Fitness Gadgetry, and Deciding When to Go Offline

A funny thing happened this week: I got tired of wearing an activity monitor that I’d been using daily, without fail (some might say religiously), for most of the last two years.

And yesterday, Carl Richards in the New York Times gave me some ideas as to why that might be.

Gadgets have been with us for a while. They have their place. But you can go gadget-free for a while and gain more awareness of what you're really doing. (Image courtesy of Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Gadgets have been with us for a while. They have their place. But you can go gadget-free for a while and gain more awareness of what you’re really doing. (Image courtesy of Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Gadgets automate knowledge that we sometimes really need to reflect on, in order to get the most out of that knowledge.

Before fitness gadgets became all the rage – the FitBit, the Jawbone Up, the pedometers and private-label gadgets that tell us how many steps we’re taking or how much we’re standing or how many hours we’re sleeping – I lost 40 pounds. I did it the old-fashioned way: good, healthy food in reasonable portions, and more exercise, and better lifestyle choices all around. And, I did it by becoming much more aware of how much movement I was putting into my life. I estimated my activity level, but as it turned out when I acquired my fitness-gadget-of-choice, I was doing a pretty good job estimating things before all the automated gadgets came around.

Richards’ article isn’t about fitness gadgets. It’s about budget gadgets. In “A Slow-Tech Approach to Tracking Spending,” Richards talks about the awareness that is lost when he attempts to automate the tracking of his family’s budget.

“By automating the tracking process, I miss the opportunity for reflection and awareness.” – Carl Richards

Richards illustrates this concept with a study of college students taking notes during a lecture. Some students hand-wrote their notes; others typed them. The study found that the students who hand-wrote their notes understood the material better simply because they were engaging in the act of reflecting on the material and putting it into their own words. The typing students were simply typing verbatim what the professor said.

When it comes to understanding and reflection, writing things down works better than automating the task. (Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
When it comes to understanding and reflection, writing things down works better than automating the task. (Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Richards continues: “I think something similar happens when we try to automate our budgeting process. Pulling in all our purchases automatically sounds an awful lot like typing notes verbatim. The result is a technically correct reflection of how our spending compares with our budget, but we miss the chance to process what the numbers mean. The act of looking at each receipt and adding those numbers ourselves mimics the act of hearing something and then putting it in our own words. We know where the money went, and, hopefully, we know why.”

I absolutely think the same thing can happen when we rely too heavily on fitness gadgets.

Here’s a recent example: I forgot my activity monitor when I ran a 15K race earlier this year. For a moment, I got bummed that I wouldn’t see the big activity “pop” on my automated chart that running provides. But you know what? I enjoyed the race anyway.

I had another “gadget” working for me that day – my running watch – and it gave me all the feedback I needed: I kept a solid, steady pace the whole way. (And, if I hadn’t had the watch, I could have used the rate of perceived exertion scale, which works very well when it comes to estimating your activity level when you don’t have a gadget.) I know I worked hard in that 15K race – there’s some tough hillage on that course, and I was ready for all of it. My favorite stat from my Garmin? The last mile of that race was my fastest. That’s badass. And I didn’t really need another activity monitor strapped to my body to tell me that.

In a season where learning how to pace myself for long distance races was a key skill, my running watch told me all I needed to know. How many calories I (ostensibly) burned, how my activity compared to the day before or the day after, yadda yadda yadda…those were things I didn’t need an activity monitor to tell me. (The calorie-count thing is notoriously inaccurate, anyway, on just about every gadget out there. So there’s the danger, if we rely on these gadgets too much, of being beholden to a gadget – and then getting disappointed if it doesn’t lead to the outcome we’re looking for.)

Here’s where activity monitors rock, in my estimation:

They really help the formerly sedentary among us become very aware of just how sedentary we are, and that gets us off our duffs. Whether you’re striving for 10,000 steps a day, or getting up for five minutes every hour, or walking instead of taking the elevator between meetings at your office, whatever it takes to motivate you to get started is awesome. Once you’re really active, the gadgetry is up to you. If I really do start training for a triathlon this year, maybe I will want to up the gadget game so I can swim, bike and run with some little computer strapped to me that helps me complete the race more strongly. We’ll see.

But back in the day, before Coolmax and Gatorade and energy gels and even Nike Waffle shoes, lots and lots of people were out there running, without a whole lot of technology to guide them. And it all turned out okay.

Yesterday’s #every48 workout: BIKRAM YOGA – a 90-minute class at 4:30 p.m., the time that I am now affectionately calling “the witching hour” because that’s the time when I either need to (a) get out of my office for a while, or (b) risk  awakening the Munchy Monster who suddenly wants to eat the kitchen. I chose yoga yesterday. Good choice.

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