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Five ways to use a fitness tracker or smartwatch to keep fit in the new year

Your fitness tracker or smartwatch can help you burn off those Christmas calories – provided you pick a good one

Five ways to use a fitness tracker or smartwatch to keep fit in the new year

It’s normal to overindulge a bit at Christmastime, particularly following a bleak year. In fact, some studies suggest that the average Brit consumes two to three times the recommended daily amount of calories on Christmas Day alone. 

Christmas will be a strange, pared-back affair for most of us this year, but one tradition we don’t expect to change is making new year’s resolutions to get fit, while lounging around filling our face with mince pies.

A wearable – a fitness tracker or smartwatch – could be a useful tool in helping you stick to a new fitness regime, particularly if you’ve become much more sedentary during lockdown.

Discover the best fitness trackers and best smartwatches for getting fit in the new year. 

Person enjoying a Christmas pudding

1) Burn off those Christmas calories

The recommended daily calorie allowance is 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men. With the average mince pie containing 226 calories, and the average portion of Christmas pudding containing 296 calories, according to the British Heart Foundation, it can quickly add up.

Most wearables, including the super-cheap ones, claim to tell you how many calories you’ve burnt through your daily activities. You should take this data with a pinch of salt, though. To measure calorie burn properly, you would need laboratory equipment that analysed your oxygen intake and carbon dioxide production. And, while adults are said to burn on average 500 calories per 10,000 steps, there are many factors at play, including weight, pace, percentage of body fat and age.

Using your fitness tracker to track and increase your step count is a more useful strategy. All fitness trackers offer this, and increasing your step count is an easy, free way to get moving again without going to the gym, if you’re in an area where gyms are even open.

A common goal to aim for is 10,000 steps a day, although many trackers allow you to set personalised targets. You’ll need to walk ‘briskly’, according to the NHS, to get the benefits. However, this plan only works if you’ve picked an accurate tracker – more on this later.

2) Consider accuracy

A fitness tracker or smartwatch that isn’t accurate won’t be an effective way to hit your goals. Our tests have shown that many wearables simply can’t log the basics of steps, distance and heart rate accurately.

Some are too sensitive, mistaking any hand movement for a step. So you might find your fitness tracker congratulating you for reaching a goal when the only exercise you’ve done is lie on the sofa flicking through the pages of a magazine.

One device we tested was out by 66% when logging steps, meaning might think you’ve taken 10,000 steps when you’ve only taken 3,400.

We often see wearables struggling to get your heart rate right – or only managing it under certain conditions. Some are wildly inaccurate at measuring your heart rate when you’re resting, even if they’re accurate during high-intensity exercise.

Our rigorous tests can help here – read our fitness tracker reviews or smartwatch reviews to see how every model does in a range of measurements.


How accurate is your fitness tracker or smartwatch? – our guide reveals which devices capture data you can rely on.


Honor Band 5 fitness tracker

3) Pick the right fitness tracker or smartwatch

What works for somebody else might not work for you. Consider your personality and goals before you choose your device. If you get one that’s not suited to your needs, you’ll be spending more than you need to, even if it does track accurately.

Wearables to help you get a bit more active

If this is your first foray into fitness tracking, start out with a fitness tracker rather than splashing out on a pricey smartwatch. At their most basic, fitness trackers monitor your step count, distance travelled, floors climbed and calories.

Many also offer:

  • heart-rate monitors – useful for keeping an eye on whether or not  you’re within the fat-burning heart-rate zone
  • GPS – either built-in GPS (meaning you can exercise phone-free), or the ability to get GPS data from your phone. If neither is present, distance will be calculated based on your step count.
  • goal setting – for step count or floors climbed, for example. If you don’t have a goal in mind, there’s not much point counting your steps.
  • 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 2021 is to get more shut-eye.

If you get on well with your tracker, you could then upgrade to a more sophisticated one, such as the Fitbit Charge 4 (£129.99), or to a smartwatch.

We’ve found ultra-cheap trackers often aren’t impressive, but fitness trackers needn’t cost the earth either. The Samsung Galaxy Fit 2 (£40), Honor Band 5 (£30, pictured above) and the Huawei Band 3 Pro (£60 at time of launch, now often available for £40) are trackers to consider Read our full reviews to find out what we liked and disliked about them.


