At the beginning of this year, I did the most clichéd thing imaginable and decided to start a new exercise program. I do this every couple of years, because I am one of those people that vacillates between seeing their body as a sort of meat conveyance by which their consciousness can move about the world and somebody who occasionally looks in the mirror, thinking:
Really? Is this what you should look and feel like at your age? You’re not going to suddenly give up foie gras and dunkelweizen, you effete prick, but do you really want resemble the piece of veal you ate at your parents’ house last weekend?
So here I am on the guilt-ridden, terror side of the biannual cycle and I decide that I’m going to have to take a different approach, because what inevitably happens is that I fall off the wagon around February and go back to crushing bags of Chicago Mix while sobbing the lyrics to Celine Dion tracks.
And I absolutely love it.
The cult of Fitbit
For people unfamiliar with the Cult of Fitbit, it’s a rubber watch-like thing you wear on your wrist that measures your steps by the way you swing your arm. It has a clever little accelerometer and algorithm that extrapolates all kinds of information, which it transfers via Bluetooth to your phone and displays in very clever ways online and on its occasionally janky app. Mine has a little LED screen and a rudimentary call display like the Apple Watch’s dumb older brother.
With the app, I know (or perhaps I believe, since the data that is presented is occasionally mystifying and arcane, like the wristband is full of shamans using chicken bones to determine demonic possession) all kinds of things about my daily activity. All of a sudden, I care about the number of flights of stairs I’ve climbed, how much water I drink and – perhaps most terrifyingly – it knows when I am sleeping, with unbelievable accuracy. It’s like having a tiny Santa Claus strapped to your left wrist.
I check the app probably 20 times a day, because I must constantly know how I am performing. When you hit your targets for the day, the Fitbit gives a short series of buzzes that triggers a Pavlovian response that is the equivalent of the app cheering you on. Good human. You are a good human who walked 10,000 steps.
All of this sounds gimmicky and ridiculous to me when I say it out loud, except for one problem – it works. It works so well that I find myself constantly hauling myself off the couch or out of my desk chair at work to walk, to go for runs, to take the stairs instead of the escalator. I have missed my step count twice since I got the thing. Those two days fill me with the kind of shame I usually associate with mugging the elderly.
Four months later, I look and feel better than I have for probably five years. My parents have them too, and I’ve seen my dad lose upwards of 25 pounds just by walking to and from work. The small changes in activity make the biggest difference.
Competition and shame work
This leads me to the other thing about the Fitbit – it’s got another goddamn social network appended to it. You set up an account when you get the thing (it won’t actually work without the account) and the app will pull all your Facebook friends who also have Fitbits. These people appear on a list in the app, ranked by their step counts, where they can cheer and taunt you with little emojis. It is a leaderboard. You are competing.
I am competitive. I am probably too competitive. I had no idea how much this leaderboard was going to matter to me. I must be number one, I must defeat them all – my girlfriend, my mom and dad, my relatives, my friends. I must not just win, I must prove my value through this arbitrary display of stupid steps and believe that equates to real human value. I must see them crushed and driven before me.
At the beginning of February, right around the time I would usually start letting the air out of the balloon every other year, I got tendinitis in my left ankle that made even just walking uncomfortable. I was basically on the shelf for more than a month, with my only outlet a co-ed rec league basketball game on Mondays, which I am terrible at. After one of the games where I took a vicious knee-on-knee from a girl who looked like a velociraptor I laid in bed, ankle and knee wrapped in ice, and whined via Facebook about my injury.
My Mom and a couple of aunts messaged me back, telling me to take it easy, not work so hard, maybe pick up a sport for old people like pickleball. My first thought was that this was nice; my family cares about me. My second thought was what the fuck is pickleball? My third thought was they want me to slow down so they can catch up with me on the leaderboard.
This is completely absurd, probably paranoid and profoundly vain, but it worked. I kept walking (limping, really) for the month, wrapping my ankle and waiting impatiently for things to heal. When they did I jumped back into things with an even greater fervor than before.
Geeking out about fitness is shallow, but it feels so good
I ran almost nine kilometres after work today, four of which I spent with the kind of stitch in my side that makes you feel like you’re going to puke. If the Fitbit hadn’t been tracking my run, if its little voice hadn’t been telling me my per-kilometre split time on my headphones, if it wasn’t there to remind me of what I’m doing right now and where I want to be, I would have stopped, walked, or turned around. Instead I gritted my teeth and pushed through. When the stitch started to dissipate around the six-kilometre mark, I was exultant. I felt like I had won.
This sounds good, right? I keep telling myself it’s good. Then I remember the time when I doubted the good will of my own family because I was convinced that they craved the top spot on an arbitrary leaderboard built on little rubber wristbands.
When I look in the mirror and remember what was looking back at me in January, I see the little changes where the harder edges of what I want to be are starting to peek through the pallid Canadian flesh. I think about my sore knees, my sore feet, and the power that feels like a tungsten cable winding through my whole body. I know I’m not there yet – I’m not even sure what there really is – but I know the strength I feel isn’t just in my legs and arms. I think about the way it feels when I push my way through another kilometre, my feet slapping the river pathways to the rhythm of the track on my headphones.
That little rubber band around my wrist is doing more than helping me lose weight – it’s helping me gain will.
And I just want to hit the pathway all over again.