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.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, each week.
We all know that inactivity poses serious risks to health and mental wellbeing. Yet since many of us have sedentary jobs and hobbies, and over-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 some motivation to get more active day to day? Jump straight to our fitness 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 a fitness tracker.
At their most basic, fitness trackers monitor your step count, distance travelled, floors climbed and calories.
Many 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 – your tracker will vibrate to nudge you to get moving
- sleep tracking – which could be handy if one of your other resolutions for 2020 is to get more shut-eye.
Fitness trackers needn’t cost the earth – discover the best cheap fitness trackers we’ve tested.
Should you get on well with a basic tracker, you could then upgrade to one that’s more sophisticated.
The Garmin Vivosmart 4 (£120; above, left) and Fitbit Charge 3 (£130; above, right) are some of the most advanced fitness trackers we’ve tested, offering smart notifications and functions such as VO2 max measurements, a measure of how your body uses oxygen. This is data that was once available only to elite athletes but is now an increasingly common sight on wearables.
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.
Or you could consider the Samsung Galaxy Watch (below). It’s a classy-looking watch available in a range of colours and designs, with plenty of fitness-tracking features, including heart-rate monitoring, automatic detection for a range of exercises and suggestions of warm ups and cooldowns. It’s also waterproof for swimming and has built-in GPS, meaning there’s no need to take your phone out with you to track your route if you go running.
Fitness isn’t all about exercising, though. You can use the Samsung Health app to record in one place other factors which might affect your fitness, such as weight, caffeine and water intake. And increasingly, wearables – the Galaxy Watch included – offer stress-tracking. Samsung alerts you when it thinks you’re very stressed and guides you through breathing exercises to restore calm.
We’ve reviewed both the 46mm and 42mm versions of the Galaxy Watch, with slight differences in score. Head to our Samsung smartwatch reviews to find out how they compare.
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. There are many smartwatches which 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 many can be paired with an external heart-rate monitor.
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 activities 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 Polar Vantage M and Polar Vantage V (pictured below). They’re both high-end watches, ideal for serious athletes, offering detailed running, swimming and cycling metrics, 130 sports profiles, a multisport mode to tack different sports in the same session, and much more.
The V goes further than the M – it’s designed to have a longer battery life, a barometer and recovery measurements to protect you from over-training.
Here are some more of the metrics you’ll get from more advanced 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 trackers and smartwatches can vary considerably in how well they measure stats such as distance, steps and heart rate. See how they compare in our guide to fitness tracker and smartwatch accuracy.
Gadgets and apps for extra motivation on the move
If you can’t exercise without some music, consider investing in some sports-orientated headphones.
The Jabra Elite Sport Wireless (£150) headphones are designed to be resistant to sweat and water, so you can keep them on whatever the weather. They contain a heart-rate monitor, so you can check on your heart rate via the accompanying app. And you can get motivational tips through the app, too.
You probably don’t need exceptionally high-end sound quality for your workout, so you can choose pairs with slightly lower scores for more choice to get an ideally-suited pair for your workout. This can save you money, too.
You could also consider the Sennheiser CX 7.00BT (£130) which are nice and lightweight. They aren’t marketed as sports headphones, but many people do use headphones with a neckband for sports.
The Bose Soundsport Free (£140, below) are also worth considering. They’re lightweight in-ear headphones, with controls on the earbud allowing you to play or pause music tracks, take phone calls via the built-in mic and access your smartphone’s voice assistant (such as Google Assistant on Android phones and Siri on Apple devices). These are sweat and weather-resistant too.
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 it often comes at a premium. You need some awareness of the world around you when you’re out running, so if you do choose one of these pairs, enable ambient sound mode so you can still hear what’s going on in our surroundings.
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. Guided running apps like Couch to 5K, which are also designed to help you achieve fitness goals, are very popular as well. 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 Amazon 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 Amazon 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.
7 minute workout
Alexa can even plan out a 7 minute routine for you, including full body workouts that you can do at home. You can watch video tutorials on the Alexa companion app, too.
Yoga for beginners
This skill walks you through 26 different yoga positions – perfect if you want to give yoga a try but can’t make it to a class or would rather practice at home first.
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.
Check out our How to buy the best smart speaker guide to find out more.
If you’re planning on using tech to help you get into shape in 2020, there’s much more help and advice on our website. Start by establishing whether you should buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch.