Fitness Monitor – Which is right for you?

Fitness Monitors are a great addition to any workout to track your distance, heart rate and even location! Tracking your workout
time, target zone heart-rate levels and caloric burn can help motivate you to push harder each workout. Like anything, there are a variety of brands and models of Fitness Monitors, each of which offers certain benefits. Selecting the right one can be challenging. But once you do – you can look forward to more efficient, trackable workouts.

heart rate monitor

Here is a great evaluation of various Fitness Monitors available on the market, courtesy
of, a company specializing in quality outdoor gear. 

Activity Trackers

These not only track your steps, distance and calories burned, they even monitor your sleep at night and gently wake you in the morning.

Compare fitness monitor features (PDF 140KB)

Chronograph Watches

These can be as simple as a digital watch with a chronograph timer (a stopwatch) or a more elaborate, multi-function “training watch”. They are ruggedly built and offer some degree of water resistance.

Best for: Running, walking, swimming and everyday use.

Basic models: These typically provide the time, a lap or split capability, alarm and perhaps a countdown timer.

Advanced models: Pay a bit more and you usually get added lap-counting and lap-split capabilities and a countdown timer. Beyond this, the next step up are sophisticated wrist units more actually described as miniature computers. Look for heart rate monitors, speed & distance monitors or altimeter watches.


These count your steps or motion and calculate it to miles (i.e., number of steps x step length = miles). It can be used to track a workout or tally the distance you walk during a day.

Best for: Walking and running

Basic models: These pendulum-style units are designed to clip to your waistband or belt. Manufacturers often suggest positioning them near the top of your hip bone. Many have clocks. They count steps, calculate distance (based on steps taken) and estimate calories burned.

Advanced models: They may be basic belt-clip models or configured like a wristwatch with a clock, timers and stopwatch, plus a sensor, foot pod or GPS to more accurately detect and calculate speed. Some use an accelerometer (defined below) that can be carried in your hand or pocket. Some can download workout data to a computer.

Note: An accelerometer is an electromechanical device that measures acceleration. It is used in products ranging from cameras to washing machines. In pedometers (and other fitness monitors), accelerometers are considered are the most accurate and reliable step-counting mechanism available. Their downside: They may shorten a device’s battery life.

Heart Rate Monitors

A heart rate monitor (HRM) measures a person’s heart rate in real time. This information can be used to maintain your optimum training level during exercise. Most models include training-watch features as well.

There are 2 types of HRMs:

  • A wireless chest-strap version that transmits signals to a wristwatch receiver. This is the most instantaneous and data-rich choice. It’s also the most popular.
  • A fingertip sensor has no straps to wear and looks like a wristwatch. You just press 1 or 2 buttons to view your heart rate. This is a more comfortable option, but offers less data, less convenience (you must press and hold to get a readout) and is a little less accurate than a sensor that touches your chest.

Best for: Running, cycling, gym workouts and walking.

Basic models: They can be either fingertip or wireless models. They deliver a limited amount of information such as average, high and low heart rates reached during your workout. Basic speed and distance data may not be an option.

Advanced models: They provide more sophisticated data. In addition to heart-rate information, most provide post-workout feedback that tracks your performance versus your goals. Wireless, coded chest-straps allow gym workouts to avoid interference from other people’s wireless monitors. Some have optional foot pods that can be strapped to a bicycle or treadmill to give you speed, distance and cadence. Some interface with a home computer for tracking and analyzing workouts.

High-end models: They combine heart rate monitors with speed-and-distance-monitor features. See our Speed and Distance Monitors discussion below.

Speed and Distance Monitors

These units measure how far and how fast you’ve trained during your workout, and they often (but not always) include a heart-rate monitor. They also provide training-watch features and most allow data to be downloaded to your computer. Specific models are aimed at runners or cyclists.

There are 2 types of speed and distance monitors (SDMs):

  • A GPS-driven version (typified by Garmin’s Forerunner series) provides accurate speed and distance information in a highly convenient, one-piece wristwatch unit.
  • An accelerometer version uses a sensor, foot pod or bike hub to send the data to your wrist monitor. This is nearly as accurate as GPS-based models and usually less expensive. Some advanced accelerometer models include heart rate monitors and other features.

Best for: Running, cycling and walking.

Basic models: These use an accelerometer (a sensor, foot pod or bike hub) to wirelessly send the data to your wrist monitor. These calculate your speed and distance with many models including a basic heart-rate monitor, too.

Advanced models: These are dominated by the popular Garmin Forerunner series. They use GPS technology to determine speed and distance information and store it right in the wristwatch data center. Some GPS-driven SDMs can be outfitted with an optional foot pod to keep you operational in areas where no satellite reception exists.

Fitness Assessment Monitors

As part of your exercise regimen, you may want to track your weight, body fat, blood pressure and/or oxygen saturation levels. These specialized monitors help you easily obtain that information.

Fat Loss Monitor with Scale: It’s a scale with extras. In addition to measuring your weight, it measures your body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI).

Body Composition Monitor with Scale: This monitor has a handgrip and foot electrodes to provide information on both your upper and lower body. Using your height and age, it measures body fat percentage, BMI, skeletal muscle, visceral fat, resting metabolism and, of course, your weight.

Fat Loss Monitor: A hand-held monitor measures your body fat percentage and BMI.

Blood Pressure Monitor: This measures your blood pressure, takes your pulse and checks for irregular heartbeats. You can download the info to your PC computer for tracking.

Oximeter: This is most often a tool of high-altitude mountaineers but can also be used by hikers, skiers, bikers or anyone interested in measuring their oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Why? Oxygen saturation (levels) decrease at higher altitudes. Less oxygen in the air means less oxygen reaches your body tissues. This makes physical activity more difficult and increases your susceptibility to altitude sickness. An oximeter measures your blood’s oxygen saturation level and helps alert you to the onset of altitude sickness. It fits on your finger, and it shows the percentage of oxygen saturation, pulse and pulse quality. Anyone who needs an oximeter for a medical condition should first consult his or her physician.

Altimeter Watches

While not truly fitness monitors, these “wrist altimeters” offer electronic functions popular with hikers and climbers headed to the high country. They include the functions of a basic chronographic watch—time, stopwatch, water resistance and alarm—plus an altimeter, barometer and, sometimes, a compass and ascent/descent data.

Best for: Hiking, climbing and skiing.

Basic models: They usually include a barometer and thermometer. Barometric pressure readings are used to estimate your elevation.

Advanced models: More sophisticated altimeter watches include a compass (as mentioned, they’re sometimes called “ABC” watches because they feature an altimeter, barometer and compass) and ascent/descent information. Many also offer an altimeter/barometer “lock” to help you recognize weather changes vs. elevation change, which is a nice feature for overnight backpacking.

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