Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Don't belittle us Fitbitters

My husband had a medical appointment on the fourth floor of a building I’d never visited before, and the receptionist suggested I wait for him at the café one flight up. I followed her directions to the elevator, and when I got there, found myself thinking, “Most buildings have a staircase right near the elevator; I should find it and walk.” Not surprisingly, the staircase was easy to find, and once I was in the stairwell, I had another thought. “If there’s a fifth floor, there’s probably a sixth floor. Maybe a seventh and eighth floor. Let’s go see.”

So I started walking upstairs. It turned out the building was nine stories tall.

Not so long ago, this would have seemed like a rather frivolous use of time to me. But now I’m a Fitbit user, or Fitbitter, as I prefer to say, and no amount of physical activity is too frivolous to pursue.

Other Fitbitters understand exactly what I mean. By way of explanation for those not yet familiar with this new piece of gadgetry, a Fitbit is a small device that you can wear either as a pendant or as a bracelet. As you go about your day, it measures your steps, miles covered on foot, minutes of high aerobic activity, stairs climbed, and calories burned. And we Fitbitters find ourselves doing the nuttiest things to boost those simple numbers.

Some of this information – the metrics surrounding physical activity – is not new to me. As a long-time runner, I’m quite accustomed to measuring mileage. And as a daily “streak” runner, I’m accustomed to counting days of my streak as well.

But Fitbit is different because you don’t set it just for exercise. There’s no on/off function to denote when a particular activity begins and ends. It measures literally every step you take during every 24-hour period. If I’m up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom, it registers the 18 steps from bed to the bathroom and back. At work, if I walk from my desk to the photocopier, Fitbit credits me with the steps. If I walk upstairs to get something, forget what I’m there for, walk back downstairs, remember what I wanted, walk upstairs again, retrieve the item, and return downstairs, Fitbit counts every step and each staircase as well.

And this is what makes us Fitbit users a little crazy. Whereas once we might have tried to economize on, say, trips from aisle to aisle in the supermarket, now every time we double back for an overlooked item gives us a few more steps. No parking spaces near the door? No problem – the extra walking means extra steps! One Fitbit user complained that her newfound obsession had the unintended consequence of making her teenage sons even lazier: now they know they don’t need to get up and fetch their own glass of water, because she’ll do it just a score a few more steps.

Back in my 20s when I began my pursuit of fitness, much was made of the fact that the human body has to spend at least 20 minutes in the target zone of 70% above resting heart rate before any fat is burned. Therefore, to be productive, we insisted back then, aerobic activity has to go on for at least 20 minutes.

This vague grasp of exercise physiology resulted in my unwittingly internalizing the thought that by extension, activity that goes on for less than 20 minutes is useless. If I couldn’t fit in a run or even a walk that lasted at least 20 minutes, I wouldn’t bother to run or walk at all.

And while the exercise physiology hasn’t changed – it does still take 20 minutes in the target aerobic heart rate zone for the body to burn fat rather than muscle – the Fitbit makes even the shortest journey on foot count for something. Last week, I arrived at work ten minutes early, so I took a ten-minute walk, knowing it would earn me a few hundred more steps on the daily meter. Not long ago, I wouldn’t have considered a ten-minute walk worth changing my shoes for.

But the appeal is philosophical as well as practical. The message of the Fitbit is that every little bit counts. Maybe you can’t do a five-mile run, but you can still get a few hundred steps in by taking a ten-minute walk. That’s a message about exercise, sure, but I would argue it’s also a message about life.

Good deeds, courageous acts, and noble gestures can’t be measured by a digital timer on your wrist the way steps can. But the Fitbit reminds me daily that doing just a little bit, whether it’s steps or something more altruistic, is better than nothing. Do what you can, even if you can’t do all you might wish. A little bit can still help. Anything is more than nothing. And far beyond calories burned or fitness goals achieved, that’s a lesson well worth learning.

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