(Editor's note: This post has been updated to include a comment from Fitbit regarding Charge 2's Relax feature. Changes are marked in bold.)
"Stress reduction" features probably don't top your list of must-have functionality in a wearable, but if you're looking to break up busy days with quick, deep-breathing exercises, you now have two excellent choices: Apple's new Breathe app in watchOS 3 and Fitbit's Relax mode, which is currently only available on the new Charge 2 tracker.
Apple Watch Breathe app better for customizing
Apple's Breathe app is the more customizable option of the two new relaxation tools. Using the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, you can set the frequency of deep breathing reminders — every hour, 3 hours, 5 hours, 7 hours, or no reminders at all.
Other options let you determine how many breaths you want to take per minute during a guided session (between four and 10); if the app should always default to the previous Breathe session's length when you launch a new session; if the app should use "minimal," "prominent," or no haptic vibrations at all (more on that coming up); and if you want to receive a weekly summary of your Breathe sessions every Monday.
To manually initiate a Breathe session, you launch the app on your Apple Watch. Some Watch faces let you add the Breathe app as a "complication," or a quick-access icon.
During breathing sessions, you follow a light blue, flower-shaped visualization. As it expands, you inhale; as it shrinks, you exhale. If you prefer, you can close your eyes and follow haptic feedback guidance for inhaling and exhaling. But looking at the flower can be soothing.
When a session ends, Breathe tells you how many minutes you "breathed" so far that day and provides heart-rate readers for the end of the session. That last piece of info is helpful if you're trying to reduce your heart rate. You can also quickly launch another Breathe session.
Charge 2's Relax offers longer breathing sessions
Fitbit's Relax mode doesn't remind you to breathe. To start "Relaxing," you push Charge 2's side button, and then toggle through menus until you reach Relax. You can then choose between 2- or 5-minute sessions by tapping the screen or the sides of the display. When you're ready to start, you just press and hold the side button.
Charge 2's breathing guidance is based on your heart-rate variability. From Fitbit:
"While you're sitting still, your tracker measures the beat-to-beat changes in your heart rate, known as heart rate variability (HRV). As you inhale, your heart rate increases, and as you exhale, your heart rate decreases. Your tracker uses these changes in heart rate to recommend a personalized breathing pattern during each guided breathing session."
I’m no scientist, but it makes sense that a tracker with a heart-rate sensor would guide my breathing instead of me having to tell a wearable how often I'd like to breathe per minute, as is the case with the Apple Watch.
However, Apple's Breathe app starts guided breathing sessions right away. It takes a little while for Charge 2 to collect a heart-rate measurement and start the deep breathing session. That's because Charge 2 "calibrates itself to your current rate of breathing, which can help make the session more beneficial," a Fitbit spokesperson said. "If it's guiding you to breathe too slowly, for example, you'll find yourself short of breath."
Charge 2 also uses guided imagery. A circle expands to tell you when to inhale and contracts to indicate when it's time to exhale.
Breathing and relaxation apps and alternatives
You don't need a wearable to access guided breathing exercises. Free apps such as Breathing Zone for iOS, Android and Macs, and Paced Breathing (Android), for example, may do the trick. And dedicated devices such as the "mindfulness trainer" Spire ($130) are also designed to help you destress.
Breathe and Relax may not push you over the edge when it comes to buying an Apple Watch or Fitbit Charge 2, but it's good to see device makers release easy-to-use tools that could help make their customers' days a little less stressful.