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Your Pocket Personal Trainer

Want to lose weight and get fit? Check out these free (or cheap) smartphone apps.

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Love it or hate it, we know by now how important exercise is. It’s the closest thing to magic, offering benefits ranging from improved mood to extended lifespan. Working out is literally the only way to stave off diabetes and depression at the same time with no side effects.

The problem for many of us is motivation. We feel better after we get our sweat on — it’s just the getting started that can be a problem. Even if you have a workout routine, the boredom factor can spiral into a list of excuses: I don’t have time to work out, I don’t have the money to join a gym, I don’t want to ruin my hair, I’ll start next month. Sound familiar?

Enter fitness apps as a way to offer a wealth of inspiration and guidance you can draw from at your own pace and intensity level without shelling out big bucks for a personal trainer. They do three main things: log food consumption, track activity levels and monitor your progress. As an added convenience, they use your smartphone’s motion sensors to document your steps and allow your camera to double as a bar code scanner to log calories. Here are some of our favorites:

Nike Training Club
This free app is loaded with videos of telegenic trainers who guide you through a range of fun workouts, from strength training and yoga to simple routines for better runs. It even includes workouts based on the real training regimens of celebrity athletes like Isiah Thomas and women's soccer star Sydney Leroux Dwyer. Whether you only have 20 minutes or you’re training for a half marathon, you can select videos — and your intensity level — based on your personal fitness goals.

Lose It!
Designed to help you achieve sustainable, healthy weight loss, this free app allows you to set your target weight and input your wellness and fitness goals to create a personalized plan. Its food database provides nutrition information to help you make better eating decisions. What sets this app apart is its “Snap It” feature, which tracks your food intake and portion sizes based on photos you take of your plate. Studies have shown that taking pictures of your meals can help you get a better grasp on portions and more closely monitor your eating patterns, both of which can aid weight loss.

SparkPeople isn’t just an app — it’s a diet, weight loss and wellness site that helps you track your weight, workouts and food intake. Its developers claim the average user loses nine pounds after following the program for six weeks, a reasonable goal that can increase your chances of keeping the weight off. The diet advice and exercises are pretty basic, but it also doesn’t push users to try some weird, new, untested trend (Kale colonics? No thanks). It’s not necessarily the app to turn to if you’re a former athlete looking to get back into shape, but it’s a great place for beginners to learn the basics of weight loss.

Fooducate Nutrition Tracker
It’s shockingly easy to undo an hour’s worth of cardio. That’s where is this app comes in. Fooducate allows you to quickly scan UPC codes to learn how many calories are in your food and how much fat you’re consuming. It also includes other helpful health information, like sodium levels and whether vitamins are naturally sourced or derived from chemicals. The best part — Fooducate suggests healthier alternatives, which is handy when you go food shopping.

An originator in the fitness app game, MyFitnessPal is not only one of the most popular, it’s simple and easy to use. It helps keep track of what you eat and how much you exercise and even connects to FitBit, Runtastic, Pact and the Apple Watch. The app’s distinguishing factor is how it enables and encourages you to stay in touch with a community of like-minded friends. There’s plenty of evidence showing how helpful it is to have lots of support when you’re trying to stick to a workout plan. If you don’t have a real-life buddy to work out with, MyFitnessPal could be the next best thing.