The best fitness trackers 2018: 10 bands that can track your heart-rate, coach you, and more

These fitness bands aren't just for getting 10,000 steps a day and tracking sleep. They can improve your overall fitness…

TODO alt text

Looking to get fit in 2018? A fitness tracker (aka a fitness band, aka "those things you wear that count your steps") is a decent place to start.

With the market extremely well established there really is something for everyone in terms of prices, from around £20 to £200+, with products that do little more than count steps and 'track sleep', with varying degrees of inaccuracy, all the way up to devices with heart-rate tracking that are more like scaled down running watches.

After many years of doing very little beyond counting steps, makers of trackers and bands are now realising that many consumers want more useful feedback on how fit they are and how to get fitter. They are addressing this with, it must be said, 'varying' degrees of success. Or, if you're less diplomatic, not much success.

To cut a long story short, if you're interested in fitness, my strong advice is to get a running watch instead. The term 'running watch' is just shorthand - they're also useful when cycling, hiking, at the gym and even, in a few cases, swimming.

But what is the best fitness tracker?

Okay, it's still the Fitbit Charge 2. This nondescript black strap has been out for several years, but it does both all the core steps 'n' sleep stuff, and slightly more advanced fitness tracking, thanks to a reasonably reliable heart-rate reader. 

The Charge 2 is handy at the gym, , and can even function as a running watch and wrist-worn cycling tracker, although you will need your phone's GPS to make the most of it.

Fitbit's app, social network and general ecosystem are also by far the best. Seriously, it's not even close. Garmin's new, tightened-up app is a step in the right direction in some ways, but it's still too sprawling, because it's designed to be for everyone from 10,000-steps-per-day mums to elite triathletes. 

All that being said, if you don't want a Fitbit, Garmin's Vivosport, which includes built-in GPS as well as pulse tracking, is a very decent alternative to the Charge HR.

If you want something to just count steps, track sleep and gain motivation via social channels, with the option of tracking more intense exercise now and then, the Fitbit Alta HR is probably your best bet.  

Oh, and if you're under the age of 10, Garmin's Disney/Marvel/Star Wars-themed Vivofit JR 2 really is the only game in town.

Fitness trackers: what you need to know

So, walking 10,000 steps per day is absolutely better than walking none, but it won't turn you into Sir Mo Farah.

Tracking your sleep may give you some interesting insights, but it won't necessarily help you sleep any better.

I've tried to address those shortcomings by picking out the bands that try to do more. If you're after a simple step counter, I would really recommend the Fitbit Alta because it's the best of that breed, or a Xiaomi one, because they cost next to nothing.

Fitness trackers have issues around accurately calculating how many calories you've burned, how much distance you've covered and what your heart rate is, particularly during vigorous exercise.

Perhaps worst of all, most older fitness trackers made no effort to tell you how fit you are, or offer any ways to get fitter. Brands are finally addressing this, largely through estimating your VO2 Max during regular workouts. 

The best fitness trackers to buy today, in order

Fitbit Charge 2


1. Fitbit Charge 2

The best fitness tracker

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: via linked phone only
Reasons to buy
+Excellent app+Good for multiple sports+Decent heart-rate reader+Gives overall fitness score
Reasons to avoid
-Screen can't be set to always on-No built-in GPS
Today's best Fitbit Charge 2 deals

The Fitbit Charge 2 is still the best fitness tracker you can buy.

It tracks deep and light sleep, steps, distance and calories, but that is barely scraping the surface of its capabilities. Via Fitbit's excellently presented app and sprawling ecosystem, you can use it as the basis of a complete fitness and diet programme. Unlike all too many competitors, it syncs quickly and reliably too.

Numerous targets and goals can be set (steps, stairs climbed, 'Activity Minutes' of moderate to vigorous exercise, weekly goals for number of days hitting the Activity Minutes target, and so on. You can also enter your meals to log calories consumed, and trade them off against the Charge 2's estimate of how many calories you've burned. I would not trust this, personally, but it's a semi-useful rough guide, I guess.

Thanks to an acceptably accurate and reliable heart-rate reader, it's more useful for serious exercise than many bands. 

This is undermined by the fact that the screen turns itself off after just a few seconds, to preserve battery, and the fact that your current cardio zone is not shown on screen. As someone who uses cardio zones as the basis of practically all exercise I do, I find this absolutely baffling. Yes, in theory, you can turn the screen on by turning your wrist but this only works about half the time, and if you're really going for it on a run, cycle or gym session, that is a massive PITA. 

A more agreeable feature of the Fitbit Charge 2 is that it can auto-detect various common types of exercise, so you don't have to remember to press a button every time you go for a jog or get on your bike, or an elliptical trainer.

Fitbit's band can also tap into your phone's GPS and function as a running/cycling watch, giving reasonably accurate speed and distance stats, albeit at the cost of draining your phone's battery. Many runners, I know, prefer to leave their phones behind, so they're out of luck with the Charge 2.

This aside, the best thing about the Charge 2 is that it tries to tell you that you've got fitter, via its overall fitness score – mysteriously buried in the 'heart rate' part of the app dashboard. This uses analysis of your heart during very vigorous exercise (it's a VO2 Max estimate, if you want to get technical about it), to rate you against the population as a whole. I'm "Good to excellent", thanks for asking.

On the down side, the Charge 2 can't really give recommendations on how to get fitter, beyond taking more steps. 

Despite my reservations, the sheer wearability of the Charge 2, and relatively low cost, coupled with a very strong app and tracking that goes beyond steps and hours of sleep mean it's still the best you can get.

Oh, unless you're a swimmer. This isn't waterproof, so consider a Garmin Vivosport instead…

Garmin Vivosport

2. Garmin Vivosport

A direct rival to Charge 2 with GPS

Specifications
Battery life: 7 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Long battery life+GPS and HR built in+Waterproof 
Reasons to avoid
-Dodgy UI and app-Crappy additional features
Today's best Garmin Vivosport deals

This is an object lesson in how software and wearability are as important to fitness wearables as features are. Perhaps more so. 

And the reason I say that is as the Vivosport beats the Charge 2 by having GPS built in, an app for counting reps automatically at the gym, something to monitor your stress levels, you might think it's a better product. And it is, on paper.

However, although the Vivosport is a very solid performer, it's just kind of horrible to wear. It feels nasty, looks quite bad, I think, and the screen is even worse to look at than the Charge 2, due to a stupid layout.

When you go into Garmin's app, it's also much more fiddly than the Fitbit one. The same metrics are there, and more beside, but they're harder to find and use. Syncing is unacceptably painful at times.

All that said, if you can live with the Vivosport's aesthetic and UI issues, it does do a lot and, like the Charge 2, offers an estimated VO2 Max score and rating that you can use to gauge your overall fitness.

Sleep monitoring is perhaps a bit less detailed than Fitbit's but lovers of completely useless functions will be pleased to know that there is advanced stress monitoring on board. Who doesn't know when they're stressed?!

TomTom Spark 3 Music Heartrate

3. TomTom Spark 3 GPS + Heartrate

Best tracker for more strenuous exercise

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+VO2 Max and Fitness Age features+Does the basics well
Reasons to avoid
-Ugly-Basic in some ways
Today's best TOMTOM SPARK 3 deals

This was built as more of a running/multi-sport watch really, but recent software updates have given it some very interesting fitness tracking attributes.

The Spark3 will track steps, calories and sleep but its main use is as a simple way to track more full-on, heart-pounding workouts, from running to cycling to gym.

The GPS and heart-rate tracking are more reliable than anything else on this list (although, okay, still not perfect) and by making heavy use cardio zones, it actually tries to assist you in getting fitter, in a way that sports scientists and doctors may at least semi recognise. 

