A new year is a fresh start and, for many of us, that means committing (or re-committing for the hundredth time – we’re not judging) to being healthier and fitter. There’s plenty of tech on the market that claims to help, but which would suit you best depends on your particular goals.
For many of us, the first box to tick is being more active. A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that 32% of UK adult men and 40% of UK adult women do less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, each week.
Inactivity poses risks to health and mental wellbeing, yet since many of us have sedentary jobs and hobbies, and we rely on cars to get about, it can be hard to make time, or muster up the motivation, to get the exercise we need.
There’s no better time than the new year to embark on a fitness programme, and it can’t hurt to have a little help. But what works for somebody else might not work for you.
Have a think about what you’re trying to achieve in the new year, and read on for some great ways tech can lend a helping hand.
Just want to be more active day to day? Jump straight to our activity tracker reviews.
Tech to help you get a bit more active
If you’ve never used any tech to monitor your fitness levels before, and you’re in two minds about it, start with an activity tracker.
At their most basic, activity trackers monitor your step count, calories burned, floors climbed and distance travelled.
Many activity trackers also offer:
- built-in heart-rate monitors – useful for keeping an eye on whether you’re within the fat-burning heart-rate zone or not
- GPS – either built-in GPS, or the ability to get GPS data from your phone
- goal setting – for step count or floors climbed, for example
- motivational reminders that nudge you to get moving
- sleep tracking – which is handy if one of your other resolutions for 2019 is to get more shut-eye.
Should you get on well with a basic tracker, you could then upgrade to one that’s more sophisticated. The Garmin Vivosmart 4 (£120) and the Fitbit Charge 3 (£130, above with the Vivosmart 4) are halfway to a fitness watch or smartwatch, offering smart notifications and functions such as VO2 max measurements, using your heart rate to calculate your oxygen consumption and fitness levels.
Alternatively, you could get a smartwatch with hidden fitness features. The Withings Steel HR Sport (below, £190) looks like a traditional analogue watch, but also comes with basic fitness and smart features. That might appeal if you don’t want to announce to the world that you’re concerned about your fitness.
If you’re interested in getting started on the cheap, our guide to the best cheap fitness trackers has all you need.
Wearables for taking sports more seriously
If you’re already quite fit and you’re able and happy to spend a bit more money, you’ve got many wearables to choose from. The majority of fitness watches will automatically detect when you’re working out.
Many are waterproof for wearing in the pool or ocean but not all are, so double check a device’s capabilities if you’re a swimmer. In many cases, heart rate isn’t monitored in swim-tracking mode, but some, such as the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music (£280), can be paired with an external heart-rate monitor.
Many will also tell you your VO2 max measurements, which is a measure of how your body uses oxygen. This is data that was once available only to elite athletes.
Some fitness watches can track up to 80 types of sport, from the fairly common to the more obscure. Alpine skiing, canoeing, cheerleading, fishing, golf, hiking, mountaineering, paddle boarding, rowing, snowboarding, tennis, triathlon and yoga are just a handful of the sports on offer.
If you’re training for a competition, then a word of warning: many wearables will claim to have a million different exercise modes, but the data you actually get is quite top-level. So they’ll give you an overall picture of your fitness, but won’t analyse your performance or give you any pointers for improving your technique.
Ones that do dig down into the detail to give you sports-specific metrics include the Suunto 9 fitness watch (above, £499). If you’re a runner or cyclist, you’ll get data such as distance, time, heart rate, calories, pace, speed, cadence, ascent and descent. If you’re a swimmer, you’ll get a detailed analysis of your stroke, pace, heart rate, calories and swimming efficiency.
Here are some more of the advanced metrics you’ll get from some wearables:
- running data such as ground contact time, balance, stride length, cadence and vertical ratio, to help you develop a steady and balanced running style
- training load analysis, showing you how strenuous a session was compared with other workouts
- recovery status features, monitoring the intensity, volume and frequency of your training, to ensure you aren’t over or under-doing it
- jump tests, to assess the strength of your leg muscles
- orthostatic tests, showing how your heart rate responds to training and factors such as stress.
Some will even let you create a custom workout by selecting the closest exercise and tweaking some of the data. And some can be used for wheelchair workouts.
If you’re serious about sports, accuracy is everything. Fitness watches and activity trackers can vary in how well they measure distance, steps, calories and heart rate. See how they measure up in our guide to fitness tracker accuracy.
Gadgets and apps for extra motivation on the move
If you can’t exercise without some motivational tunes, consider investing in some sports-orientated headphones.
Popular options include the Bose SoundSport Free (£167). These are lightweight and also rated IPX4, meaning they shouldn’t be damaged by sweat or inclement weather.
