A Watch to Help You Stick To Your Fitness Goals
In 2019, Polar, a Finnish fitness technology company, released a new fitness watch with a self-care focus. In the smartwatch field, it is difficult to compete with the Apple Watch and Garmin products, but Polar’s new product, the Polar Ignite, attempts to stand out with its sleep and recovery tracking and personalized fitness coaching recommendations. At its core, the Polar is a GPS enabled training watch with familiar features: a heart rate monitor; a daily activity tracker/step counter; route, distance, and speed tracking for runs and rides; a waterproof interface and stroke counter for swimming laps; a calorie counter that estimates how many have been burned; the ability to receive phone notifications on the watch face; and a companion smartphone app for reviewing data. In addition to these features, the Ignite tracks sleep and the wearer’s heart rate while sleeping, combining the sleep score (time and movement-based) and ANS (autonomic nervous system) scores to give a more comprehensive Nightly Recharge Score.
Aesthetics and Interface
Our testers liked the look of the Ignite, preferring its circular shape to the square form of the Apple Watch. It is sleek with a silver frame around the touchscreen face and it comes with a silicone band that can be changed based on style preference. Polar offers different colored silicone bands and a leather band on its website that can be purchased separately. The touch screen worked well. In other reviews, online testers have complained that the bottom of the screen (where the logo sits) is not sensitive, but in our testing we never found this to be an issue. What we did have an issue with how the screen turned on. It was supposed to light up when the wearer turns their wrist upwards, making a motion as if to look at a watch. In practice, it almost never did this for us on our first try. We had to swing our wrists around a few times or hit the single button on the side to make the screen light up. The problem with this method is that instead of just lighting up the face, hitting this button switches screens to the watch’s training and settings menu. This made the simple act of checking the time frustrating. Besides this functional issue, we found navigating between screens and using the watch to be simple and intuitive.
Features and Functions
The Ignite had several different screens that could be scrolled through horizontally by a finger swipe to the side. These included:
Standard Time Display + Date
Time Display + Daily Activity Level
Time Display + Heart Rate
Time Display + Last Training session
Time Display + Nightly Recharge Score
Time Display + Daily Training Recommendation
When the user hit the single side button, the Ignite switched to a different screen with options that scrolled through vertically via finger swipes up or down. These options were:
This is where a user records their training activities. The selection of activities that can be recorded are:
- Treadmill run
- Indoor cycling
- Group exercise
- Strength training
- Other indoor
- Other outdoor
This is a breathing exercise that can be customized for different lengths of time from 2 to 20 minutes, and with inhale and exhale intervals from 3 to 5 seconds.
- Countdown timer
Daily Life and Use Considerations
Our relationship with the Ignite evolved as we wore the watch continuously for a month. We found that we gravitated to certain features and changed some of our behavior based on the watch’s data and recommendations. To provide a sense of what daily life wearing the Polar Ignite was like, we are excerpting sections from our lead reviewer’s test notebook:
Day 0: I have never used a data tracker to count steps or activity level. I am an athlete, so I have used apps like Strava to track running and biking, and like most Strava users, I have gone through phases of addiction to recording rides for distance, time, elevation gain, and personal records. But I have never used a device to track my movements and activity 24 hours at a time. During a season of mountain bike racing, I did use a heart-rate monitor, but I didn’t really know how to best put that data to use to benefit me.
What intrigues me about the Polar Ignite is that it reportedly takes some of that guesswork out of it, and offers recommendations for training based on actual physical responses. In particular, I am excited about the Ignite’s sleep tracking function and Nightly Recharge score. I am a bad sleeper. I’ll have periods where I sleep alright, but most often I am restless, take forever to fall asleep, and generally sleep lightly and not long enough. I have ingested numerous bottles of NyQuil and melatonin, eliminated screens from my sleep routine, and took prescription sleeping pills during one particularly bad period. Sleep is my biggest struggle in terms of health and well-being. Can a watch and its resultant data possibly help with this? I can’t wait to find out.
Day 1: When I first set up the Ignite I had to enter personal data such as my sex, weight, height, and birthday. Then it prompted me to determine my activity level goal. I could pick level 1 (light), level 2, (moderate) and level 3 (heavy). I decided on level 2. I have a job that requires a lot of sitting, but I am very active in my free time. I didn’t want it to be too easy to reach the activity level goal.
I put the watch on in the evening and tried the Serene breathing exercise, which is like a mini-meditation or a time-out for a worried mind. The animation changes colors based on your breathing levels and ranked breathing. Nothing like a little self-competition to make something interesting!
Day 2: Sleep score from the night before: 58, Moderate. I didn’t get a Nightly Recharge Score because Polar uses averages from previous nights to determine what is normal. The watch needed three nights of data before it could provide a score.
Activity level for the day: 64%
Day 3: Sleep Score: 42, Poor. Activity level: 63%
Day 4: After a restless, terrible night, I was excited to see my first Nightly Recharge Score. I rolled over in the morning and hit the button on my watch, expecting it to ask me if I was already awake like it had the past 2 mornings. It didn’t. I swiped to the sleep score screen and it just displayed the usual note that in order to get a Nightly Recharge Score I had to wear the watch for three nights. What the heck? I synced with my phone to see if the app would display more data. Nope. I clicked around the Polar website to see what could have gone wrong. It turned there was less than four hours of sleep so the watch didn’t register it as sleep, and didn’t track the data. My sleep tracker didn’t even think I slept at all. Confirmation that I am a terrible sleeper. Activity level: 53%
Day 5: Finally, I got my Nightly Recharge Score: Poor. Surprisingly, my Sleep Score was good: 64, “Much Above Usual.” I was asleep for 8 hours and 40 minutes, with an actual sleep time of 7 hours and 8 minutes. So why was my Nightly Recharge Poor? My ANS charge read “-9.5, Much Below Usual.” My heart rate was higher than normal, with an average of 61 and my beat-to-beat intervals were lower, at 971 milliseconds, when my average was around 1045. The Nightly Recharge section on the phone app read “Respect your body’s need to recover and keep your training light. Resting is also ok.”
