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Best Smartwatch for Fitness and Exercise (Are You Ready For Sacrifice?)

You can't have a sports smartwatch without sacrificing some convenient features. Here's the ULTIMATE sports watch and some in-betweens to consider.

garmin fenix 6 main screen

What makes a good fitness and exercise smartwatch?

For one, it should be rated as water resistant. I think this is a crucial step in creating the perfect outdoors smartwatch. Of course, if you are a gym person, this might not be that important.

But I really wouldn’t buy a smartwatch that doesn’t have this feature. It’s just going to cause problems down the road when you are asked to go kayaking and you can’t take your watch with you.

Luckily, most smartwatches are water resistant so that you can take them out for a swim. There are a few that are not water resistant such as Mobvoi’s Ticwatch Pro and its smaller, entry-level Ticwatch C2 which has a strap that is not suitable for water.

Other than that, I think another important aspect for a fitness and exercise watch is hardiness. Curved glass as available on the Apple Watch Series 5 or the Samsung Galaxy Active2 might seem fantastic but in all honesty, they worry me a bit if you expect hard-surface contact such as when rock climbing.

Then there’s also the consideration on whether you should buy a purpose-made sports smartwatch like the Polar Vantage V or Garmin Fenix 6.

They are honestly great smartwatches, but they come at a great cost. While they have advanced sports features like VO2Max analyzers and a very good heart rate sensor, they also can’t do the many, everyday tasks that even the cheapest Wear OS smartwatch would be able to accomplish such as having a voice assistant or sending custom text message replies.

So, how do we be fair to both segments?

garmin fenix 6 workout

Sports first?

If your goal is to have the ultimate fitness and exercise smartwatch at all costs, then you need the Garmin Fenix 6.

It really is “at all costs” though, because not only is this smartwatch very costly compared to almost all other smartwatches, it also has major downsides when it comes to convenience.

But why do I like it so much?

I love it because it is the ULTIMATE sports, outdoors and exercise smartwatch. With the reduced human contact lifestyle that we have had to undertake due to the COVID-19 pandemic (I hope it’s over by the time you read this), I have gotten very interested in outdoor activities such as mountain biking, kayking and golfing, and I do them alone. More about how that latter fact makes this watch even better.

My Garmin Fenix 6 is the Sapphire version. Garmin makes a few versions of the Fenix 6.

First off, you get to choose between three watch case sizes — 42mm, 47mm and 51mm. Then ask yourself if you want to pay extra for music, maps and Wi-Fi functionality. How about a scratch-resistant Sapphire lens on the display that promises to be super hardy? Then finally, decide if you want solar recharging.

The cost of the base model with the most blinged-out Fenix 6 is approximately double. You do get a pretty snazzy and high tech watch regardless of what options you choose.

garmin fenix 6 sapphire maps

Maps

I want to focus on the maps functionality of the Garmin Fenix 6.

I must say that it’s the most amazing function available on the Fenix 6. It is worth the extra cost for this upgrade.

Why?

As I stated above, I do a lot of sports alone because we’re supposed to reduce contact. As such, sometimes I have to go into unfamiliar territory in order to enjoy the sport.

This means finding biking trails on a map, or finding a navigation route on a kayak.

Having a map on my wrist makes that so much easier. Especially since the Fenix 6 notes where you started off so you can find your way back there by referring to the map.

Now, you might ask — what’s the difference between this map and the Wear OS’s Google Maps?

Well, Google Maps on smartwatches requires an active internet connection. That’s an issue if you keep your smartphone in the car (which supplies the data connection). I do not like to take my smartphone out to sea because it’s a $1,000 device that is denser than water (that is to say: it doesn’t float).

Having an offline map as is the case on the Garmin Fenix 6 is great. I found it very useful when trying to find a beach on an island away from the mainland as well as finding trails that lead me back to my starting point.

garmin fenix 6 sapphire connect app

Sports data and analysis

The Garmin Fenix 6’s ability to track a large number of sports is not very distinct from other smartwatch platforms. Wear OS’s Google Fit can track over 40 distinct exercises, for example.

But what the Garmin Fenix 6 offers you is superior analysis. The insight you get from the smartwatch’s phone app is just class leading.

For example, while most smartwatches will be able to tell you about your heart rate throughout your exercise, the Garmin Fenix 6 sets itself apart by giving you an analysis on the training effect on your workout including whether it increased your anaerobic or aerobic abilities.

This really gives me the ability to know whether I need to up the intensity of my workout.

garmin fenix 6 stress tracking

Body Battery, Stress, Sleep

When I first reviewed this watch, I really hated wearing this watch to sleep. It’s really big, bulky and puts significant pressure on your arm if you are the type that puts your arm under your pillow.

Over time, I have come to appreciate the pains needed to get a good analysis. If you want a complete understanding of how your day has gone, you will have to wear this watch overnight.

garmin fenix 6 sapphire body battery

That’s because the Fenix 6 uses your sleep, activities and stress levels to measure how charged or drained your Body Battery is.

Think of the Body Battery as how much energy you have left. After sleeping, you will have a pretty full battery, but after a stressful day or a day with intense exercise, that battery will deplete.

The Garmin Fenix 6 also measures stress based on your heart-rate variability. Garmin’s smartphone app, the Connect, will be able to tell you whether you are low, medium or highly stressed throughout the day.