The watch and its app takes the pulse data gathered and uses it to assign every workout you do a 'fitness point' score. If you score over 100 during the course of 24 hours, your day is classed as 'active'. If it's over 500, you're 'improving'. The app (though not the watch itself) will actually then suggest you do, for instance, 20 minutes of intense exercise (in the 'perform' zone) or 40 minutes of lighter exercise, to hit your daily target.

Then, it uses your performance over time to calculate your VO2 Max, like Fitbit and Garmin's devices, but also to assign you a 'fitness age', which is rather more user-friendly for non-workout nerds. So, if you're 39 and your fitness age is 27, you're doing alright, mate. This, it seems to me, is a world away from being told when you've taken an arbitrary 10,000 steps and has some actual, tangible use.

It does require rather more commitment from you, however. Only exercise done with the timer and heart-rate monitoring turned on counts towards your fitness points, and as you get fitter, earning points gets harder, at least in theory.

My experience after a month of using the TomTom Spark 3 is that it's the most motivating fitness wearable I've used (admittedly not saying much), but I am not entirely convinced it is adapting to my fitness levels. Being scored as 'active' is too easy and even 'improving' doesn't seem to be too arduous. However, points are gradually becoming harder to earn as I, presumably, get fitter. 

This aside, there are considerable down sides to the Spark 3. It's ugly, has a UI that feels old fashioned, is awful at syncing with your mobile and has an app that comes nowhere near Garmin's for the number of metrics displayed, nor Fitbit's for slickness. It also seems to be incapable of tracking my pulse when cycling on the road – something to do with the vibration and arm position involved, I guess.

Even so, I do think the Spark3 is worthy of consideration by those who want to count daily steps but also to get more serious feedback and motivation around their gym/run fitness.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for TomTom to give up on hardware and make its software available to smartwatches and other third parties, so we can have the cool app on a less ugly and basic watch.

Moov Now

4. Moov Now

Fitness tracker with voice coaching

Specifications
Battery life: 6 months
Heart-rate monitoring: No
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+Six-month battery life+Sometimes handy coaching advice+Relatively cheap
Reasons to avoid
-Sometimes not handy coaching advice
Today's best Moov Now deals

Okay, this one doesn't have cardio tracking but it's good enough to merit inclusion nonetheless. That's because, with a six-month battery life from a standard watch battery, waterproofing to 30m, a choice of wrist and ankle straps, and the addition of voice coaching, Moov Now is a very interesting take on fitness wearables.

You'll need your phone and a secondary device to track your position and pulse, but what this lightweight, reasonably priced, quite attractive band adds is to exchange data with a phone app so it can talk you through your runs. It'll tell you when to speed up, give advice on your stride and how hard you're hitting the ground. 

It'll also track and, to greater and lesser degrees, coach you through swimming, cycling, running, cardio boxing and seven-minute HIIT workouts.

When we say coaching varies, it really does. Cardio boxing is almost like Guitar Hero but with punching, with lots of voice input. Seven-minute interval workouts come with plenty of motivation too, but cyclists just get vague tips on cadence, and inaccurate data on RPM and power. 

Moov Now also handles day-to-day step and sleep tracking. The battery is a standard, non-rechargeable watch type that you can fit and forget about for up to six months – very good.

Overall, Moov is a mixed bag, but at least it's trying. For the price, it's worth a try.

Fitbit Alta HR

4. Fitbit Alta HR

The Fitbit Charge 2 in a slimmer, more discreet/feminine form

Specifications
Battery life: 7 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+Excellent app+Very slim+Lots of functionality
Reasons to avoid
-Pulse tracker not much use for exercise
Today's best Fitbit Alta HR deals

Functionally identical to the Charge 2, the Alta HR could just as easily be called the Alta HER, as it's clearly aimed at a more feminine type of consumer.

It's a solid device, but has all the same caveats as the Charge 2, only more so, because the screen is even smaller, and the pulse tracker less reliable during exercise, presumably because the slimmer band doesn't keep it in place and block out light as well as the fatter-strapped Charge 2.

