The Fitbit Effect

[If you are the sort of person for whom reading a discussion of fitness and weight is going to be detrimental to your state of mind, you may want to skip this post.]

I’ve been seeing the “ten thousand steps” thing around lately — the idea that your health can be improved by the relatively simple tactic of getting off your butt and walking more. I doubt there’s anything magic in 10K specifically, of course; it’s just a nice round number that’s easy to remember. The underlying point seems reasonably valid, though, in that we have a growing body of evidence to show that sitting for large stretches of time is not very good for you, and our species evolved on the assumption that we’d be spending a lot of time in motion.

One of the places where I saw the 10K thing added the statistic that a particularly sedentary person may walk only 1-3K steps per day. This made me wonder: how many steps do I walk on an average day? After all, I have a desk job, and my office is about twenty feet down the hall from my bedroom, so I was guessing the number wouldn’t be particularly high — but I didn’t really know. I’ve had a pedometer app on my phone for quite some time, but since I carry my phone in my purse, it doesn’t count the steps I take around the house when my purse is on the floor. Furthermore, at one point I decided to test its accuracy by mentally counting my steps on the way home from the post office, and checking it against my phone’s count. I didn’t expect the app to be terribly accurate . . . but it was off by such an appallingly large margin (roughly 50%, if memory serves) that I decided to go ahead and get a Fitbit. (Charge HR, for anybody who’s curious.)

The Fitbit isn’t perfectly accurate, either. If I’m carrying something in my hands or moving especially slowly (ergo not swinging my arm), it may not register the step. Conversely, it’s been known to count the movements I make while brushing my teeth as “steps.” I figure those two things come out in the wash — and besides, as one review I looked at pointed out, the real function of a Fitbit is not as a pedometer, but as a motivator.

And in that regard? It works brilliantly.

Turns out that I get roughly 3-5K steps in a normal day if I don’t leave the house. Most of these are attributable to the fact that the TV and the kitchen are downstairs, whereas the bedroom and my office are upstairs. (It’s not uncommon for me to climb 20 flights of stairs in a day, just moving between rooms.) If I leave the house for an errand, this increases to more like 5-7K. Not nearly as bad as I thought . . . but also nowhere near 10K. Unfortunately, the structure of my life means that increasing the amount I walk is easier said than done, unless I walk purely for its own sake. And for a while I did that — going to the gym just about every day, entirely so I could walk on the treadmill. I kept this up for long enough that it became apparent to me that, okay, the walking part is a habit I’m capable of maintaining; but if I have to go somewhere else to get it done, treating that as a separate part of my life from the stuff I normally do, then sooner or later I’m going to fall off the wagon.

Which is why I’m now the proud owner of a Lifespan desk treadmill. I already had a GeekDesk; my office is just barely large enough that with a little rearranging, I can fit the treadmill underneath. I pull it toward me when I want to stand up and walk, and push it back when I’d rather sit (at which point it becomes a foot rest, because I can’t get it entirely out of the way). It’s heavy, but manageable. And it turns out I can manage a nice, steady 2 mph pace even while typing; if I’m only watching something or reading, I can go 3+. So now my treadmill time can be integrated with the stuff I’m doing anyway, and if I log my time and distance on Fitbit, it will estimate the steps I took — it doesn’t count very accurately when my hands are on the keyboard.

Result: I manage 10K quite easily, and often do more than that if I bother to try. I can trundle along for half an hour, forty-five minutes, even an entire hour, without really noticing the time go by. Getting started is (unsurprisingly) the hardest part, but once that’s done, it’s no problem. I can even work on a story while walking, though at the moment I think I still prefer sitting for that; this is best for email and blog posts and other such things.

Does walking more make a difference? Well, mileage varies (heh) and so do metabolisms — but in my case, yes. My weight has been creeping slowly upward for a while now, and it went a bit faster when I was half-immobilized by ankle surgery last year; it had reached a point I wasn’t all that happy with. Walking more, combined with some very minor changes to my diet (on the level of “stop eating when I’m no longer hungry, rather than when I’m full” and “if two restaurant dishes both sound good, go with the healthier one”) have caused me to drop about 5 lbs. in the last two months or so. It’s a slow change, and I’m sure I could make it go faster if I were more focused on making the numbers go down. I’m deliberately not getting more focused on that. Because what I really want to do here is train myself into habits that I know I can keep, rather than institute short-term measures that I’ll abandon once I hit my target weight. In fact, I’m trying not to even have a target weight, other than “whatever ends up being my equilibrium when I’m walking at least 10K steps a day and trying not to stuff myself.” We’ll see what that ends up being.

In the meanwhile, I’m less sedentary than I was. And when the Bay Area stops pretending it’s Texas (it was 98 degrees Fahrenheit here yesterday, for crying out loud), and my office stops being melty death hot, I think it will be a very pleasant way to work.

Comments are closed.