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Wearable Tech

Are you moving enough every day? Here's how to find out

Fitness trackers market themselves as health tools; here's how to put that data to work.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Worried you aren't getting enough exercise this summer? Don't just sit there: Clip on a fitness tracker and get going.

Fitness trackers are wearable devices that deliver a stream of data about your workouts, like the number of steps you've walked or the total calories you've burned, and nearly all of them can sync over Bluetooth with your smartphone, letting you review these vitals while on the go. But once you have all that data, what's the next step?

Many to choose from

You have a lot of options for fitness trackers, but I'll focus on two of the most popular brands: Fitbit and Jawbone. Fitbit, which introduced its first tracker in 2008, sells its One ($100 in the US, £80 in the UK and AU$130 in Australia) and Zip ($60, £50, AU$80) devices that clip on a belt, and its newer Charge HR ($150, £120, AU$230), Alta ($130, £100, AU$200) and Blaze ($200, £160, AU$330) trackers that you wear on your wrist.

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Jawbone launched its Up line in 2011. It ranges from the Up Move ($50, £50, roughly AU$70) and UP2 ($100, £90, roughly AU$130) to the Up4 ($200, roughly £150 and AU$265), which adds NFC-based mobile payment features. The devices from both companies track your movement through motion sensors, and sync with mobile apps available on iOS, Android and Windows phones.

What these trackers show

Calories are everywhere. They're listed in the nutrition facts on the food we eat, are popping up on fast food and chain restaurant menus nationwide and yes, are shown on your fitness tracker.

A calorie is a unit of heat. When you see a calorie count listed on your food, it's telling you how much energy that food will produce in your body. Generally speaking, if you eat more calories than your body can burn, your body stores the extra food as fat. If you burn more calories than you eat, you'll generally lose weight. Simple, right?

What's more difficult is figuring out where you're falling in that spectrum. And that's exactly where a fitness tracker can help. After you enter your age, gender, weight and height into its mobile app, you can use it and the tracker's display to see how many calories you're burning. Then, after you add the number of calories you're eating, you can start comparing the two numbers.

For example, say you're heading to a theme park this summer. Theme park food is notorious for being unhealthy, but you'll also be walking all day. By counting and recording the calories you're eating, your tracker can show if you're walking enough to burn off that fatty food or if you need to take another trek across the park.

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The Jawbone's Up app can help track calories and workouts.

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If you need a benchmark for how much to walk, that is where the step count data comes in. Use your first week with your activity tracker to get an idea of your average daily step count. If you find you need to get more steps in, start with small goals such as increasing your average by 500 more steps in the following week, gradually fitting in more activity until you hit the number you are looking for.

And if you can't find that extra few minutes for a walk, add more steps to your day by walking around the supermarket, taking a stroll while waiting for a train or marching in front of the TV.

Organize your data with apps

Most fitness tracker apps let you glance at your stats for that day while on the go and compare them to your tracked activity over the past several weeks. All of that helps you set benchmarks and see your progress. And you aren't limited to just the apps provided by your device's company. Both Fitbit and Jawbone are among several device makers that allow their data to integrate with other web services.

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Data from Fitbit, whose mobile app is seen here, can be integrated with other services.

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Food tracking apps like the free LoseIt app and the subscription-based Weight Watchers app can all sync directly with your activity tracking data. They also let you plan and monitor your eating and use the activity data to show if you have earned a calorie deficit (allowing for maybe a little more dessert).

You also can make use of IFTTT (an abbreviation for "If This Then That"), a free web service that lets you connect several online accounts together. These connections are called "recipes," and you can use them to trigger when certain conditions take place.

The service has several pre-made recipes or you can build your own. For instance, I use IFTTT to sync my activity data into a Google spreadsheet by connecting my Fitbit and Google accounts. I then set up a recipe that makes a note in a spreadsheet and sends a notification to my phone every time I hit my daily calorie burn (that I treat like earning an achievement on Xbox Live, but in real life). Similar recipes also can make use of Evernote if you prefer to have your data recorded there.

Turn things on by moving

IFTTT also links into several smart home technologies, and a few recipes will let you literally control your appliances just by moving around the house. The connected Philips Hue light bulbs ($200 for the starter kit) can automatically turn on the lights when Fitbit or Jawbone know you get up from bed or flash your lights in celebration when you hit daily goals.

The WeMo automation can start up a Mr. Coffee ($150, roughly £115 and AU$200) to brew a cup of joe when Fitbit knows you have woken up.

With the Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner ($400, roughly £300 and AU$530), you can take advantage of an immediate cooldown by having the appliance turn on once you hit your calorie goal.

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The Fitbit Charge HR is one of several trackers that can let you know if you need to get moving.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Make it a game

A fitness tracker ultimately helps you take the first step toward a more active life with actionable data. Sure, monitoring all of that data can be tedious at first, but it will become second nature quickly. Like with any workout, think of it as a challenge. Or better yet it, think of it as literal gamification of your lifestyle: If you want to become more active, always shoot to best your own step and calorie burning record using all of this data.

Mike Sorrentino (@mikejsorrentino) is an Associate Editor at CNET. He obsesses over cell phones, Net neutrality and the ongoings of giant tech companies. He currently aims to walk 10,000 steps per day, and burn 2,500 calories per day.