I had a day of yoga and mountain biking planned, and after a week of work, it was going to be my first real exercise in a few days. This presented me with a conundrum: do I change my plans because my watch told me so? Even the watch admitted that I slept better than I had all week. Although my recovery score was low, I felt good and eager to get outside. But maybe that wasn’t the best for me? Maybe I did need more physical rest. Or was this just an excuse for being lazy? Perhaps what was best for me was to push through some fatigue and get a good workout in. How do I know what was best for me? Ostensibly the data that this technology was generating should have aided me in making healthy, informed decisions, but when the technology was recommending something that goes against how I physically feel, suddenly everything felt uncertain.
I saw three options for how to proceed with training and exercise:
- Be attuned to my body and how I physically feel, and choose my exercise and activities accordingly. (This leaves me vulnerable to laziness and excuses and risks not maximize my training potential. )
- Set a training plan and stick to it no matter what. (This leaves me vulnerable to overtraining, exhaustion, and injury.)
- Use the data available to me from the Polar Ignite and make my exercise and training choices based on up-to-date personal data. (This steals my autonomy of decision-making and puts me in the clutches of a possibly overbearing and glitchy technology. And it leaves me with the question: does the technology really know what is best for me? Is it really looking out for my best interests? Is that even possible?)
I can tell you that I did not wrestle with these types of dilemmas in regards to my exercise routine before wearing a data tracker 24 hours a day.
I rode anyway. The watch recorded a 9.7-mile mountain bike ride over 1 hour and 10 minutes. My heart rate was 140 beats-per-minute on average, with a 174 BPM max.
This is the first day since I started wearing the Ignite that I reached my daily activity goal: Activity level 117%.
Day 10: 1 hour and 12-minute mountain bike ride, 12.4 miles, 157 beats-per-minute average heart rate, with a max of 181 BPM.
Day 15: No sleep data because I wore the watch too loosely overnight. Darn. For training, I did 31 minutes of yoga with an average heart rate of 86 BPM and a max of 116 BPM. The watch estimated I burned 74 calories.
Day 16: No sleep data because the watch died. Wait, what? I charged it in the late afternoon! It should have had more than enough charge to make it through the night. I spent time on Polar’s support site to try and diagnose the problem. It said that the watch should last five days between charges. At most, mine lasted three, now it didn’t even last 12 hours. It did say that the battery life can be improved if continuous heart rate monitoring was set to night time only. I changed the setting to see if I could get my watch back to useful functioning.
Day 17: The change in settings worked, and my Polar Ignite seemed to hold a charge well now that it was longer tracking my heart rate at all times. Nightly Recovery Charge: Poor.
Day 30: Nightly Recharge: Compromised. Sleep Score: 60. Tip for the Day: “It’s Ok to exercise today. Choose what to do based on how you feel.”
Day 33: Nightly Recharge: Very Poor. Sleep Score: 57. Tips for the Day: “Take it easy today by resting or training lightly. You’ve slept longer than usual, but your sleep has a lot of interruptions. It’s quite normal for interruptions to increase when sleeping longer, as sleep gets patchier when the need for sleep has been fulfilled.”
Day 35: Nightly Recharge Score: Ok. Sleep Charge: 58. Tip for the Day: “Today is a good day for training! Check out FitSpark for detailed training guidance.”
It has now been more than a month of wearing the Polar Ignite. I have tracked bike rides, runs, and yoga sessions, but have not been very interested in the FitSpark training guidance. I have been very interested in sleep tracking, and surprisingly, the daily activity tracking. It was illuminating to see what my daily tabulation of movement was, whether it was a training day or a mostly sedentary workday.
Ultimately, I did feel that wearing the Ignite has helped improve my health and wellbeing. I already knew I struggled with sleep, and this helped me pay attention to it more, set regular bedtimes, and actively work to make my sleep better. Since my steps wee being counted all the time, I also spent more time thinking about the small movements I made during a day and got up and walked around more than I would on a normal workday. Another user with more tangible training or fitness goals could certainly use this watch to improve their exercise habits.
The Bottom Line
If you are in search of a device that can help you stick to fitness goals, train harder and smarter, and improve overall wellbeing, we think that the Polar Ignite can help. It is a tool that can shed light on problem areas, such as lack of restful sleep, too much time sitting still, or even too much stress, and it can gently lead the wearer to make better health decisions. An Apple Watch offers many of the same features and more compatibility with Smartphones, but the Polar Ignite’s sleep tracking and lower cost make it an excellent buy for the price point.
A smart device like this ends up serving a different purpose for each user, and its usefulness depends largely on how it is utilized by each person. Our lead tester found the sleep tracking valuable and addictive, and wore the watch primarily for this data. She also liked the Serene breathing exercise, though it is easy to see how this feature could be ignored entirely.
Arguably one of the Ignite’s best features is the personalized training suggestions, but our tester found she rarely used that feature because she already has her own workout routine and didn’t want the gym-specific suggestions. Other users who need extra motivation or want a varied workout routine spelled out for them could really benefit from this feature. It is expensive to purchase customized workout routines from online coaches. Here, these routines come included with a watch that also reminds you to work out and tells you when to rest.
Ultimately, whether your goals are to move more, train harder for a specific objective, to be more mindful, or to sleep better, the Polar Ignite can be a daily companion to help you stick to these resolutions.