What's great about the Alta HR is that it's very wearable, because it's so slim, but it does do practically everything the Charge 2 does (albeit not quite as well, because, er, it's so slim).

NB: If you feel you can get by without pulse tracking, the Fitbit Alta (with no HR) is about as wearable as that kind of basic tracker gets, although it feels a bit overpriced.

Nokia Health Steel

5. Nokia Health Steel

The best of the hybrid watch fitness trackers

Specifications
Battery life: 6 months
Heart-rate monitoring: No
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+The best-looking step counter+Inviting, if detail-lacking app+Handy vibro-alarm function
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't really do much
Today's best Nokia Steel deals

The Withings Activité started the trend for analogue watches that also track steps and sleep. It was such a huge success that Withings eventually became part of Nokia, and its successor, the Nokia Steel, is still pretty good. 

At a glance, this just looks like a Swatch-esque watch, but the small secondary dial measures your progress towards your step goal throughout the day. The Steel will also detect when you're running or swimming and gamely attempt to track that. This makes a distance calculation based on steps/strokes taken rather than GPS, but it isn't totally inaccurate, all the time. The Nokia Steel will also have a loose stab at tracking your sleep (based on your movement as you slumber) and has a useful vibro-alarm function to then wake you up.

The Nokia app is user-friendly enough, although data is annoyingly slow to sync at times. There's not much to view on it – just steps, distance and calories burned (although I'd take all that data with a pinch of not-very-healthy salt). You can add other Nokia/Withings products such as its body scales, to add further metrics.

In truth, the best things about the Steel are that it doesn't look like a fitness band, and the standard watch battery it uses lasts an impressive six months. 

If you find the Steel a bit cheap looking there are still stocks of the old, range-topping Withings Activité available. This really oozes quality with a soft leather strap, domed sapphire glass and stainless steel casing, but it had/has all manner of reliability and syncing issues. 

Fitbit Ionic

6. Fitbit Ionic

Best tracker/running watch/smartwatch hybrid

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Good app, great screen+Very full feature list+Guided workouts have potential+Smartwatch-style extras
Reasons to avoid
-Pulse tracking issues-Few apps to date
Today's best Fitbit Ionic deals

All the Fitbits and Garmins have a stab at notifications, but the Ionic is the first such watch that is being marketed more as a smartwatch with fitness elements than a fitness band with smartwatch ones. It's a platform, man.

The Ionic has all the strengths of the Charge 2, but with a much better screen, video-assisted guided workouts, and the ability to make contactless payments, receive notifications and use third-party apps. It is quite a bit pricier as a result, however.

To date there are hardly any third-party apps (you can sync Deezer playlists, there's a slightly feeble shadow version of Strava and something for buying coffee from Starbucks). Contactless payments are fairly painless, but you need to enter a PIN once or twice per day on the Ionic's teeny tiny keypad.

There are also only three video workouts. Fitbit I am sure wants to expand this but I do question the usefulness of wrist-mounted, video personal training – have you ever tried to follow a training video on your wrist, whilst doing pressups?

My main problem with the Ionic to date has been with the heart rate tracker, which has apparently been optimised for more intense exercise. I think that's great in theory, but in practice it seems to mean it's highly erratic in the lower cardio zones, and only starts to work really well once your heart-rate is elevated into the upper cardio, performance and peak zones. That's not ideal if you want to deliberately stick to a lower intensity workout, for fat-burning reasons.

Furthermore, Fitbit still refuses to show what heart-rate zone you're in during training; it only shows the pulse rate, leaving you to remember where each zone begins and ends. At least, unlike the Charge 2, the Ionic allows you to have the screen permanently on, rather than requiring you to flick your wrist to activate it – an action which fails all too often, for me.

Ionic is only going to get better as time goes by, and the Fitbit app does everything from telling you how many steps you've taken to tracking your latest running/cycling/gymming/etc to how your VO2 Max compares to the population at large.

