heart rate monitor for a Peloton bike, Orange Theory, or other cardio machine based routines that specify heart rate or heart rate zone workouts.

It’s also great if you already run or ride with your phone, since it can connect via Bluetooth. Even if you swim, the TICKR X has onboard memory, so even though the wireless connection is spotty underwater, you won’t lose your workout stats.

Flaws: The Wahoo TICKR isn’t quite as accurate as the Polar H10, and it shares the primary disadvantage of all chest strap heart rate monitors: it’s not very comfortable after the first hour or so of wear, and it definitely is not well-suited for all-day use. 

8. Scosche Rhythm 24

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Scoche takes a different tack than most of the heart rate monitoring market, opting for an arm band as opposed to a chest strap or a wrist-worn sensor. The Rhythm 24 works well for some applications, particularly cycling, but comes up short for others. 

Why we like it: The Scosche Rhythm 24 is the follow-up to the incredibly popular Scosche +, and promises improved heart rate accuracy, longer battery life, and more features. It works great for cycling, capturing heart rate data quite accurately for an optical sensor 

Flaws: The armband design for the Rhythm 24 improves accuracy for cycling and running, but this device still suffers when it comes to intense sprinting or high intensity interval training. For those applications, a chest strap would be a better choice. The armband is not quite as comfortable as a wrist strap, so it’s not the best for all-day use. 

9. Garmin HRM-Run

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This chest strap heart rate monitor is specifically designed for runners, and integrates best with Garmin’s ecosystem of devices and apps. In exchange for this more limited usability, you get some stats that aren’t available on any other device. 

Why we like it: If you want to analyze stats beyond just your heart rate during your running workouts, the Garmin HRM-Run is the way to go. When paired with a compatible Garmin GPS watch, you’ll get detailed stats on heart rate, heart rate zones, caloric expenditure, and Garmin’s “Run Dynamics” suite of statistics, which includes data like vertical oscillation and ground contact time. 

Flaws: The limited compatibility of the Garmin HRM-Run means it’s only a good choice for a pretty specific niche of people. The Run Dynamics data are great, but unless you’re an expert, it’s not always clear what you can actually do with this data.

10. Polar A370

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The Polar A370 is Polar’s take on a wrist-worn activity tracker that also monitors your heart rate around the clock. The features are solid, but don’t quite measure up to what’s available from other manufacturers.

Why we like it: Polar offers another option if wrist worn activity trackers from Fitbit or Garmin that also measure heart rate isn’t your cup of tea. It checks all the boxes when it comes to features you’d expect, like push notifications and sleep tracking, but doesn’t really offer anything innovative.

Flaws: Polar has a great reputation when it comes to chest strap heart rate monitors, so it’s surprising to see so many complaints when it comes to the battery life and software functionality of the Polar A370. It’s decidedly below the admittedly high standards set by other devices. Additionally, the wrist strap isn’t particularly strong.

Who should buy a heart rate monitor?

Thanks to an enormous surge in research on heart rate, health, and fitness, you don’t need to be a top level athlete to benefit from a heart rate monitor. Previously, heart rate monitors were big, bulky, and awkward to use.

Now, they can instantly transmit data to your smartphone via Bluetooth, which makes it incredibly easy to check your workout stats and your progress towards your long term health goals, whether that’s an increase in overall daily energy expenditure or a decrease in your resting heart rate. 

Many training programs for runners, Nordic skiers, cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes are based on heart rate percentages or heart rate zones. If you want to follow such a program, or even just incorporate workouts from these kinds of programs into your training program, a heart rate monitor is essential. 

Another group of people who can immensely benefit from a heart rate monitor are people trying to lose weight. Heart rate monitors are the best commercially available device for accurately estimating your daily caloric expenditure.

A heart rate monitor can take the guesswork out of your energy expenditure by estimating your body’s metabolic rate at rest, during exercise, and throughout the day. Often, heart rate monitoring devices that are well-suited for round-the-clock heart rate monitoring are also integrated with activity tracking features, like those found in Fitbits, which makes them even better for tracking your physical activity. 

Finally, if you are interested in your long-term health, modern heart rate monitors offer two sophisticated heart rate metrics that are good predictors of long-term health: resting heart rate and heart rate variability.

Resting heart rate is determined in part by genetics, and in part by your aerobic fitness and overall health. People with a high resting heart rate are at a greater risk for all sorts of health conditions, including heart disease and cancer (1). As you improve your physical fitness, your resting heart rate should decrease (2).

Resting heart rate is a good metric of overall fitness because it, like long-term health, is slow-moving—it takes several months to shift your resting heart rate, which follows from the fact that making substantial changes in your physical health also takes at least a few months.

