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Building better fitness apps 
3rd-Dec-2015 02:13 pm
Lots of food for thought in this article. I don't entirely agree with it - I think the author doesn't recognize the extent to which competing against oneself and setting and exceeding goals can be an empowering experience for someone who's always struggled with fitness or exercise. Certainly, for me personally, being able to track my progress has really helped me see myself as someone who can actually succeed at exercise.

But it is true that when you grow up as the fat kid who was always picked last in gym class, your early experiences of quantitative fitness tracking are all about people telling you how much you suck. You weigh too much. You ran that mile too slowly. You can't do the right number of push-ups or sit-ups. I think there was a time in my life when tracking my fitness to the extent that I do now would probably have been counterproductive. And with fitness apps and trackers going mainstream, I worry that a lot of people getting started in fitness are going to be deluged with numbers that they just interpret as metrics of how terrible they are. I think there's a ton of room in the market for apps that encourage movement in other ways.

And as much as I've loved some of the health and fitness apps I've used, nearly all of them have assumptions built into them that drive me batty. Back when I used Health Month, for example, it used to annoy me that if I met my goal of running three times a week, it would suggest that next month I set a goal of running four times a week. I didn't want to run four times a week - I needed the time between runs to recover and to do other fitness things I wanted to do. But the app just had the assumption that more was better written into it. (And as the author of this article points out, that assumption is nearly universal in fitness apps.)

And as much as I love my Fitbit, the extent to which it prioritizes steps over other measures of activity can lead to some counter productive incentives. If you look at my Fitbit activity history, you'll notice that the day on which I'm most likely to fail to make 10,000 steps is Monday. Why? Because on Monday I go to the gym and do a fairly intense strength training workout with my personal trainer. During that strength training workout, I might only take 1,000 to 3,000 steps, as opposed to the 5,000 to 6,000 steps that I get on a typical walk or run. So, by Fitbit's most prominently tracked metric, Mondays look like off days for me. But if you look at other metrics, like total calories burned or amount of time that I got my heart rate elevated, Mondays are clear wins.

Now, my personal solution to this is simply to not get too hung up on the numbers. And Fitbit's prioritization of steps has a decidedly virtuous aspect as well: on most days, if I look at my tracker and realize I've been a bit sluggish, I'm much more likely to get up and go for a short walk than I am to pop over to the gym for an unplanned workout. Its net effect on my fitness is definitely positive. But I'm still waiting for the day when someone develops a fitness app/tracker that makes it easy for me to track the things that I consider important, and ignore the things that I don't consider important.

(Obligatory chemist's quibble: I don't know why the author of this piece describes the calorie as an "invented unit". A dietary calorie is what chemists would call a kilocalorie, and is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It's as "invented" as the meter is. We now know that what food calories actually do in your body is more complicated than what simple laboratory measurements would suggest, but that's not the unit's fault.)
4th-Dec-2015 07:54 am (UTC)
I like the notion of a story I only get to hear when I walk around more.

For a little while I did the food-logging thing on Fitbit, but I gave it up pretty fast. Figuring out what I ate and how much of it was too much effort -- and I knew that if I got myself into the gear where I was willing to put in that work, I would be in a very unhealthy headspace. So I stopped. The only thing I really track with my Fitbit these days is steps, and every so often I weigh myself to see what effect it's having.

(I confess myself curious as to how you get so many steps in. You're regularly up around or above me on the list . . . but I stuck a frickin' treadmill under my desk to make that total happen. Do you just take a lot of short walks, or what?)
4th-Dec-2015 05:22 pm (UTC)
Back when I was in grad school, I used to get audiobooks from the library and only listen to them when I was walking or riding a stationary bike. Provided that I liked the book, it was a pretty effective motivator.

I logged my food with the Fitbit for about half a day, just to see if they'd done anything to make it less mind-numbingly tedious than other apps I've used. And they hadn't.

On how I get the steps in: I set aside 30 to 60 minutes on most days for deliberate exercise. Right now, on any day that I'm not lifting weights, my deliberate exercise of choice is walking or running. That probably accounts for half my step total on most days.

The rest of it does boil down to taking lots of opportunities to take short walks. I'm somewhat fortunate that my office at work is tucked away in the far corner of a building on one end of a fairly large campus. So, just getting up to go to the bathroom/get a cup of coffee/stop by a colleague's office/walk to a meeting/get a document off the printer is likely to net me a few hundred steps each time I do it. Since I got the Fitbit, I sometimes deliberately stretch those step counts a bit: I might go to the upstairs break room for my cup of coffee, or take the scenic route back to my desk from a meeting, or just get up and walk around while I'm thinking something over.

I've seriously considered going the treadmill desk route, but I'm guessing they're probably loud enough that I wouldn't be able to use it at work without disturbing my office mate.

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