Going for a walk? Count your steps. Going for a coffee? There’s an app to capture caffeine intake. We can monitor our personal activity as never before. The clever wags are calling it “the biometric selfie”. Whatever you call the phenomenon it is clear, we have an itch to count and measure what we accomplish and how we live.
Several things are contributing to the booming practice of self-monitoring. Obviously technology has developed, allowing us to do so. We are “plugged in”. But let’s be honest, we are also fascinated with “us”. We are more interested in ourselves than we are with the environment, which we speak of objectively as if we were outside of it. We are more tuned in to us than just about anything. We love the ground we walk on, so counting, recording and analyzing the activity is the next obvious step.
Have you noticed that we are living in a time of wide spread existential fear, the result of things beyond our control? We are worried, strangely unsettled and morally confused. This seeping malaise affects all of us to a greater or lesser degree. Pop songs, novel plots, movie scenes and many other art forms are using the theme of supposed impending Armageddon. I’m not buying it. Yes! “ I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will.” But an apocalypse? Not very likely.
In fact the phenomenon of self-monitoring is part of a bigger picture. When I first started thinking about it, I was astounded by its size. Its sheer scale and velocity suggests a sociological dimension beyond ‘trendy’. Amidst all the “noise” we can still control, to a great extent, our own health.
Many of you reading this blog are in fitness programs and you know from experience that your level of fitness directly impacts the quality of your daily life. You also know that it takes time and money, time away from your family, and perhaps from your work. This does not mean you are selfish, as we are occasionally charged with being. Like they say on the plane about oxygen masks, put yours on first before helping someone else. You can’t help yourself or those around you if you are not healthy and fit. The environmental slogan, “Think globally, act locally”, applies to your personal ecology as well as the greater outdoors There isn’t a lot you can do to affect climate change. But what you eat and what you do to stay fit and healthy matters to those around you, and by extension, matters globally.
So counting steps matters. Using an electronic device to measure personal performance, in particular the pedometer to count steps, distance and perhaps calories can be constructive. Just keep a sense of proportion.
My experience, based on fourteen months of data, is a sufficient time and effort to allow me to make a few points. I’ll tell you about some of the positives and the negatives. If you are already using such a device it may help you to modify how you are using it. And I hope you will share your experience and help the rest of us refine our pedometer use. If you are not using one then perhaps this discussion may help you decide if this is for you.
First of all, do they actually work? Do they motivate, encourage, get you up and moving? Eliza Barclay writing for NPR Health News asks “Will A Pedometer Get You Off your Duff?” The short answer is Yes! Barclay reports, “A large review study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2007 found that people who used the pedometers had significant increases in physical activity and significant decreases in BMI and blood pressure. The JAMA study was conducted with the elderly, but the process of self-quantifying works in other fields as well. George Monbiot, in his excellent book Heat (That’s a plug) states that, “A study of households whose cookers were fitted with electricity meters found that they reduced the energy they used for cooking by an average of 15 per cent.” There is something about counting that engages us, makes us pay attention to detail, and helps us to make informed changes in routine and personal behaviour.
Based on my experience, I agree that these gadgets work to increase activity and even to motivate. But there are pitfalls inherent to the practice. The process can get between the user and the activity, spoiling the joy of being out on a summer evening’s walk. Also, I’ve been reading, over and over again, that people are overwhelmed by their own data, buried under columns of raw numbers that they are struggling to make sense of. So before you even start to collect the data, number of steps, distance or calories burned, you have to ask yourself what the numbers are going to mean? How will you make sense of them? Just what will they tell you about you?
One thing I learned is that I was counting more than just steps, I was measuring my neighbourhood, literally measuring my own personal geography. And not just in the physical world, but also in the spatial world inside my head. I found myself equating steps to distance and distance to time. One becomes curious about how far it is to the baker’s via one route compared to another. Do I have time to get there and back? Should I take the car? In small ways you add meaning to the process of getting around. These simple numbers will begin to inform you about your walk to work, how far it is from the parking lot to your place of work, the distance you cover in and around your work place, be it home or other. A friend of mine who works at the University of Alberta, parks in the riverside Hawrelak Park and walks up the hill. He says, “parking short, is living long”. Every other day he walks a little further into the ravine and uses the stairs. He saves on parking fees, which helps the motivation factor.
