Confessions of a Step Addict

I was sitting in my apartment one Thursday evening, having a glass of wine and watching everyone’s favorite show: the Office.I had an exhausting work day, full of meetings, e-mails, and code to process. I was also mindlessly flicking through my phone, seeing where all of my friends were up to and what everyone’s plans were for the weekend. I also decided to check the health app, mostly out of curiosity. I felt I had run around all day, so I must have hit that 10,000 step mark. I scrolled down until I saw it.

3,000 steps.

3,000? How had I only hit 3,000? Thoughts raced through my brain. This had to be a mistake. Something had to be wrong with the app. Ok, it’s only 8 PM. Are there any errands I can run to get me to 10,000? Well, I could also go on a run, and it the weather is not too hot. But I’m just so exhausted.

Stop Sarah. Just stop.

In some ways, the rise of technologies such as Fitbit, the Garmin, and the Health app on our smartphones has made keeping track of our health trends so much easier.  With just a swipe, my phone can tell me how many stairs I climbed. I can track how many calories my run around the streets of DC burned based on the distance and the change in the elevation. And just last year, the app Lose It unveiled a program which could tell you the number of calories a meal has simply by taking a photo of it. I can also share all of this information with my social media friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen individuals (myself included!) post their step totals for the day. 20,000 steps! That must mean I was really exuding myself particularly hard today. Fitness trackers have gotten us obsessed with this idea of counting calories from exercise. Tracking gadgets like the Fitbit are a hit with the current population, with sales approaching $500 million in the 12 months  of 2014 ending in November — more than twice the same period in the previous year. The devices range from $50 to $250, depending on how many features they offer. The Fitbit as a device does quite a number of extraordinary things. It vibrates every time you reach 10,000 steps. It also allows you to compete with other Fitbit users, seeing if you took more steps than your friends. And the obsession with our fitness trackers can be a good thing, right? All of these features help us to focus on goal setting, send us inspirational messages, and keep track of our daily statistics. And while the “big brother” aspect of my phone and Fitbit on my active life was a little unsettling, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make for my physical health.

However, as a statistician, what I can say is that the focus on solely statistics and quantifying our health has gotten out of control.  When I saw I had only taken 3,000 steps, my thoughts went from exhaustion to shame. I was shameful that, even after only (hint at the word ONLY) 3,000 steps, I was so tired. I felt I needed to get my body moving, to get active. But I had to take a pause and realize that the 3,000 steps did not quantify the HIIT training I had done earlier in the day, nor the mental exhaustion my job had taken on me. I was so obsessed that the number of steps that I failed to recognize that, mentally, my body was done for the day. And if I did not hit the number of steps I was supposed to reach, that did not mean I had failed. Just like anything else, your health is the average of the choices you make. There is not a one drop rule when it comes to your physical and mental health.

And it is not just fitness trackers causing this bizarre behavior. I once downloaded an app that was supposed to remind you to drink more water. If you did, you would grow a virtual plant on your phone. I found myself drinking an entire pint of water at 11:45 PM just to achieve a gold star for the day. It was not at all because I was thirsty.

Now, this is not to argue against all of the research that has been done on the benefits of steps, heart rate, drinking water, or tracking calories. That discussion of the statistics themselves is for a separate blog post and involves scientific papers written by individuals more qualified than me. And there is evidence that people who take more steps, or reach a certain heart rate while exercising live longer or have a lower risk of heart disease or cancer.

While these actions might help some people become more motivated to get moving or become healthier, I found the way it transformed the notion of exercise to be disturbing. The Fitbit, along with other trackers, turns exercise into a chore. Exercise and moving your body should be something you choose to do because it makes your body feel good. It should be a way that your body can relax and reduce stress, rather than a source of stress. I have heard friends who march in place before bed just to make sure they get the recommended number of steps in their day. I’ve had friends who have purposefully parked as far away as possible so that they can get more steps in. While these are good ideas to maintain a healthier lifestyle, it does not mean we should sacrifice our mental health for our physical health.  It is particularly jarring when these fitness trackers might not even provide an accurate capture of the steps we take or the calories burned, nor does is capture the other healthy exercise we might do in a day, such as yoga, swimming, or cycling. I, for one, will admit my devastation when my cycling class was not counted into my steps. Did that not mean I had not exerted myself physically? Of course not! Our physical health transcends more than just steps.

If weight loss is your goal, it also might not be the best way to lose weight. Time and again, society has told us that, as long as you get on that bike or treadmill, you can still indulge in your favorite products and lose weight. Companies like Coca-Cola as well as fitness companies, have sold us on this premise. However, while I love the way taking 10,000 makes me feel, the obsession over 1,000 or 2,000 steps here and there does not necessarily correlate with losing weight or inches. Numerous studies following everyone from marathon trainers to post menopausal women found that increasing exercise only accounted for losing a couple of extra pounds. It only accounts for 10-30% of our energy expenditure, according to NIH researcher Alexxai Kravitz. Meanwhile, food intake accounts for 100% of our energy intake. Our obsession with counting each and every step might not make a difference in our health for the long term.

So, if you want to go on a walk because it makes your body feel good, then go on ahead. And, if you want to drink more water because it hydrates your skin and keeps your insides feeling good, then do it! But next time, try leaving the phone or fitness tracker at home.Take a deep breath, and enjoy exercise and movement for movement’s sake.

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