The intuition behind resting heart rate and health is simple: the stronger your heart is, the more blood that it can move per beat. It’s easy to see why a stronger heart helps you live longer. 

Heart rate variability is a newer metric, and is a little less intuitive. With heart rate variability, more is better. Here’s where heart rate variability comes from: if you are sitting down and your average heart rate is 60 beats per minute, your heart is not beating exactly once per second.

It skips around a bit, perhaps taking 1.05 seconds between one beat, then 0.95 seconds between the next. Heart rate variability quantifies how much your heart rate skips around when it’s at a constant average heart rate. Researchers first noticed that heart rate variability was greater in young adults, and lower in older adults.

At the same time, they also noted profoundly low heart rate variability in people who had heart failure, or who had undergone heart transplants. Low heart rate variability was later found to be associated with a shorter lifespan (4), and some researchers also think that heart rate variability can be used to monitor overtraining in athletes.

While heart rate variability is less well-understood than simpler metrics like instantaneous heart rate, resting heart rate, or daily caloric expenditure, people into the latest on health and performance science won’t want to miss out on it. 

How we ranked

We formulated our rankings based on a balance among features offered, heart rate accuracy, and usability. We carefully compared devices from the three dominant styles of heart rate monitor: wrist-worn optical sensors, chest straps, and arm bands.

For most people, wrist-worn heart rate monitors offer the best balance of features and accuracy, so these dominated our rankings. However, serious athletes may want to opt for a chest strap or an arm band to track their workouts with precision, so we made sure to include a few of the best and most accurate chest and wrist straps as well.

To evaluate accuracy, we turned to the scientific literature when possible. Some of the most popular commercial heart rate devices have been rigorously compared to research-grade heart rate equipment, so these peer-reviewed papers offer the best validation of the accuracy of a device.

When scientific research wasn’t available, we turned to independent verification by amateur athletes, which usually involves comparing new devices to another one that’s known to be accurate (like a chest strap). 

For features, we looked first for the core ones: maximum heart rate estimation, resting heart rate, energy expenditure, and heart rate variability. Then, we looked for additional metrics that are nice to have, like time spent in heart rate zones and estimates of your VO2 max.

We excluded anything that required a monthly subscription, which ruled out the popular Whoop band—while it had some nice features, it’s hard to justify getting hooked on a membership fee, especially if all you want are some basic metrics like your daily caloric expenditure.

Other features that were not essential but added to the value of a device included step counts and activity tracking, or activity-specific metrics like the Run Dynamics data available on Garmin chest straps. While these features aren’t necessary for everyone, subsets of users will like these perks. 

As for usability, we investigated how comfortable and wearable the device was, especially for wrist-worn heart rate monitors that are designed to be worn all day long, not just for workouts. A device that’s too bulky or has an uncomfortable wrist strap is no good for long term use.

We also looked at compatibility: some heart rate monitors, like the one integrated into the Apple Watch, are only compatible with Apple smartphones. Likewise, many of Garmin’s devices, which offer lots of features for a pretty impressively low cost, often function best in the Garmin ecosystem. The best-rated devices were those that offer cross-platform support and web-based storage for your heart rate data.

We also examined reliability by examining user reports for abnormally high rates of devices that were dead on arrival, or failed after only a few weeks of use. This ruled out many of the “imitation” devices that mimic the top of the line brands at lower costs—while this sounds like a good deal, these devices tend to have poor lifetimes. 

Finally, we calculated our final rankings by weighing the accuracy, features, and usability of the remaining devices. Our rankings represent the best heart rate monitors on the market right now. 

Benefits

Each of the three different styles of heart rate monitor has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of heart rate monitors.

The most accurate of these three categories is chest straps, which are worn around your torso and measure the electrical impulse that is emitted by the nerves that control your heartbeat.

Chest straps are excellent for measuring heart rate across many different sports, and are great if you need highly accurate resolution of your heart rate so you can follow workout plans properly.

The downside of chest-worn heart rate monitors is that they aren’t super comfortable, and you definitely aren’t going to want to wear one around the clock. The second and likely the most popular category of heart rate monitor is a wrist-worn optical sensor, often integrated into a smart watch or an activity tracker.

Wrist-worn optical heart rate monitors are super easy to use, and work well even for round-the-clock heart rate monitoring, if you are interested in your resting heart rate while you sleep, your heart rate variability, or your daily energy expenditure, a wrist-worn optical sensor is the way to go. A good model will still be fairly accurate for most sports, but can’t measure up to the accuracy of a chest strap.

Finally, an emerging new category of heart rate monitor is the armband, which is worn above your elbow. Though rare, these kinds of devices offer a good middle ground between chest straps and wrist-worn optical sensors: they’re more versatile and comfortable than a chest strap, but are much more accurate than a wrist-worn sensor. 