Actually, I'm nitpicking in some respects. The Ionic is a very good fitness wearable. It's just that, if you want a smartwatch that also tracks fitness, I think you'd be better off with an Apple Watch, and if you want a 24/7 tracker, Fitbit's own Charge HR is a better option.

Garmin Vivofit JR 2

7. Garmin Vivofit JR 2

Best fitness tracker for kids

Specifications
Battery life: '1+ years'
Heart-rate monitoring: No
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+Long battery life+Kids love it+Disney/Marvel/Star Wars designs
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't do a huge amount

Being narcissists, kids love any information they can get about themselves, so a step counter specifically for kids makes a lot of sense.

Garmin's scaled down Vivofit comes in all manner of themed designs, from Minnie Mouse to Captain America, and rewards the wearer for completing 60 minutes of activity per day by allowing them to progress through a game related to the theme – Ultron's Revenge for the Captain America one, for instance.

You can also set up alerts and 'chore management' for your offspring. The latter is more fun than it sounds. You can allot points for doing certain chores or activities that build up over time until preset (by you) goals are reached, at which stage, they get to go to McDonald's or whatever.

The strap is maybe a bit big for younger/smaller children but it is robust, and makes Vivofit JR 2 hard to lose. The watch is waterproof, and the battery should last for over a year before needing replacement. If your 7-year-old is still into it after 12 months, that would be a minor miracle, of course.

I do think it's quite funny that a goal of 60 minutes of activity has been added to this as standard, whereas it's seemingly deemed too much for mere adults.

Myzone MZ 3

8. Myzone MZ-3

Best tracker for competitive gym bunnies

Specifications
Battery life: 6 months
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Accurate cardio tracking+Good social platform+Long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Minimal usefulness outside of a gym
Today's best Myzone MZ-3 deals

This is specifically for 'proper' workouts, rather than step and activity tracking.

In conjunction with its app, Myzone tracks accurately your cardio effort during exercise and allows you to compete via a social platform to find out who is officially the fittest amongst your peer group, with league tables and everything.

Interestingly, because its scoring is based on effort, theoretically it allows unfit people to compete against more advanced athletes. Is that fair, when someone might be so unfit their pulse rate will go through the roof if they so much as look at a skipping rope? We'll leave that for you to decide.

This can't compete with Fitbit, Garmin or even the Microsoft Band when it comes to tracking daily health metrics like steps and hours slept. 

However, we'd venture that it's vastly more useful if you want to get properly fit, as opposed to just losing a bit of weight or feeling a little more active. For gym bunnies, it's well worth considering.

Myzone is available as a standalone heart-rate strap and (for and extra £80) as part of this rather fetching compression top. There's also a bra for the ladies.

Garmin Vivosmart HR

9. Garmin Vivosmart HR+

Grandfather of the Vivosport

Specifications
Battery life: 5 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Solid battery life+GPS and pulse tracking+Affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Unpleasant look and feel-Worse app than main rival Fitbit
Today's best Garmin Vivosmart HR+ deals

An older version of the Vivosport, this is again very similar to the Fitbit Charge HR, but with built-in GPS and waterproofing, slightly better battery life, and the ability to track various activities. 

The pulse tracking is useful for exercise and following your resting heart rate, and as a general fitness tracker it's good. It lacks some of the features of the Vivosport, but mainly the less useful ones such as 'wellness' stress tracking and a rep counter.

The Vivosmart HR+ remains a solid option if you can find it cheap.

Garmin Vivofit 3

10. Garmin Vivofit 3

Best step counter for battery life

Reasons to buy
+12-month battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Ugly-Limited features

In most respects the very definition of 'bog standard fitness band', the Vivofit 3 excels in one area: shove in a standard watch battery and it lasts for a year.

That aside it counts steps adequately, and attempts to detect exercise, Fitbit style, but does so fairly inadequately. It logs steps, sleep and 'intensity minutes', although again, the Vivofit's concept of 'intensity' may not quite chime with yours. 

For those who are allergic to charging, just want to do the basics like counting steps, and don't mind looking like they're on day release, this could be a decent choice.