Or there’s the Samsung Gear IconX (2018) (£179, below) which can also act as your personal fitness coach, feeding you motivational slogans such as ‘you’re walking at a healthy pace’ and ‘focus on your goal’. They even double up as a fitness tracker, using a built-in accelerometer to measure your movement. They have on-board memory so that you can use their advanced fitness-tracking features without a smartphone.
If you’d prefer a wired in-ear pair, consider the Bose SoundSport In-Ear headphones (£44). Or there are pairs with a neckband, such as the Sony WI-C400 (£44) or the rather pricey Sony WI-H700s (£109). Sony isn’t marketing either of these as sports headphones, but many people do use headphones with a neckband for sports.
It’s important to get the right pair of headphones, as a bad pair is just going to end up annoying you. A pair that doesn’t fit securely in your ears, for example, will just be discarded when you get fed up of having to constantly stop and re-adjust them.
You should also consider whether you really want noise-cancelling technology, as you need some awareness of the world around you when you’re out running. Use our reviews to make sure you buy one of the best headphones for sports.
Running apps for extra motivation
You can also download running apps onto your phone that act as a virtual running buddy, offering audio coaching that you can listen to through your headphones. Strava and Runkeeper are some of the most popular. Or, if you prefer something kookier, there’s Zombies, Run!, where you imagine you’re ‘a runner en route to one of humanity’s last remaining outposts’.
For extra inspiration, some apps allow users to follow each other as you would on a social network. Just make sure you’ve checked your settings in case you’re uncomfortable with your activity being viewed by others.
Voice assistants for extra motivation at home
Voice assistants, such as an Alexa-enabled Echo or a Google Home speaker, aren’t just for when you’re feeling lazy. They can also help you work out from your living room, and provide a bit of extra motivation when you need it.
An Alexa-enabled Echo can coach you through fat-burning routines, connect to your Fitbit so you can check your progress (without you having to open the app) and even order sports equipment through Amazon.
A Google Home speaker can help you plan your routes before setting out, which is useful if you want to incorporate exercise into your travel plans by walking or cycling. If you have Google Calendar, you can use your Google Home speaker to tell you what’s in your calendar and also get weather reports, so that you can plan your workout.
You can use both to play motivational songs from Spotify and other streaming services: YouTube music and Google Play Music for Google Home Speakers, Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify and iHeart Radio for Alexa devices (some require subscriptions).
Perhaps most useful of all are a range of skills (apps made for voice assistants) that can be added to give you the motivation and guidance you need to get active.
Alexa skills for health and fitness
This skill will give you a personalised workout that fits your goals and fitness level, play music while you exercise, time you, give you guidance and even a demonstration via your phone if you don’t know how to do a certain exercise.
This takes you through variations of the plank to strengthen different muscle groups. The plank is said to be one of the best exercises you can do for your waistline and improving your posture, but different versions work on your back, arms, hamstrings and glutes.
My Gym Angel
Targeted at bodybuilders, powerlifters and crossfitters, this one plays motivational quotes from Pinterest and Instagram.
This one instructs you to do one of eight exercises. You don’t know in advance which one you’ll get, so it’s great for mixing things up.
Google Home speaker skills for health and fitness
Like its Alexa equivalent, this skill will take you through a series of exercises for conditioning your core and other areas of your body.
Offers a mix of cardio and strength training, for as little as seven minutes or as long as 60 minutes, step-by-step coaching, tips and motivation.
Scales for understanding body composition
Smart scales go beyond giving you your weight. If you are tall or have a muscular build, basic weight measurements might not tell you much about your health. Smart scales can give you a whole range of body composition readings, including:
- body fat percentage: the proportion of your body fat to your overall weight
- body water percentage: the total amount of water in your body expressed as a percentage of your total body weight
- BMI reading: based on the height you enter and your weight
- muscle mass: what percentage of your body’s composition is made up of muscle
- visceral fat, aka abdominal fat: a higher amount of visceral fat is linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and other health problems.
Smart scales send your weight and other body measurements to an app on your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth or wi-fi. Read more in our guide to smart bathroom scales.
Popular models include the Tanita RD-901 Body Composition Monitor (above, £147). These scales can hold up to four user profiles, saving you inputting information like your height and gender each time you use them. They’re also designed to automatically detect which user is stepping on the scales. If £147 seems a lot to pay for scales, the Beurer BF 700 Bluetooth Diagnostic Scales (£42) are a lot cheaper and can hold eight different people’s information.
Be aware that smart scales work by sending a small electric current around your body. So you shouldn’t use one if you’re pregnant or if you have a pacemaker or other internal medical device.
If you’re planning on using tech to help you get into shape in 2019, there’s much more help and advice on our website. Start by discovering where you should buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch.