If you or a special someone in your life is looking to become more fit, 2014 was a breakout year in tech for both aspiring and veteran health nuts. There’s a smorgasbord of new gadgets for tracking steps, calories, and exercise.
Whether you’re looking to simply get off the couch more or shave a minute off your 10K run, we’ve compiled a gadget guide to help you sort through all the latest fitness gadgets.
Below, I’ll provide a list of my favorites in each category of fitness wearable and a brief description of why I like them. But truth be told, I’m just one reviewer. Everyone has their own tastes. Fortunately, there’s a new Amazon.com wearable microsite, which aggregates the most popular products and provides hundreds of consumer reviews.
So, once you’ve narrowed down the category of fitness wearable you’re looking for, you might want to peruse the Amazon.com reviews for specific gadgets.
OK, let’s get reviewin’:
Basic smart trackers
Who’s it for: Basic trackers, which monitor steps, sleep, activity level, and calories burned, are helpful for consumers of every fitness level. Even people who make it to the gym six days a week still need to walk around regularly during the day. Most of these basic trackers can also monitor how many hours of sleep you get per night (and roughly estimate the quality of sleep). All of the gadgets in this category also have a feature for sharing your activity with other users, which is good for people who like to compete or collaborate with others.
What I wear: Misfit
The Misfit Flash ($50): The Misfit Flash is a circular wearable that can clip on your waist, hang around your neck, or wrap around your wrist. In addition to the basic tracker functionality, it also records some types of exercise, including running and swimming. I like that the Misfit is cheap, has a battery that lasts for months, and can track activity no matter where it is worn (I have a treadmill desk and only waist-worn trackers can record my steps).
For those who want a more robust social experience for sharing their activity with friends, the Jawbone Up and Fitbit family may be a better choice, as they have a larger user base.
Who’s it for: Fitness and quantified health enthusiasts. These smart devices track a wide variety of metrics, from sleep stages to body temperature and exercise heart rate. If you know someone who is into methodical self-improvement, this is the genre of gadget for them.
What I wear: Microsoft Band and Basis Peak
Microsoft Band: Microsoft’s foray into the health market was met with moderately positive reviews. It’s a wrist-worn device that provides surprisingly good heart rate monitoring during exercise. It also doubles as a smart watch that displays time, calendar events, and text messages. To be sure, the most promising features of the Band are yet to come. Microsoft promises to be the first company that offer “insights” on health, which can mine users’ daily patterns and understand how activities such as exercise and sleep affect people throughout their day.
The Basis Peak: The Peak is the newest version of the Basis watch. It is by far the most detailed tracker. In addition to calories and steps, it tracks stages of sleep, sweat, and body temperature. It has a nice mobile app interface and can be programmed for a number of fitness goals. The one I use most regularly is “don’t be a sitter” — since my goal is to sit less than 90 minutes each day.
A special mention goes out to the newest Jawbone, the Up3. I have not had a chance to do an extended review of this device, but it promises to do much of the same exercise-grade activity tracking as the Microsoft Band and the Basis Peak.
Now, if you’re buying for a prosumer runner or biker, I’ve found that nothing measures heart rate like a dedicated chest strap. When I need precise measurement of my physical exertion, I strap on a Polar heart rate monitor or some other professional watch/strap combo. The consumer-grade health wearables just aren’t up to pro quality yet.
For the mind
A new crop of wearables aims to improve cognitive function. It’s still early days for these devices, but I’ve tested them out and am generally a fan.
My favorite is the Muse, a brain-wave-sensing headband. The Muse is great for folks who want to get into meditation, or even veteran meditators who want to improve their technique. I like to use the Muse when I’m feeling groggy or need a pick-me-up.
The Spire is the new kid on the block. It’s a waistband clip that measures breathing patterns and is based on the research of Neema Moraveji, director of Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab. The Spire is primarily designed to help users breathe through stressful periods and into a state of calm focus. I’ve been testing it out the past few days and I have found its advice helpful. There’s limited stock for 2014, so you may not be able to get one this year for a stressed-out loved one.
Finally, for sleep enthusiasts, I recommend the Sleeprate, an app that pairs with a chest-strap heart rate monitor. Sleeprate is probably the most accurate device for measuring the quality of sleep. In addition to sleep stages, it can also monitor night-time stress. It turned out that stress at night was causing my less-than-perfect sleep patterns. So, when I need to diagnose sleep problems, Sleeprate is the app I turn to.
Honorable mention: Buy a walking desk
The single greatest thing I’ve done for my health in the past year is using a treadmill desk. Walking desks run about $1,500, but you could always make one yourself. (If you do, I recommending getting a belt that can walk as slow as 0.8MPH.)
January 1 is a great time to start a new diet and fitness program. These gadgets are good for folks who have the motivation to improve and want something to get them honest and on track.