How to use your phone to lose weight and get fit

Here are the best apps, fitness trackers and other tech that can help you lose those extra pounds.

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Every January the treadmills and ellipticals are filled with eager gym-goers. Like clockwork, however, after a couple of weeks the gym returns to its normal state of isolation.

Resolutions are hard to keep and living a healthy lifestyle can be even harder. With the demands of work, raising a family and other obstacles we are met with, it's just too much of a hassle for most people to count calories, make healthy food choices and get to the gym a couple of times a week.

Luckily, tech makes it easier than ever to stick with your fitness goals. From goal-specific apps to wearable devices, here are some of the best tools to help you lose weigh and maintain a healthy lifestyle:

The best fitness apps

There are many (and I mean many) apps for iOS and Android that turn any phone or tablet into a personal trainer that can help you shed those extra pounds.

But first, let's talk food. There's an old saying: perfect abs aren't made in the gym, but are cooked up in the kitchen. Lifting weights and cardio are important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but eating right is just as, if not more, beneficial as working out.

Calorie-tracking apps

There are hundreds of food-tracking apps out there, but one of my favorites is MyFitnessPal, an app that simplifies the process of counting calories. MyFitnessPal is free and available on iOS, Android and even Windows Phone.

You'll start by telling the app about your weight, goal weight, gender, height, birth date and daily activity level. Then, the app will calculate how many calories you should eat each day.

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Now it's time to put in the work and log your meals. Food can be entered in manually, chosen from a user-generated catalog of more than five million items or even scanned with your smartphone's camera. You can even set reminders to ensure that you never miss logging a meal. The app can also connect with many popular fitness trackers from Fitbit, Garmin, Withings and others.

MyFitnessPal is just one of the many calorie-tracking applications available for mobile devices. I've been using the app for years and am accustomed to its interface, which is why I recommend it. One of my colleagues has been a loyal Lose It! user for years. The free version for both apps offer similar features, although Lose It does include a cool feature that can analyze a photo and automatically log the meal.

Run-tracking apps

If running is your go-to choice for exercise, it's essential to keep track of your workouts. They can keep you motivated, track your progress and even offer guidance.

Apps like Strava, RunKeeper, Nike+ Run Club, MapMyRun and Runtastic can be helpful for runners with years of experience and newcomers alike. All of these apps use the GPS in your phone to track your pace, distance, elapsed time and calories burned. They can also give you vocal updates about your pace and speed after you reach a certain distance.

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Here are some apps and their unique features:

  • RunKeeper allows you to set workout reminders.
  • Runtastic has a "Story Mode" feature to make runs more entertaining.
  • Nike+ Run Club hosts numerous challenges that puts you head-to-head (virtually) against other members of the app's growing community.

Strava is my personal favorite because it's not just a training app, but also a sort of social network for athletes. You can follow others, post pictures, and like and comment on workouts. The app also lets you compete with friends and strangers. Strava lets you import data from just about every other platform and device, including Garmin, Fitbit, Polar, TomTom, Nike and others.

Nike+ Run Club is available for free on Android and iOS. Strava, RunKeeper, Runtastic, and MapMyRun are available in free and paid versions; all four also offer monthly/yearly subscriptions for premium features.

Guided workouts for non-runners

You don't need to sign up for a gym to get in shape. There are dozens of apps that offer guided workouts and coaching. The best part? Many of these apps are free.

The Nike+ Training Club app is one of my favorites. It offers more than 100 free guided workout videos for beginners all the way up to seasoned vets. The app also offers four-week training programs at a variety of fitness levels for getting lean, more toned, or stronger. Nike Training Club is available for free on Android and iOS.

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Another option is Fitstar, a free and paid workout platform owned by Fitbit that offers guided video workouts and customized fitness plans. The app was recently revamped to include hundreds of new workout videos and integration with Fitbit trackers.

You can do the basics for free, but a premium Fitstar membership, which gives you access to unlimited personalized workouts, is priced at $8 a month or $40 a year.

Games that get you fit

What better way to stay in shape than to play a game? Apps like Zombies, Run! and Fitocracy offer a fun and entertaining way to stay active. The Zombies, Run! app is one of the most interesting fitness apps available today. Not only are you told a story while running, you are living it.

The app gives you "missions" to complete as your run, like picking up supplies (fake supplies, of course). Your mission takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, which means you will sometimes hear and be chased by zombies, and the game doesn't end once your workout does. The virtual supplies you picked up on your run can be used to help strengthen your base and community to survive the hordes of zombies.

