Fitness trackers still hot, but smartwatches catching on

Smartwatches are gaining in popularity with people who want more-advanced tracking for exercise, according to research firm NPD Group.

Exercise addicts are increasingly looking at both fitness trackers and smartwatches.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitness trackers remain the go-to device for people who want to monitor their health and activities, but smartwatches are starting to up their game.

Among wearable owners who exercise, activity trackers are still more popular than smartwatches across most fitness-related categories, NPD Group said Monday. Their users are also more active, with 79 percent of activity tracker owners exercising regularly, compared with 66 percent of smartwatch owners.

However, the gap between the two types of wearables is beginning to narrow. Runners have become the first group to show a higher use of smartwatches over activity trackers. According to NPD, 22 percent of smartwatch owners run on a regular basis, versus 21 percent of activity tracker users.

Overall, wearable devices are growing in popularity as more consumers see value in them. Fitness trackers from companies such as Fitbit and Garmin have been outselling smartwatches. But smartwatches are starting to gain traction without cutting into the sales of fitness bands, indicating there's room for both types of devices.

Fitness trackers have generally focused on a few key activities and factors, such as heart rate, calories burned and steps taken. Some trackers have started to add more functions. But many smartwatches already offer more advanced health-related functions, such as running, yoga and pilates, and have gained ground among fitness-minded consumers.

Smartwatches are also starting to transition from early adopter gadgets to more mainstream devices, NPD said, and are taking fitness-related activities along with them. Asked how important health and fitness were to them, 17 percent of smartwatch users called it a passion, compared with 13 percent of owners of activity trackers.

Regardless, demand for fitness trackers remains strong. Among people who exercise several times a week, 47 percent said they plan to buy an activity tracker soon.

"Activity tracker ownership continues to grow rapidly with more than double the smartwatch base," Eddie Hold, president of NPD's connected intelligence service, said in a statement. "While we are seeing that some forms of exercise are more likely to be impacted by the smartwatch, there are still a number of consumers that are planning to purchase activity trackers to monitor their fitness."

But activity trackers cannot stand still if they want to remain competitive.

"Activity tracker companies must continue to broaden their portfolios to satisfy more exercise-focused consumers -- combining specialist functions with generalist capabilities," Hold said.

NPD based its data on surveys conducted in April 2016 that reached 5,400 U.S. consumers.

This article also appears in Spanish. Read: Monitores de 'fitness' siguen en auge, pero los 'smartwatches' no se quedan atrás.