What I learned from my Fitbit

For two and half months I have been equipped with a Fitbit (the Fitbit One, to be specific, which is is a clip-on device). It started with a series of step competitions with people from work. Previously, I had not carried or worn any kind of fitness tracker. I guess I was and still am holding out for the 2nd iteration of the Apple Watch, but this was a chance to experiment and learn ahead of the mystical Apple device appearing on the market.

The “One” keeps track of a number of metrics, including steps taken, number of flights of stairs climbed, “active minutes”, sleep duration & quality, etc. I wore the tracker 24 hours a day, even if that meant wearing a wrist sleeve at night that the tracker slips into.

The suggested/default goal is to take 10,000 steps per day, which I initially didn’t have a good wristsense for. Is this a lot – or not? Some interesting thoughts on that goal can be found in this article, so I’m not going to repeat it here.

These last few months have been enlightening. Here’s what I’ve taken away from this experience:

  • The “datafication” of the body is natural for me – a numbers guy. It certainly raises awareness and surfaces new information and helps validate/invalidate assumptions everyone is making about themselves.
  • 10,000 steps is actually quite a bit. Even though I work out 7 days a week, I practically never reached that mark without specific extra effort. Even with additional effort to take walks etc., 10,000 remained challenging on most days.
  • That means I’m really not moving all that much thanks to an office job that mostly glues me to my desk and phone. Even during fairly active weekends, this turned out to be a stretch goal. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of this and make an effort to walk more.
  • My biggest learning is this, well, it’s more of a theory: quantity is not quality. I think this is where the whole concept is a little off. Even people who do take 10,000 steps a day may not get enough exercise. And that’s where people get it wrong: It’s not just a matter of getting the steps in, it’s about getting your heart rate up for an extended period of time to somewhere close to your target range and keeping it there. That means you’ll have to actually sweat, feel the pain and huff and puff a little. Just taking steps via casual walking isn’t going to do it. Even the folks that beat me consistently with way more steps (from walking) every day I don’t think get that good a workout and aren’t as fit as me. I don’t think there’s a replacement for working hard and exercising beyond purely walking. When it comes down to it, I rather work out hard for 30 mins than walk for 60 mins. High intensity doesn’t always give you that many steps and that’s okay. 45 mins of Tae Kwon Do, which can be quite intense, netted only a modest amount of steps, but anybody who’s done it will tell you what an intense workout it is.
  • Even the venerable CDC recognizes that as it recommends “Adults need at least 2:30 hrs of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).” (1 of several variations of exercise they propose).
  • Not surprisingly, things like cycling, stretching or weight lifting basically don’t net any steps at all, but we all know that these are very valid forms of exercise.
  • I don’t sleep as much as I thought I did. On average 6:45 hours a day. Still, not bad. And I have confirmation that I fall asleep very quickly and sleep peacefully like a baby, without tossing and turning. They call it high sleep efficiency. 🙂

All in all, I’ve learned from this experience. Maybe similar to when I carefully tracked all my food intake and exercise through MyFitnessPal (see my diet journey), measuring this part of your life will create useful insight and dispel misconceptions. That said, always having he Fitbit One clip on 24 hours a day got old and I stopped, at least for now. But the knowledge it generated will certainly influence me going forward. Number of steps aside, I will certainly continue to focus on the quality and intensity of my exercise beyond just the number of steps.

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