I deliberated for almost six months about whether or not to buy a fitness tracker. I wasn’t going to buy something that was a minor improvement over my phone’s built in capabilities. My phone’s GPS tracking with the Map My Run app are more than adequate for tracking distance, time active and even calories. I didn’t want a tracker that was doing the same things my phone does, like this FitBit Flex 2. Maybe it’s slightly more accurate +/- an incremental amount, but for most people that doesn’t matter. More on why below. Maybe it’s also easier or more convenient in wearable form, but like most people I usually have my phone with me whether I’m working out or not so it isn’t a meaningful benefit.
If I was going to invest in a fitness tracker it had to do more than my phone. My budget was generous. Up to $200, maybe more if it really ticked all my boxes. My requirements (in order of importance) were pretty straight forward:
- Continuous heart rate monitoring that tracks resting and active heart rate over time.
- Sleep tracking.
- Reputable brand for guaranteed accountability and support in case of technical issues.
- High quality analytics in a professional and user friendly platform (on mobile or desktop.)
- Nice looking streamlined design – nothing bulky or noticeable.
- Bonus: WiFi smart scale syncing if it doesn’t compromise the first two requirements.
When I did my research I was surprised to find out that my seemingly simple requirements were actually not so simple. At the time there were less than half a dozen fitness trackers with heart rate monitoring capabilities on the market. Of these, the FitBit Charge HR was the only one that met the rest of my requirements.
I’ve had it for almost a year and I can say without any reservations that I’m 80% – 85% satisfied with it. The heart rate tracking is accurate enough for most people, it has sleep tracking, it’s made by a reputable brand with good support, the analytics dashboard is rich and intuitive, it looks pretty sleek, and on a cost-per-use basis it’s less than 30 cents per use over a year. Plus, I got my bonus smart scale too.
Continuous Heart Rate Monitoring That’s Accurate Enough For Most People
The reason I deliberated for so long is because there’s mixed opinion on the heart rate monitoring capabilities of fitness trackers. It isn’t just the FitBit, it’s all fitness trackers. Tracking heart rate with a wristband just isn’t that accurate. The technology isn’t there yet…or at least it wasn’t there as of February 2016.
A lot of the reviews I read said chest straps provide much more accurate measures of heart rate as compared to trackers worn on the wrist. That wasn’t a good solution for me. For one, I know that I’m unlikely to wear a chest strap regularly. Two, a chest strap wouldn’t monitor resting heart rate (unless I wore it non-stop, which I’m even less likely to do.)
So I continued deliberating and reading reviews. Eventually I decided to just take the plunge. The FitBit Charge HR was rated the best out of all the wristband heart rate trackers. I wasn’t going to use a chest strap so I realized I really only had one choice and decided to give it a try. Overall, it was worth the money as I’m better off with it than I would be if I hadn’t bought it.
The continuous heart rate monitoring is by far my favourite feature. A lot of the reviews I read compared the heart rate tracking results of wristband fitness trackers against other really sophisticated laboratory testing. The question they were asking was “how accurate is this tracker compared to this baseline measure we know to be accurate.”
I didn’t realize it at the time but there’s a really big problem with this method. Unless you’re a really high level athlete comparing the minutiae of your metrics with objective measures of your previous benchmarks and those of other athletes in your class, then you really don’t need your heart rate monitoring to be that accurate.
I’m not a high level athlete. I’m a regular person who wants a better way to track my fitness goals. I’m not comparing my metrics with highly precise objective measures so I don’t need a high level of precision in my fitness tracking. What I do need is an accurate way to track my changes over time, and the FitBit Charge HR delivers on this need.
Over the past year I’ve found the heart rate monitoring on the FitBit Charge HR to be accurate enough for my needs. The initial measure of resting bpm (beats per minute) makes sense based on my age and weight. I also makes sense that it gradually decreased over time, because a lower resting heart rate is a result of better cardiovascular fitness.
The image below isn’t actually my resting heart rate decrease over time, it’s the result of my husband trying out the tracker. More on that below.
I found the activity spikes identified in the analytics platform correlated with my time spent active and my subjective feelings of my level of exertion. I’m very satisfied with the level of performance. I don’t need the tracker to be objectively accurate, I need it to give me a benchmark to measure progress. It does that.
Heart Rate Monitoring Isn’t Just For Physical Health
There’s a surprising side benefit to heart rate monitoring that I hadn’t thought about. I hate driving and I always get a little nervous when I have to drive in the winter. It was February when I bought the tracker and we still had a month or so of winter weather ahead. I noticed that whenever I drove in bad weather, my resting heart rate would rise noticeably.
This makes the heart rate monitoring indispensable for me because it isn’t just for physical health but also for emotional and mental health.
The constant monitoring of my heart rate helps me take notice of the physical effects of different emotional states and stimulants. I’ve gained a better understanding of my physiological response to nervousness. I also have a better understanding of my physiological response to alcohol and caffeine. That helps me make healthier decisions for a better emotional state, not just for better physical health.
My first taste of sleep tracking came from the Sleep Cycle alarm clock app. It measures your movements throughout the night to calculate your sleep cycles and uses that data to wake you when you’re in light sleep. This makes waking up much less jarring than a blaring alarm forcing you out of REM. Upon waking it provides a graph detailing your sleep cycles and movements throughout your sleep. I used this app for quite a while. I really liked the sleep tracking, but I didn’t like that my phone had to be on my bed so close to me at night.
The FitBit Charge HR sleep tracking is a big improvement on the Sleep Cycle alarm. The analytics are really detailed on a per night and long term basis. If you don’t find it uncomfortable, wearing the tracker to bed is a great way to get insights into your sleeping habits so you can work on making improvements.
Plus with silent alarms (the tracker vibrates on your wrist to wake you) you also benefit from more gentle waking and it doesn’t disturb your partner at all. Great extra feature.
Analytics, Brand Reputation, Comfort & Cost Per Use
There are a lot of trackers made by unknown companies. I wouldn’t make a purchase like this from a company I don’t know because even if it costs less, wasted money is wasted money. I’d rather spend more on a quality product from a reputable brand that is accountable and guarantees support. Buying quality products that last makes more financial sense than buying cheaper products that aren’t guaranteed to last. Plus, it’s more sustainable and environmentally responsible to buy long lasting items rather than semi-disposable products that you’ll end up replacing anyway.
As you can see from the screenshots in this post the analytics for the FitBit Charge HR are high quality and quite comprehensive.
The desktop version has even more detailed information than the app like long term trends and accomplishments.
The $100-$150 range is understandable for this type of product especially when you consider that your cost per use over a year of daily use is less than 30 cents. The price will decrease over time as the technology gets more cost effective and competition pushes fitness tracker prices down.
For me the ultimate benchmark of functionality is when you forget something exists. It’s a golden rule I live by and it applies to a lot of scenarios. I know I’m wearing the best running shoes when I forget about them. Likewise for my sports bra. When something is doing it’s job you forget it exists.
Unfortunately I can’t say that I ever forget I’m wearing the FitBit Charge HR. This is especially true at night, when I sometimes end up taking it off. Granted, I’m a really light sleeper and I also just tend to fixate on things. It isn’t very uncomfortable. The worst that happens is that when I keep my arm in the same position for a long time the area where the tracker is embedded suctions to my skin from a tiny bit of perspiration, which makes it itch a bit. Not a big deal for most people and not a deal breaker for me but a consideration in case you’re extra sensitive.
Bonus The FitBit Aria WiFi Smart Scale Review
I wish I could say the FitBit Aria WiFi Smart Scale was good. I wish I could say that because it has a beautiful modern design, body fat capability, and an integrated FitBit Charge HR user experience. It also cost more than the tracker itself.
Sadly, I can’t say that and here’s why.
Setting up the Aria for the first time took over two hours. Both my husband and I were working on it. We’re pretty good with new tech but the Aria system is just not functional. We got so angry we thought about angry tweeting the company but decided against it. I wish we had.
When I finally managed to get the Aria set up and synced with the app on my phone, we tried to get my husband set up. I had to send him an invite to use the scale. It was a two step process. First we had to become friends in the app interface, and then I had to invite him to use the scale. It took 3 or 4 tries to become friends, and then I sent him the invite to use the scale probably 5 or 6 times before he even received it. When he tried to connect it glitched out again and again. At this point we were going into our 3rd hour of setup time.
The worst part of it is that my husband never managed to connect and has since used it as a guest instead, which is quite limited because not only is he missing the analytics on the app, but it also doesn’t display anything but weight on the scale. So the body fat functionality is totally wasted because it seems like only one user can benefit from it.