I soon learned that a daily average, established over a period of months, is more useful and informative than just counting daily steps. Obviously you need the daily count to calculate an average, but the point is, work those numbers. Standard deviation anyone?
Last year I lived in England for four months, one of those months in London. A very good London day was 12,268. I often went over 10,000, a widely accepted benchmark for a good day. But my average day in London was 8105; my average day in Edmonton is 5898. You may have already figured out the reason for the difference, in London I walked and took the tube, while at home here in Edmonton, I drive. The difference never fails to sober me.
Now the above averages may seem low, but they include hills and stairs, sick days and gym days. My average is a profile of my daily life over time. How do I bump-up my daily average? Well getting out of the car a little more often is an obvious strategy. You may have read that over 25% of our car trips are less than three kilometers from home. Choosing to walk slows down the pace of life, lets you meet and greet neighbours, smile at strangers.
But again, I must stress that just counting every step, day in and day out, will eventually bore you to tears. People who are aiming for a 10,000 step day are either on holidays or they have made walking their primary workout. Those of us who have a regular workout schedule, be it lifting, cross-fit, swimming, or spinning, are using a pedometer device to supplement or assess what we do on top of our routines. Like everything else the endeavour is relative. Your numbers, your context, your life. Set your own goals.
Another tactic is to use the idea of a threshold. For example, at what point when walking does your heart beat reach an optimum rate, relative to your age, weight and level of fitness?
I can’t review every single pedometer gadget or app on the market. There are just too many of them and there are new ones by the week. You will soon learn that it may all come down to a marketing slug fest between companies like Fitbit and Apple’s iPhone 5s. I encourage you to do your own research and pick a device that suits your life style and your budget.
I started out using a simple counter that I attached to my belt. It is called Momentum and it costs $30.00 at MEC. You have to calibrate it by counting your steps over a measured terrain, like a school running track. I counted my steps over 200 meters, twice, just to be sure. Then you use those numbers to determine your stride length, which you input into the device. It is quite accurate, a feature you may value. The downside is that at day’s end you have to physically record your steps and distance. I think the polite term for this method would be “old school”. The other downside is that if you are already recording other hobbies, such as weight lifted, wines tasted, birds seen, golf scores (the list is endless) counting one more thing may drive you barking mad.
I switched to an app on my iPhone written by a local Edmonton iOS developer, a friend actually, who was dissatisfied with the existing apps, and who was “just playing around”. One thing I really like about it, is that it has a moveable average. Many apps do, but not all do, so look for this feature. At the end of every week this new app, which I am test walking, gives me my weekly average as a red line, with number, cutting across the daily bar graphs. As you accumulate daily data this extends across the weeks and months. You can isolate a month or a week and compare, for example, June to July, or June ’13, to June ’14. Another advantage of this new pedometer is that your data is NOT tracked outside of the app. (By the way, it will be free, as in no cost, and ad-free. (Gee! he was just playing around.) Many smart pedometer apps, including Fitbit, track and capture your data, and require you to create a user account with them to use their app. Maybe that’s why they are also called “trackers”. Exactly what they want that data for, I can only guess. The point is that it’s your data. This new app that I am testing will hopefully soon be available on the app store. As of this writing it’s going through the Apple review process. We didn’t want to prematurely name the app just in case it doesn’t make it through review. As soon as it is available in the app store, which will be any day now, we’ll let you know.
Most cell phone ped apps are not dead accurate, but they don’t have to be; what you are looking for are comparative numbers, averages and data to manipulate. You are already carrying around a cell phone, which may have the capacity to use one of the many pedometer apps, so why buy another device, with yet another charging cable and AC adaptor?
If you change pedometers, make sure to save your data collected by the previous device.
In closing, please let us know if you are using a pedometer? Which one? Do you like it? How do you bring meaning to the raw numbers?
We are ordering our days in the face of (dispersed) chaos. Walk on.