Zombies, Run! is available for free on Android and iOS with additional in-app purchases.

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Another app you may want to check out is Fitocracy, an MMORPG-inspired fitness gaming app and social network. Each time you log a workout you earn points that will help you level up. The idea is similar to a game like World of Warcraft, but rather than controlling an orc or an elf, you are the character.

The company's database also explains how to do many different workouts. This includes simple exercise moves like a plank or pull-up to more complicated ones like a stiff-leg deadlift. These videos are especially helpful if you're a first-time gym-goer. You can use Fitocracy on the Web and with the free Android and iOS apps.

Fitness trackers

There are literally hundreds of wearables out there that help take the work out of tracking your fitness.

Activity trackers

Activity trackers are becoming smarter, more accurate, easier to use and (at least in some cases) more affordable. Almost all of these trackers can track things like steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned and sleep. A majority of them will even measure heart rate and display notifications from a smartphone.

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You can even set goals to encourage to you walk 10,000 steps per day (or more). A fitness tracker is appealing to someone that wants a little extra motivation to get up and move. I recommend a Fitbit (either the Charge 2, Flex 2 or Blaze) due to the social aspect. The app, which has the largest user-base, lets you compete with friends, family member and others in daily and weekly competitions.

  • The Fitbit Charge 2 will track steps, distance, calories burned, active minutes, floors climbed, heart-rate and sleep. It can also display incoming calls, text messages and calendar alerts from your iPhone or Android phone.
  • The Fitbit Flex 2 is the company's only swimproof tracker. The Flex 2 can measure steps, distance, calories burned, active minutes and sleep. There's no heart rate sensor, and it doesn't measure floors climbed. It also lacks a display and instead relies on five small LED lights to notify you to calls, text messages and calendar alerts.
  • The Fitbit Blaze is the company's sort-of smartwatch. It can display all notifications from an iPhone or Android phone, but it doesn't run any apps on the watch itself. As for its tracking features, the Blaze can measure steps, distance, calories burned, active minutes, floors climbed, heart rate and sleep.

You can test out the Fitbit app (and start competing with friends) by using your iPhone or Android device and Fitbit app to track your steps, but for sleep and other metrics, you will need to buy a tracker.

GPS running watches

For runners, I recommend a GPS watch, which lets you accurately measure pace and distance without requiring you to run with your phone. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The Garmin Forerunner 235 is my current favorite. It can show notifications from your phone, track daily activities like steps, distance and calories, and includes an optical heart-rate sensor, in addition to a GPS chip. It also includes a built-in interval feature to track your speed workouts.
  • The Garmin Forerunner 735XT has all of the features of the 235, but adds additional sport profiles like biking, hiking, swimming, paddle boarding and more. It even includes a triathlon mode that will measure transition time and change sports with a single button press.
  • The Garmin Vivoactive HR is good for people who want a watch that can track multiple sports and activities, but don't have plans to compete in a triathlon

Many of these running watches include smart features that can display notifications from your phone to your wrist. They aren't full-blown smartwatches, however, and can't run an app like Uber. If you are more interested in a smartwatch, check out the Apple Watch Series 2 or Apple Watch Nike Edition.

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Smart scales

You've heard of smartphones, smartwatches and maybe even smart socks, but did you know there are also smart scales? These scales, depending on the specific product, can calculate your body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and weight. You can then view your measurements over time in the company's mobile app.

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If you are already invested in an ecosystem, such as Fitbit, you should buy that company's scale, so that all your devices "talk" to each other. If not, the Fitbit Aria, Withings Body Cardio and Garmin Connect are the best choices.

  • The Fitbit Aria syncs wirelessly with Fitbit's Web site and mobile apps, and also integrates with the company's wearable devices like the Charge 2 and the Flex 2.
  • The Body Cardio is capable of measuring heart rate, indoor air quality, and is compatible with apps such as MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Endomondo, among others.
  • Garmin's Index Smart Scale is designed for athletes and data junkies. In addition to weight, body fat and BMI, it can measure muscle mass, body water percentage and bone mass.

Find like-minded people online

Message boards and social networks can help you stay motivated and connected with like-minded people, while also learning new ways to stay healthy. Some of my favorites include Reddit's /r/fitness and /r/running subreddits, along with sites like Runner's World and the forums over at Bodybuilding.com.

This article was originally posted in January 2014. It has been updated with new recommendations.