Discover the best cheap fitness trackers we’ve tested, including a Best Buy for under £50.


Wearables for taking sports seriously

If you’re already quite fit, and you’re happy to spend a bit more, go straight for a more advanced model.

There are many fitness trackers and smartwatches that will automatically detect when you’re working out, and many are waterproof for wearing in the pool.

Specific activities are the consideration here, with increasing numbers of wearables offering a wide range of exercise modes, such as alpine skiing, canoeing, fishing, golf, hiking, mountaineering, paddle boarding, rowing or yoga.

A word of warning, though: the data you get is often quite top-level. If you need in-depth training analysis, or pointers for improving your technique ready for a competition, check to see what sports-specific metrics you can expect.

Devices that do offer detailed metrics for plenty of sports 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 track different sports in the same session, and much more.Polar Vantage V smartwatch

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.

4) Make sure your fitness tracker or smartwatch is set up properly

Once your shiny new wearable arrives, there are a few things you’ll need to do before you can get started.

Give it a charge before you use it, and while you’re waiting, check the manual to find out how to set it up. Here are some other things to bear in mind:

Download the relevant app

If it’s a popular brand, the app will probably be easily identifiable on the app store, but it’s worth double-checking the manual just in case, to make sure you’ve got the right one.

Enter your biometric data

As a minimum, you’ll probably be asked for your height, weight, age and gender, but potentially also for your intended sleep schedule, personal targets and stride length. The more information you enter, the greater your chances of getting accurate stats back.

Some ask whether you plan to wear the device on your dominant or non-dominant hand (wearing it on the dominant hand may result in it wrongly logging more hand movements as steps). Some Huawei and Honor devices will ask surprisingly deep questions about your state of mind, but you’ll only need to answer these if you want to activate stress-tracking.

Make sure your device is sitting properly on your wrist

Of course, it shouldn’t be so tight that it’s cutting off your blood supply, nor so loose that it’s sliding around, but check the manual, as some manufacturers give specific instructions.

Suunto, for example, says that you should wear your watch one finger above your wrist bone during daily use and two above during exercise.

Get to know your wearable

Spend some time playing around getting used to navigating your device and the app. Some give you much more scope to customise them, by changing the watch face, the stats shown on the screen and the app layout, for example.

Does tracking your sleep push you towards better night-time routines, or are your sleep stats giving you one more thing to agonise over?  Do reminders to get moving during the day motivate or annoy you? Do you want all notifications from your phone to be pushed through to your wrist, or are they a distraction?

Wear it as much as you can

The more you use it, the more comprehensive a picture of your health you’ll build up. And some require you to wear them for a certain number of hours before bedtime for sleep-tracking to work.

Man asleep wearing smartwatch

5) Use a voice assistant for extra motivation in the home

Voice assistants, such as an Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo or a Google Home speaker, aren’t only for when you’re feeling lazy. They can also help you work out from your living room (something many of us are doing more of than ever before) and provide a bit of extra motivation when you need it.

If you have an Amazon Echo, you can connect a Fitbit to it and ask it about your progress without you having to open the app. It can also coach you through exercise routines. You can even use it to order sports equipment through Amazon.

A Google Home speaker can give you weather reports and help you plan your routes before setting out, which is useful if you’re a runner.

Most usefully, both offer a wide range of skills (apps made for voice assistants) that coach you through exercises, and you can use both to play motivational music from streaming services such as Spotify. Here are some suggestions:

Alexa skills for health and fitness

7-minute workout

Alexa can plan out a seven-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.

Easy Yoga

Guides you through 10-to-15-minute audio yoga routines with an experienced teacher.

5-minute Plank 

Work 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.

Workout Roulette

Get instructions for one of eight exercises. You don’t know in advance which one you’ll get, so it’s great for mixing things up.

For more, read our weekly summary of the best Alexa commands, tips and tricks.

Google Home speaker skills for health and fitness

5-minute Plank

Like its Alexa equivalent, this skill will take you through a series of exercises for conditioning your core and other areas of your body.

Headspace

Dubbed ‘gym membership for your mind’, this app will walk you through 10-minute daily meditations.

Quick Workout

A seven-minute workout routine to help increase metabolism, improve energy and lower stress.

Check out our guide to buying exercise equipment, from choosing a yoga mat to setting up a whole home gym.

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