The Garmin Fenix 6 really sets itself apart with the data that it offers. I’d say no other smartwatch has the same level of analysis.

garmin fenix 6 garmin connect workout plans

Training software

If you are a runner, you’d love the package of assistance the Garmin Fenix 6 offers.

One of the best things of the Fenix 6 is its Garmin Coaches that help you come up with a training plan. You tell Garmin what you want to do — 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and it comes up with a plan based on the methods of three different real-life coaches.

The Garmin Fenix 6 also comes with a Pulse Oximeter which measures the saturation of oxygen in your bloodstream. It does this by using a red LED on the back of the watch. It helps you know whether you are acclimatizing well to high altitudes.

Finally, what I really love is the VO2Max measurement. VO2Max indicates your cardiovascular fitness and it is useful to tell you the amount of improvement 

garmin fenix 6 sapphire main watch face

Hardware

The Garmin Fenix 6 is water resistant to 100 metres, which is a major improvement over most smartwatches which only offer water resistance to 50 metres. 

I also have the titanium case and the Sapphire glass which makes this watch lighter and hardier. 

The smartwatch also comes with an LCD screen that uses ambient light to illuminate the screen. This gives it a really long lifespan. I loved how I could wear this watch for days without needing to charge it. Garmin estimates a 10 day battery life from my usage.

Furthermore, I really liked how its charger was just a cable. What I like about this is that it’s very compact. Whereas most other smartwatches have a dock which is much larger and in the case of wireless charging docks, I learned that it’s not possible to charge while you’re on the move because the watch will get dislodged from the dock.

Fitbit Versa 2 always on display

Alternative: Fitbit Versa 2

The Fitbit Versa 2 is a good alternative to the Garmin Fenix 6 for fitness and exercise enthusiasts.

I felt that I needed to talk about this watch because of its dynamism not found in the Fenix 6.

For one, it’s a lot cheaper than the Fenix 6. It’s also much lighter, smaller and looks more elegant.

It also has a touchscreen with just one button. This contrasts with the Fenix 6 which has five buttons and no touchscreen.

A touchscreen is great because it has become very intuitive for smartphone users. Knowing which button to press on the Garmin Fenix 6 is highly confusing sometimes and it’s all a crapshoot of luck.

Fitbit Versa 2 second app menu

Fitbit offers some parallels to the functionality offered by the Garmin Fenix 6. It can track many exercises and it can give you sleep analysis. Fitbit also offers many workout plans that you can use.

Just so you know, sleep tracking is not available on Wear OS devices nor on the Apple Watch by default. You could install a separate program for it, though.

Fitbit Versa 2 Alexa speech to text

The Fitbit Versa 2 also offers a voice assistant which is not available on the Garmin Fenix 6.

Having a voice assistant is an amazing convenience that I really wished were on the Fenix 6. But serious fitness and exercise smartwatches generally forgo these functionalities.

Having a voice assistant makes tedious tasks easy. Setting a timer on the Fenix 6 is a bit of a pain because it has no touchscreen, so you are forced to press buttons to set the minutes and seconds of your timer.

Whereas with the Fitbit Versa 2’s Alexa, doing this task is much easier because all you have to do is to tell Alexa.

The Fitbit Versa 2 also has a more dynamic text reply system. You can send custom messages on the Versa 2 using the speech-to-text function as long as you are on an Android. This is not available on the Garmin Fenix 6, so you are forced to take out your phone if you want to send something. Inconvenient!

And if you dislike charging your smartwatch every evening, then the Fitbit Versa 2 is a great choice. It doesn’t have the week-long battery life that the Fenix 6 has but it has a few days’ worth even though it has an LED screen which requires backlighting.

It’s long battery life is also helped by not having an integrated GPS. This is a major downside if you care for location data. For example, if I go kayaking without my phone, the Fitbit Versa 2 will not be able to trace my route.

A man synchronizing his phone and apple watch.

Caveat: iPhone users should stick to the Apple Watch

Apple iPhone users should just get an Apple Watch. If you aren’t going to buy a Garmin Fenix 6, then get an Apple Watch or get nothing.

The reason for this is because some functionality isn’t unavailable if you are not using an Apple Watch.

For example, you can’t reply to texts on the Garmin Fenix 6 nor the Fitbit Versa 2 if you are paired to the iPhone. The Garmin Fenix 6 is a superior fitness and exercise watch, so this sacrifice makes sense.

Only the Apple Watch allows you to do that. It also has a good suite of fitness and exercise tools that couples with the Activity and Health apps on the smartphone. It also has an integrated GPS and is water resistant enough for swims.

Oh, did I also tell you that it has an LTE version? Meaning you could completely ditch your phone at home.

Conclusion

If you want the ultimate sports smartwatch, you need to be prepared for some sacrifices. No replying to texts, no phone calls, no voice assistant, no touchscreen and no speaker.

But in return, the Garmin Fenix 6 gives you a suite of excellent data analyzers, great battery life and training regimes you can sign up for.

Most folks will not need such a specialized watch, which is why you could consider the Fitbit Versa 2 if you want a smartwatch with some ability to help you in day-to-day tasks.

But yeah, Apple users, just stick to the Apple Watch if you want a general purpose watch with great fitness and exercise features.

=> Skip to the chase: Our Epic guide on the best smartwatches for different uses and devices
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