Chest straps are most accurate, but the best wrist-worn heart rate sensors can come close. Since chest straps measure your heart rate using an electrical sensor, they are the gold standard when it comes to heart rate monitoring.

However, this technology only works when a sensor is mounted close to your heart—it won’t work at the wrist. Instead, wrist-worn devices have to use an optical sensor, which identifies heartbeats based on the influx of new, oxygenated blood in your veins every time your heart beats.

Optical sensors can get disrupted by movement, which is particularly bad when the sensor is mounted at your wrist. Nevertheless, given the popularity of optical heart rate sensors, manufacturers have been working extremely hard to improve the accuracy of wrist-mounted heart rate monitors.

In many cases, the accuracy compared to a chest strap is pretty impressive: One study published in 2017 reported that the Apple Watch was 92% as accurate as a research-grade chest strap in running and elliptical use, while devices from Garmin and Fitbit performed less accurately (4). Even in the few years that have elapsed since the publication of this study, accuracy in many of these devices has improved quite a bit. 

FAQ

Q: What is a good heart rate for my age? 

A: According to research published in the European Heart Journal, the “best” resting heart rate (meaning the one associated with the best long-term health) is 64 or below. However, long term health is pretty similar for resting heart rates up to the low 70s.

It’s not until resting heart rate limbs to the mid or high-70s that major differences in lifespan start to show up. Nevertheless, the people with the highest resting heart rates (in the 80s or above) had seriously worse long-term health prognosis (5).

Q: Are heart rate monitors expensive? 

A: Heart rate monitors have come down significantly in price recently; a high quality chest strap is well under $100, and good wrist-worn monitors can be anywhere from $80 to $200 or more, depending on what additional features are present. 

Q: What are the advantages of a chest strap heart rate monitor? 

A: Chest strap monitors are by far the most accurate way to assess heart rate. A good chest strap, like the ones in our rankings, give essentially identical results to medical-grade heart rate monitors.

That means chest strap heart rate monitors are well-suited for athletes who need precise heart rate monitoring. The downsides to chest straps are that they can get uncomfortable, and aren’t well-suited for use all day long.

Q: How should you use a heart rate monitor? 

A: Both chest worn and wrist-worn heart rate monitors work best when they are secured snugly against your skin. A fit that’s too loose will make it hard to get an accurate reading on your heart rate.

Any good heart rate monitor will be waterproof, so give it a rinse with cool, clean water after your workout to remove any sweat or skin oils that might interfere with your sensor. 

Q: How does a heart rate monitor work? 

A: Heart rate monitors use one of two methods to detect your heart beating. Chest straps use electrical sensors which can record the electrical impulse sent by your nervous system to contract the muscles of your heart. These are extremely accurate, but can only be sensed very close to your heart.

Other heart rate monitors use an optical sensor. These devices use LED lights (usually green ones) to shine light onto your skin, then use a light sensitive sensor to detect how much light has been absorbed.

The hemoglobin cells in your blood have the convenient property of changing their light absorption capabilities depending on whether or not they are carrying oxygen. Since the oxygen content of your blood ebbs and flows up and down every time your heart beats, this up-and-down cycle of light absorption corresponds quite nicely to your heart rate.

The downside of optical sensors is that their accuracy suffers when your arms are moving (like in running, swimming, or many other forms of cardio). However, recent advances in sensor technology help compensate for these movement artifacts, so optical sensors today are much more accurate than those even five years ago. 

Q: What is ANT+ on a heart rate monitor? 

A: Heart rate monitors typically use two different wireless protocols to broadcast their data. Bluetooth is familiar to just about everyone—that’s how your heart rate monitor pairs with your smartphone, for example. ANT+ is technically a newer protocol, but its usage is generally limited to fitness devices.

Not all heart rate monitors have ANT+, but those that do can “talk” to any other device with ANT+ connectivity. This might include power meters on your bike, a cardio machine at the gym, or the watch that corresponds to your chest strap. You only really need ANT+ if you plan on using your heart rate monitor for applications like OrangeTheory Fitness or connecting to cardio machines at the gym.

Recap

Heart rate monitors are great for a wide variety of people. If you want to track your heart rate during intense workouts to get the maximum training effect, opt for a chest strap heart rate monitor, or one of the more accurate sport-oriented wrist worn optical heart rate monitors.

In contrast, if you want round the clock heart rate monitoring so you can estimate your daily energy expenditure, your resting heart rate, or your heart rate variability, a wrist-worn device is definitely the way to go.

With modern technology and recent advances in using heart rate for training, recovery, and monitoring of long-term health, everyone from elite athletes to people who are overweight and trying to drop a few pounds can take advantage of the data offered by a high quality heart rate monitor. 

For FitBug’s #1 heart rate monitor recommendation, click here.

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