Fitness bands and goal setting

Could well be a short-lived affair once the novelty of fitness bands wears off

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

I dislike walking as a form of physical exercise. I like to walk, but I hate going for a walk. The former is a way to explore a place; the latter a boring routine.

Let me explain: If the weather’s good, I don’t mind the walk to the bookshop about a mile from our house in New Delhi, or to the coffee place further down. It’s not a good walk; there are hardly any sidewalks and the traffic is treacherous. But I amble along, picking up an ice-cream cone along the way.

However, I most definitely hate the thought of going for a walk in our neighbourhood park just to keep fit. Imagine going around the same set of trees 10 times over. It’s monotonous even when I’m listening to music or an interesting podcast. But at my age I don’t have a choice. So I force myself to do it: switch parks and my routine (I am not a morning person), clockwise one day, anti-clockwise the next, two rounds over, three more to go. I just want to get it over and done with.

Haruki Murakami writes in his inspiring book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” He started running seriously at age 33, and has run several impossible marathons. I envy long-distance runners; I regret I didn’t start running 10 or 20 years ago.

Then, a couple of months ago, my son, who loves to participate in marathons, gave his parents fitness trackers that you wear on your wrist. He was wearing a Mi Band (made by the Chinese company Xiaomi), and he thought it might motivate the parents to go for walks. The band was inexpensive (under Rs1,000), and he said that even if we didn’t use it, we had nothing to lose.

Now, this is not a review of fitness trackers; there are dozens of options and I have no idea which is better. I mention Mi Band because I got it as a gift. A friend swears by his sleek Fitbit—perhaps the most famous fitness tracker; another recently bought a good-looking Samsung Gear smartwatch, which can do a lot more than just count steps.

At the end of the first day, out of sheer curiosity, I checked the number of steps I had walked. I had set a random goal of 8,000 steps, and though I was short of the target, what I did realize was that it is doable.

Slowly, I got into the rhythm of it. Earlier, my walks were all about the number of rounds in the park; now I began checking steps taken. The band syncs with my iPhone and I can check steps and distance: If I do 7,500, I push myself to rack up another 500 steps. And yes, I feel good. It’s still boring, but I feel virtuous.

I don’t know how accurately these devices monitor steps: I have two other health-tracking apps on my iPhone—Moves and Health—and the activity numbers vary on all three. To avoid confusion, I use the band as a benchmark.

According to a study published in September in the Journal Of The American Medical Association, “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioural weight loss approaches.”

The thing is, the device nudges me to step out. It’s there as a physical reminder. When I asked my wife about it, she said, “It’s nagging me…it makes me feel guilty if I haven’t walked enough.” And that sums it up.

My wife and I have been wearing our bands for about two months. Often, at the end of the day, one of us asks the other: What’s your tally? Last week, I upgraded her band to the Mi Band 2 (Rs1,999 on Amazon). It looks the same but has a display that shows the total number of steps, distance covered, heart rate and time.

I have no idea how long I will keep wearing the device. Considering that I am not goal-oriented, it’s possible I’ll get bored with it once the novelty wears off. The bad news, however, is that two months into it, I don’t seem to have lost an ounce of weight. I guess just doing 8,000 steps is not going to undo the effect of a couple of beers.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.