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Get fit with hi-tech kit: activity trackers, fitness apps, games and more

How the latest tech gadgets can help you to get fit and lose weight

We all know how hard it is to keep those New Year’s resolutions, and the number one resolution year in, year out is to lose weight. If you’ve managed to stick to a diet since January 1st, you’re doing better than most people.

We’re not going to talk much about diets here, though. We’re far more interested in what technology can bring to the table to help you exercise. Over the last year or two, wearable technology has exploded and you can now buy affordable fitness gadgets such as the Fitbit One and Nike Fuelband.

See also: Nike+ Fuelband vs Fitbit One comparison review

These and other devices promise to help you achieve your goals, including walking or running longer distances, being more active, or losing weight. Alternatively, you can use them to find out how active you are in general, then use that information to work out whether you need to do more.

Given that most of us probably don’t eat as well as we could, nor exercise as much as we should, this is undoubtedly a good thing.

The growing trend is that fitness gadgets work with your smartphone or tablet to give you at-a-glance updates as well as extensive reports on your progress. We'll take a look at some apps which need no extra equipment at all, taking advantage of your smartphone's GPS receiver and other features to turn it into an activity tracker.

Polar Beat iOS app

On the whole, you don't need a mobile device for most fitness gadgets as the same information is available via the web, so a basic PC or laptop will do just fine.

We'll also investigate other gadgets such as Nike's collaboration with Microsoft - a Kinect-based Xbox 'game' which gives you a personal trainer on your TV, plus other products such as TV-connected exercise bikes and a fork that claims to make you eat less.

Fitness gadgets: right for you?

Whether you’re a fitness freak, a couch potato or anywhere in between, fitness tech should have a place in your life.

There's a huge range of gadgets on offer to appeal to just about everyone, whether you're a runner, cyclist, swimmer or just want to walk more to burn calories.

Such gadgets can be both inexpensive (there are plenty of free fitness apps and websites) and effective at helping you to achieve more.

Of course, some gadgets are better than others, but technology really can be a huge help in getting you fitter whether you’re using a basic free app on your smartphone or a pricier wireless gadget that can give you more information such as the number of floors you've climbed, the quality of your sleep or your heart rate.

The real advantage technology brings is capturing data and allowing you to see how much exercise you’re doing; which days or times you’re active or not active; how well you’re sleeping; how much you’re eating and drinking and more.

In many ways it’s similar to those energy meters which have also become popular over the last few years. Until you can see a figure on an LCD screen, it’s pretty hard to know how many watts your appliances are using.

Flick on the kitchen lights, for example, and the figure jumps up immediately, revealing just how much power those halogen down-lighters really consume. A paper bill arriving through your letterbox every three months simply doesn’t have the same effect.

Fitness gadgets: activity trackers

While detractors might say that activity trackers are nothing but overpriced pedometers, there are many who will appreciate and genuinely benefit from seeing a graph showing how many steps they’ve walked each day for the past month - something that will spur them on to doing more exercise the next month.

See also: Top 10 tips for hitting your daily step goals

Fitbit One

Most trackers will give you a lot more information than this, of course. The Fitbit One, for example, has a built-in altimeter so can give you a pretty accurate gauge of how high you climbed on a particular day, and a more accurate number of calories burned as a result. With the One you also get a pop-up message on your smartphone screen when you get close to your daily goal, giving you that nudge you might need to hit those 10,000 steps.

Fitbit One iOS app

In most cases, all you have to do wear the device and go about your daily life. It’s no hassle at all, and you’ll probably forget about it after a while. If you’re willing to put in a little more effort, however, you can also keep a log of what you’re eating, how much water you’re drinking and track your weight (there are even Wi-Fi scales for this - Fitbit's Aria costs £99 - which will automatically upload your weight to an account on the web).

Logging everything you eat can be a chore, but if you tend to eat the same things it’s very quick to pick those items from the ‘recent’ list. Plus, some trackers have a tie-in with MyFitnessPal, a popular app which has an unrivalled food database because it includes every item of food and drink users have entered. Although there are errors as with any crowd-sourced project, you’ll almost never have to work out the number of calories a meal contains – just search for it in the app.

Many activity trackers involve gamification, which means there’s one more reason to be active. As long as one or more friends also have a compatible gadget, you can see how they’re doing (typically via a website or app) and try and beat them. If you’re so far ahead of the curve that none of your friends have, say, a Nike Fuelband, you’ll still be rewarded with badges and achievements so you can still feel as if you’re getting somewhere.  

There is a danger, however, that you merely use a tracker to record your daily activity. That's why the best models are the ones which provide an incentive to do more exercise. Whether that's because you're able to compete with friends, or through gamification, you should always be trying to   do more, whether that's leaving your desk at lunchtime do a quick run or simply walking to the watercooler at the other end of the office instead of the one by your desk.

Another disadvantage with some activity trackers is that they don't monitor your heart rate, so they can't accurately measure how hard you're exercising. Those that do tend to be costly, but it can be worth it if you're doing some serious training.

In fact, it's worth pointing out that activity trackers aren't intended to make to head to the gym. You should do some strenuous cardio workouts each week, of course, but a tracker should motivate you to keep active throughout each day.

See also: Jawbone Up review

 

Fitbit Zip

Fitbit Zip

Fitbit One

Fitbit One

Fitbit Flex

Fitbit Flex

Fitbug Orb

Fitbug Orb

Jawbone Up

Jawbone Up

Nike Fuelband

Nike Fuelband

Scosche Rhythm

Scosche Rhythm

Price

£50

£80

£80

£45

£100

£130

£100

Tracks

Steps, distance, calories

Steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, sleep

Steps, distance, calories, sleep

Steps, distance, calories, sleep

Steps, distance, calories, sleep

Steps, distance, calories

Steps, distance, calories

Extra features

None

Vibrating alarm, altimeter

Vibrating alarm

None

Vibrating alarm

NikeFuel

Heart rate monitor, music control

Pros

Inexpensive, built-in Bluetooth and display

Built-in display

Convenient to wear all the time

Realtime updates during workouts

Idle alerts, waterproof

Easy to charge, waterproof

Waterproof, real-time voice feedback to maintain intensity

Cons

Not rechargeable

Proprietary charging cable, inconvenient to wear at night

Basic display, no altimeter

Subscription fee, no display, not rechargeable

No wireless sync, basic LED indicators

Expensive, doesn’t track sleep or stairs climbed

Designed to monitor workouts only, not a standalone device (requires phone or tablet)

Phone support

iPhone 4S/5, Samsung Galaxy S3/Note II

iPhone 4S/5, Samsung Galaxy S3/Note II

iPhone 4S/5, Samsung Galaxy S3/Note II

iPhone 4S/5, Samsung Galaxy S3

iOS 5.1 or later and Android 4.0 or later

iPhone 4S/5

All iPhones, Samsung Galaxy S3

Next page: Fitness apps and games

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