Just when I thought the Aria couldn’t get any worse, my husband borrowed my tracker for a few days. He finally connected as a user of the Aria, but at the same time I was kicked off and relegated to guest status. I’ve been avoiding the setup process to get re-registered as a user on the Aria because of how complicated and annoying it was the first time. I decided it needed to be done as part of this review so I sat down now to try to do it.
This is what happened.
Wait for the Aria to appear in my networks. Nothing happens.
Click “Try Again” get sent back to Step 1.
Repeat until you work yourself into an angry frenzy.
I’ve done this 4 times just now and it didn’t work. I suspect the problem is that my husband is now set up as administrator and he has to invite me, which I know won’t work from our initial experience with the Aria.
Short of using it as a really expensive basic scale I think I have to call tech support. We’re in the digital age. No technology should be this complicated and unintuitive. I shouldn’t have to call tech support just to get it set up.
Definitely did not end up being a bonus.
See my review of the Aria Smart Scale above. This isn’t really a problem with the FitBit Charge HR per se, but if you want a complete and streamlined system that works together then it sort of is.
This is something that actually really bothers me, probably more than any of the other issues.
What is this cable you ask?
I’ll tell you what it is. It’s proprietary.
The charging adaptor or dongle for the FitBit Charge HR doesn’t resemble any of the charging cables you probably have in your home. Rather than just using common micro USB, the FitBit people designed a proprietary dongle that can’t be replaced with anything else and also doesn’t charge anything else. It’s a single use cable and if you happen to misplace it (because it’s also quite small) you’ll need to buy another one, rather than using one of your existing micro USB cables, which I’m sure most people have. it’s the same thing Apple keeps doing with the iPhone charging cables.
Climate change is a serious concern. It is so irresponsible and nonsensical to design devices with single use accessories. Shame on you FitBit people.
It’s really difficult to lend out the FitBit Charge HR. This probably isn’t an issue for most people, but maybe it is. It seems reasonable that you might want to let your partner, friend or family member try it out for a day to see how it works. If you do (like I did) you’d see that it’s a big annoying hassle. When my husband borrowed the tracker for a few days to try it out, not only did it disconnect from my account (forcing me to setup again) but it also removed my profile from the Aria Smart Scale. It’s nothing short of infuriating setting up the Aria. For more see my review above.
Bonus FitBit Charge HR vs FitBit Charge HR 2
With a larger and more detailed display, special edition skins like this lavender rose gold, and a removable tracker than can be embedded in a variety of bangles and bracelets, the FitBit Charge HR 2 has a lot more aesthetic appeal that it’s predecessor. But do the improvements extend beyond pure aesthetics?
- The addition of cardio metrics like pace and distance displaying in real time on your wrist.
- More mobile notifications (call, text and calendar updates) versus just caller ID updates on the Charge HR. But if you’re like me and already have enough mobile notifications in your life then this might not be a big improvement. Personally I turn off the notifications on my Charge HR because like I said above I usually have my phone with me too and dual notifications are so excessive and distracting.
- A Cardio Fitness Score compiled from PurePulse and exercise data.
- Multisport modes for tracking a variety of activities including martial arts, spin, yoga, weights, circuit training, pilates, and even golf.
- “Relax” new guided breathing experience that improves on the mental health benefits of heart rate monitoring by actively bringing mindfulness into your activity tracking.
- PurePulse technology for continuous heart rate monitoring.
- Battery life (around 5 days for both models.)
- All day activity and sleep monitoring.
- Splash resistance.
As far as cost goes, the newer model HR 2 is understandably slightly more expensive than the HR. But when you consider the cost per use it’s probably not a significant difference over the…. “long run”.
FitBit Charge HR 2 Wins
With a few small but meaningful tweaks the Charge HR is the clear winner. It isn’t a huge price difference so it’s a no brainer. If I had to choose again I’d get the Charge HR 2. I’d love to try the guided breathing experience, and I know I’d get a lot of benefit from the multi sport mode functionality and the real time pace and distance display.
The customization options with interchangeable bands is also nice. I’m still sort of wishing I had bought the Charge HR in tangerine instead of boring black…
This is a great tracker for progressing on your fitness goals and using your heart rate to monitor your physical and emotional health. Just remember that if you’re going to invest in a fitness tracker you should do it for the right reasons. A fitness tracker will help you monitor your health and fitness progress over time. A fitness tracker will probably not give you the motivation to exercise more. It isn’t magic. It isn’t a lifestyle change in and of itself. The FitBit Charge HR is a really good complement to a healthy lifestyle, but it isn’t a quick fix.