By Scott Baughman

Have you started to notice something a little different at the gym or even on your favorite walking trail? People are there trying to keep up their physical fitness, sure, but they’ve got new accessories.

And I’m not just talking about their new yoga pants or workout sweats – they’ve got some new kind of devices strapped to their head, shoulder, wrist or arm! What’s going on?

They’re called “fitness trackers” and they’re the latest trend in the burgeoning field of “wearables” in the tech world. This whole category is pretty much led by the most recognizable brand in the wearables world, Fitbit. But now with the advent of smartwatches like the Apple Watch or the Pebble, almost everyone has some kind of device to keep track of their health and physical fitness goals. Even the most recent update for the iPhone’s operating system – iOS – included native support for the “Health” app from Apple that can keep track of your pulse, heart rate and other body data in an effort to make you more fit by leveraging big data.

But how exactly do these things work?

The Fitnit is a small band, that looks a lot like a bracelet or watch, that you wear usually on your wrist that has motion trackers and transmitters embedded in it. There’s no “face” like on a watch so you can’t view anything on the device, but you can “pair” it – causing it to sync up with your computer or a smartphone or tablet. After the pairing is complete you can view statistics on the app associated with the Fitbit at the end of each day to track things like how many steps you took, your heart rate, how many calories you burned if you did exercise and how long you had a movement rate consistent with exercise. In other words, the app will help you keep track of whether you’re getting enough exercise – or even just movement – in each day. With some handy-dandy calculations, it can even help you determine if the calories you burned helped offset that jelly donut you were sneaking for breakfast.

ProTip: It probably didn’t, heh heh.

Fitbit is the most recognizable name out there but it is FAR from the only fitness tracker. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the popular brands. Note, some of these have a much higher price tag.

  • Jawbone UP2: The Jawbone UP2 is very accurate and can even help you track your sleep patterns instead of just your exercise/calories burned. It doesn’t have as many sensors as some other fitness bands, but that makes it a little less bulky and easy to wear. It goes for about $99.
  • -Garmin Vivosmart HR: Garmin used to be known for GPS units as their main seller, but as GPS becomes standard in cars and on smartphones, the fine folks at Garmin need to branch out and the Vivosmart is one way they’re doing it. This one has a screen built in for custom readouts and tracks sleep, heart rate, beats per minute and steps. It’s around $149.
  • Fitbit Charge HR: The flagship of the category-defining company, the Fitbit Charge HR uses continuous heart rate monitoring to give you more accurate feedback on your activity and overall health than many of its rivals. And as the more deluxe version it includes and OLED screen that can show your daily stats. And, if you pair it with your smartphone it can even serve as caller ID while you’re walking or working out. The app is pretty easy to understand as well. It’s about $149.

Now, some readers might wonder why you need to track all this and upload your biometrics into the cloud to add to “Big Data” in our always on and totally connected world. It’s true, you could just grab a notebook and start making entries and track it all yourself in an analog way. But if you really want to dig deep into your patterns and habits, the number-crunching power offered by these fitness trackers can really lead to a healthy obsession.