For all of wearable tech’s gee-whiz cool-factor, there’s a lot that’s just silly and superfluous, besides the fact that most fitness-tracking bracelets look like Livestrong wristbands (which were fashionable a full decade ago). And that most pedometers look like Tamagotchis. And really, that heart rate monitor is only an absolute necessity if you’re Bruce Banner.
But I digress.
The hype vortex of wearables and smart watches is strong, but you can outpace it with a little education. The ostensible benefit of either wearable, as far as health goes, is that they allow you to monitor your calories, heart rate, and step count with previously unmatched accuracy. That’s all well and good if you’re a serious athlete or a model (or both). But for most, the pinpoint precision is actually overkill; a mere smartphone will do. (“Mere smartphone”. Fancy that.) If said smartphone is current gen, decent fitness apps will do more than enough to encourage an active lifestyle. And as for your phone not being “wearable”: fitness armbands for exercising with electronics have been a thing since the first-gen iPod Nano (years before smartphones themselves were a thing), and that’s unlikely to change. Truth is, a number of upcoming smartphones offer features that make fitness-tracking wearables redundant.
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Take, for instance, the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 4. It’s practically a dedicated medical device — so much so that Samsung is worried that foreign regulators may treat it as such. In addition to the increasingly obligatory motion tracker (enabling pedometer apps), the Note 4 sports a heart rate monitor, blood-oxygen saturation sensor and a UV sensor that grades UV radiation from the sun in five levels: low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme. There’s no shortage of sturdy, water-resistant fitness armbands being made for Galaxy Note devices; it’s highly unlikely the Note 4 will be any different. If you’re so inclined, you could use the Note 4 while running a mountain trail and measure your distance traveled, all while monitoring how hard your heart is working, periodically keeping an eye on the oxygen density in your current elevation, and checking to see if you should add an extra layer of sunblock. Seems highly specific, but Samsung devotees are familiar with the company’s longstanding commitment to health tracking; Samsung S Health, a dedicated health tracker app, has been included on every Samsung phone since the S III.
If you have no mountain in your general vicinity to jog across and you’re not health-minded to the point of obsession, the Nexus 5 ($349+) is also a solid option. A low-price phone with high-end features, the Nexus’s selling point for casual exercisers is a feature called “sensor batching”, a process through which the Nexus consolidates data useage in certain situations so apps that use GPS and sensor data such as motion tracking (ie, most fitness apps) don’t drain its battery. This means you won’t have a nearly dead phone at the end of your jog because you ran through a few dead zones while streaming music.
Let’s talk about the most popular phone in America. I upgraded to the 5S recently, and it’s been a much better companion on jogs than my old 4. Whereas the 4 would nearly burn a hole in my pocket (literally) from overwork during jogs, the 5S’s M7 motion coprocessor breathes new life into fitness trackers; you’re free to put the phone on airplane mode and be alone with your strides (and Spotify playlists). The iPhone 6 is set to include an upgraded motion coprocessor (M8), so if you’re set for an upgrade anyway, there’s no need to throw in additional hardware — especially since Apple is giving their own smart watch a run for its money with a forthcoming health app — which does just about everything you’d expect from a health app, in addition to sharing data with other health apps to help them give a more accurate portrait of your overall fitness.
Other Fitness-Ready Phones
HTC ONE M8: With its Smart Sensor Hub, the HTC One offers motion-sensing functions beyond its impressive no-touch gesture controls. It also offers motion tracking similar to Apple’s M7 and M8 motion coprocessors, preserving battery power and it perfect for apps like FitBit, which comes preloaded with the device.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Like the Galaxy Note 4, the Samsung Galaxy S5 features motion sensors and heart rate trackers. It omits more intense features like blood-oxygen level tracking and UV detection, and size-wise it’s a typical smartphone as opposed to a phablet.
LG G3: For those of you stuck with Sprint, there’s the LG G3. Like the Samsung, it features a dedicated health app to accompany its motion-sensing functions: you can track jogging, cycling, and walking paths, daily step counts; view overall stats; and compare your performance with friends.
As if the evolution of health-minded smartphones wasn’t enough, the fitness apps that accompany many wearables are making wearables themselves redundant. FitBit’s pedometers (most notably the Zip) are fun for office-wide “get active” contests, but the FitBit app (Free) itself is just as accurate and effective on an iPhone with a motion coprocessor. Same goes for Nike+; the new Nike+ Move app (Free)app found on all of Samsung’s phones since the Galaxy S3.
If you’re not looking to switch phones any time soon, there are more than a few comprehensive health-tracking apps that should suffice on a range of phones if you’re seeking healthier habits. Breeze (Free), from the makers of Runkeeper, is one of the simplest, cleanest pedometer apps there is. Lose It! (Free) is even simpler, eschewing to-the-second sensor data for plain meal and exercise tracking — which might sound underwhelmingly low tech, but will get the job done without any extra hassle for most.
For more complex tracking, there’s Argus (Free), which lays out health and fitness stats in a beehive-style hexagonal spreadsheet. Apart from being easy on the eyes, it allows for a more general overview of your activity. Rather than poring over caloric charts and graphs, you can simply scroll through your history, which is pretty self explanatory: Each day’s caloric intake, water consumed, sleep, individual exercises, and other such data are represented by colorful cells; generally, the more exercise cells you see, the better. All data can be inputted manually — but if you eventually find yourself jazzed enough about fitness to venture down the wearable rabbithole, Argus can connect with wearable heart rate trackers via bluetooth.
Argus’s biggest virtue is that it gives users the opportunity to evolve from dabbler to enthusiast over time. You can ignore many of Argus’s features (everything from calorie counting to social functions ranging from path sharing and Instagram-esque food porn) and stick to strict basics like sleep, step counting and frequency of exercise, and still find satisfaction in watching your positive habits blossom into colorful patterns over time. Then, if curiosity takes hold, you can look over charts and graphs for more detailed representations of your evolving habits. You may find yourself naturally compelled to scrutinize every aspect of your diet and everyday activities, and maybe even decide to splurge on a fitness tracker. But there’s no need to jump into the wearable deep end right away just because marketers are telling you they’re the way of the future. Start with Argus or another app, and see where you end up.