Thoughts on Building a Fitness Habit with Technology

I’ve struggled to get and stay fit my entire life. As a child I would get serious headaches if I got too physical in play or work so, as a result, I grew to avoid it. The headaches started to go away in college so, for a little while I was actually in pretty descent shape and felt good.

That was 20 years ago. While I was flying I was able to maintain some level of fitness but it has mostly been downhill ever since.

In 2007, when I quit flying, I weighed 156lbs and, while I didn’t always feel great, I was at a healthy weight and energy level. By March of 2020 I was 210lbs and on an exercise pattern that amounted to about 1 week of activity in 4, especially during the hot summer. Something had to change.

Where it went wrong

It’s not that I didn’t try to keep fit after 2007, it’s more that I never found anything I could build a habit on, something hard enough as an adult to start with.

I tried gym memberships, personal trainers and apps. None of them worked. Job changes, moves, weather and travel would quickly interrupt any habit I did start and, once stopped, it was nearly impossible for me to start again.

FitBit is where I found the most success after I first got one as a Christmas gift in 2011. I was already 195lbs when I got it and it helped me slow the rate of gain for the next nine years. While not much, it was a win.

FitBit worked by helping me gamify fitness. On top of its own challenges and games I also started small, with a 5,000 step goal and shot for increasing it by 1,000 steps every time I could hit the existing goal for 4 weeks straight. On the flip side, if I didn’t have at least one perfect week in 4 I would drop it 1,000 steps.

The ultimate goal was 10,000 steps per day and I slowly worked up to it 3 times over the years (only to drop back to 5,000 again later). The 3rd time I hit the 10,000 step goal was in 2018 and I finally managed to hold it until I got rid of the FitBit in January 2021.

While I did manage to hold it, I did so in the least healthy way possible. Recall my original goal was 10,000 steps. I didn’t want to shoot much past this as I didn’t think I would have the time in my average day to maintain more over time. As a result I started only shooting for the one perfect week in 4 instead of walking that every day.

For two years I would do 10,000 steps every day for one week and then as little as 1,000 steps for the next 2 to 3 weeks. While I was doing better than I had (its fitness score pegged me at “above average” by the time I got rid of it) I wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be.

Once FitBit sold to Google, a company I knew full well I didn’t want having any more of my data, I knew it was time to find something else.

Streaks over steps

In January of this year I decided to try something different and switched to Apple Watch. I had actually tried one in 2017 and did so bad with the fitness side of it that after 7 months I sold it had to start over at 5,000 daily steps again on FitBit. I just didn’t understand it.

This time I took a different approach. I started at 10,000 steps and focused on streaks and its “active calories” instead of just getting daily steps.

Today I will hit 296 days in a row of meeting my activity goal and I’m almost perfect in my daily step goals. While I admit I’ll adjust the goals for things outside of my control (bad weather, being sick or travel days) the streak has become something I’m rather proud of.

I’ve been tracking my steps since 2011. Prior to this year my step record was a little over 2.8 million steps in a year. This year I crossed that in August and I’m still going.

I feel better, I move better and, this fall, I’ve even found ways to work in other exercises like carrying small weights on some of my walks.

For the first time I’ve found a habit I can live with.

Electronics are hard

Switching to the Apple Watch has worked for me but it hasn’t come without its own issues. For example, the VO2 max on Apple Watch is consistently 10-15 points below where FitBit had me, even as I’ve gotten healthier. While this is something a quick web search will show is common, it is still frustrating when it tells me I’m always skirting along the bottom edge of the “below average” line simply because I will often take my time and enjoy my walk instead of going for speed.

While I now focus on streaks another difference with Apple Watch is how it does competitions. With FitBit I had a weekly group in which I only was competitive during the week I needed my 10,000 steps. With Apple Watch the competitions are 1-on-1 and based on closing all 3 of your rings (active calories, exercise minutes and stand hours). I’m grateful to have a good friend of mine that has been doing these weekly challenges with me since I got it (I’m currently up in weekly competitions won, sorry Aaron) but I’ve had limited luck in getting other people involved. For some the format makes little sense but, for others like my wife, I simply can’t get it to work with her as sharing data between us simply doesn’t work.

Healthy habits don’t have to be fancy

Today I’m hovering between 185 and 190lbs. I walk an average of 12,000 steps per day and, at 43 years old, I feel better than I did when I was 30. I still have plenty of room for improvement, but I’m well on my way.

For some a gym membership, personal trainer and formal classes are the only way to get fit. That isn’t the case for all of us.

Technology might not be your thing but there are always simple ways to find your own motivation. What I’ve learned over the last two years is that it is the consistency and effort that really does count. Walking 10,000 steps every day is better than walking 1,000 steps every day. Every step counts and that counter resets every day.

If you’re an Apple Watch user and you want to compete, feel free to contact me. If not, don’t hesitate to experiment with what works for you. There is something out there that can help you build your habit. For me it is my Apple Watch. For you, the sky is the limit.

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