Have You Seen My Doodad?

For the past few months, my wife and I have been a voluntary lab rats in an experiment being conducted by a savvy wellness entrepreneur using technology and gaming to encourage folks in Central Oregon to walk more.
My duties as a lab rat are not very demanding. During this TOJ's waking hours, I wear a small (about the size of a half walnut) electronic doodad on my shoe. Each night I go to my computer for a couple minutes during which the doodad transmits the collected data into a web application that displays some graphs of total steps taken, active minutes, and distance covered.The next day I get an email message again showing the data in a neat tabular format, along with an encouraging message.

This doodad is one of many tools to support the new buzz in exercise - the "quantified self." We can now measure everything and, of course, some exercisers want to know as much as they can about themselves. The doodad I wear is pretty simple and cheap. There are elaborate, expensive ones that keep even more information such as average heart rate, peak heart rate, calories, location (GPS), etc., and then display the data on a cell phone or computer. Warning: If you have even a hint of obsessive-compulsive disorder, doodads will take you right off the deep end - check out this story of ridiculous extremes.

So what have I learned from the doodad, other than it's a pain to keep track of it? (Is it on my trail shoes, gym shoes, Five Fingers, loafers, socks? I know I saw that damn thing somewhere.) Are there good reasons to wear one to track your steps?

The most important thing I discovered is although I exercise more than most people, especially my age, the number of steps I take on average are only a little above the optimum number recommended by experts, such as the Cooper Clinic, to stay healthy, which is around 10,000 per day. On days I go for a run and walk my dog, I might log 16,000, but on days I just do a weight routine and walk my dog, it's more like 8,500.

Luckily, steps are just one measure of healthy activity. The doodad I use is not able to measure intensity or metabolic equivalents, such as how many pounds I've lifted or time at 90% max heart rate. I can take the dog for a long walk, stand at my computer to write for hours, then do 45 min. of pretty high intensity resistance exercise. The doodad might accurately measure a few of those activities, but not the HIT, physically the most challenging thing I did that day.

So what is a doodad good for?

It's very useful for people who are relatively new to basic aerobic exercise, like walking or jogging. Yes, you can also measure these activities in minutes and hours, but steps and distance are nice to know. You can set benchmarks and see your progress, like "I did 60,000 this week - next week the goal is 63,000." Specific and measurable, the stuff of good goal setting.

The doodad also fuels competition. Even my wife and I find ourselves comparing numbers (we can do the identical distance and she gets more steps because she takes shorter steps). Weekly the project also tallies everyone's data to show where people are vis a vis each other. Your pride might motivate you to take more steps to put you closer to the top. In the gaming part of the pilot, one participant can challenge another to complete 50,000 steps in a week and reward them with a free cup of coffee so there's a tangible reward if they meet the challenge.

One fun surprise is what actually makes an active day with lots of steps. We tend to think of those days as ones with lots of time time allocated to formal "exercise," but one of the days on which I logged the highest number of steps was not when I went for an extra long run, but when my wife and I had our grandkids for a few hours! No joke.

For an experienced exerciser who engages in a variety of physical activities, a doodad won't add much. A TOJ knows pounds, time, and distance, as well as heart rates and anaerobic thresholds. From hours of workouts and activities of all kinds, you know what that feeling is like in your body when you've done too much, too little, or just the right amount for that day.
I'll continue to wear my doodad as part of my civic duty as long as the experiment is underway.

But there's no doodad that will ever tell you what your body will. It's free, no computer is required, and you don't have to try to remember where you left it.

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