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Fitness trackers are a category of small, simple, wearable computers that expand on old-school pedometers. Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and Nike Fuelband are some well-known examples.

I tested a Nike Fuelband a couple of years ago, and was amused by how many steps it told me I’d taken in my sleep — depending on where you wear a tracker, it can make a bit too much (or not enough) of your movements. So how is it working, and what is it best (and not so good) at?

The New York Times offers this helpful explainer, complete with animations of activities and corresponding fitness tracker readings. Fun and helpful!

In spite of a few foibles, fitness trackers do a good job of showing how generally active you are during the day. If you are sedentary, and can use some accountability help to get into more active habits, fitness trackers are a terrific option.

Tips for Getting the Most Out Of Your Fitness Tracker

Set general goals for activity (or rest, for those that track sleep).

Don’t read too much into the exact numbers — focus on trending. Although they should all count steps well, some devices have had problems even with that. So one day to the next might be a bit arbitrary (although you’ll probably notice that immediately and be able to make a note of some kind about it), but over the course of weeks or months, you can see general activity trends.

Don’t rely on their calorie estimates to justify eating more. Almost no machines estimate calories very well (and that goes for cardio machines at the gym, or even the calorie estimates with chest straps — you’re better off just recording the average heart rate and tracking that as an expression of effort). A lot goes into actual calorie burn, and machine calculators almost never have all the important factors; don’t let the precision and definition of the “calorie” unit mislead you.

Don’t assume you need bells and whistles. Most of the advanced features on fitness trackers (like heart rate — and one even claims to measure blood sugar!) are … aspirational. The majority of what fitness trackers measure can be tracked with a pedometer. Fitness trackers often have a nicer interface for looking at activity history and saving the information, though.

Synergize the value of your fitness tracker by joining a community. The tracker makers often have some kind of Web interface that lets people interact with other users, and get comparisons (“You walked 12,850 steps today — you are in the top 10% of steps taken for the day.”) Sites like MapMyFitness offer some social opportunities and also better options for tracking activity you can’t label well with a simple fitness tracker.

Above all, have fun with it! Your fitness tracker should be a nudge that keeps you honest about moving more, not a taskmaster or a judge.

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