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My Fitbit Obsession
Posted on September 2nd, 2014

My last column discussed our obsession with the bathroom scale and how it can sabotage our efforts to stay engaged in a fitness program long term. While I truly believe that it is best to focus on overall health rather than how much someone weighs, I do understand the reality that most people are concerned with their body weight. I also realize that as a fitness coach, I need to help people lose weight or I will lose some business.

I typically get to spend only two to four hours a week with a client, and the last time I checked there were 168 hours in a week! Thus it is not realistic for people to expect quick weight loss simply by adding in a few workouts a week. While we did talk about the numerous health benefits of exercise in the last column, we also noted that weight loss in a different game altogether.  We know that both sides of the calorie equation need to be attacked – both input and output of calories.

In my quest to provide a more holistic lifestyle solution than simply offering great workouts, we also monitor what people are doing outside of the gym. We put together a new client “toolkit” that includes nutrition journals, healthy food lists, and “meals-to-go” delivered onsite, as well as the Fitbit pedometer and a heart rate monitor. I have found that many people need the accountability of these lifestyle tools – as well as a coach who is “watching” – in order to make the lifestyle changes needed to get results. Now on to my story about my Fitbit obsession!

The Fitbit is a fancy wristband pedometer that connects via Bluetooth to any new smart phone or through Wi-Fi to any home computer in order to automatically update your step and mileage data. The reason why we recommend this particular pedometer is that we formed an online “challenge group” so that I can monitor everyone’s movement. This may sound Big Brother creepy, but it really does work to motivate people. All of our clients share their daily and weekly step data with each other in order to encourage everyone to move more every day. It is also fun to look at all of the pretty charts and graphs of your hourly/daily/weekly movement information.

And it really does work. In fact, it works almost too well. As the coach and the one who should be setting the lifestyle example, I decided to purchase a Fitbit for myself and take part in the step challenge. It made sense to understand what all of my clients were going through and to understand how difficult it was to get 10,000 steps a day.

I placed my order and waited impatiently for my black Fitbit to come in the mail a few days later. Once it arrived on a Thursday at 4pm, I hurriedly set it up for tracking of my steps. I was excited to compete against my clients to see who could get the most steps in each week. I was confident that my fitness coaching job would provide me with enough movement to blow away the competition. You see, I have a job where I am moving for a large part of the day; setting up workouts for clients, picking up weights, and demonstrating exercises. This is in stark contrast to my days behind the computer at my tech job, where I was slowly accumulating body weight as well as an aching lower back. It is also a lot different than what my typical client faces when they go into the office in our modern office world.

My competitive juices immediately kicked in on day one. I was upset when I realized that due to my late day setup of the Fitbit, Thursday would only be tracking my steps from 5pm to midnight, thus showing that I only walked 5,000 steps that day. The rest of my day was “lost” and in the Fitbit world it appeared as if I was lazy that day. It would take weeks to smooth out the low step day – before my average would appear respectable. I had already become Fitbit “friends” with my clients and it was time to start moving more. I was upset that I hadn’t waited until 7am the next day to setup my Fitbit and my obsession was in full effect.

I immediately noticed that wearing the wristband pedometer was a constant reminder that I should be on my feet and moving. I frequently checked my step count during the work day and it was an entertaining and fun addition to my day. But like most Americans I am probably prone to ADD tendencies – checking email too often, getting frequent text messages, and looking at the latest sports, news, and weather updates. Now I would be adding Fitbit data to my overloaded brain. Would this be too much to handle?

A few days into my adventure, it was 11:30pm and I noticed that my step count was below my goal of 15,000 steps, so I decided to take Stella (my gym dog) for another walk. By this time, even she was getting tired of the Fitbit. After a few days into our summer “two a days” schedule, she wasn’t as excited when I reached for the leash. With the heat of the Texas summer, it was difficult to find a good window of time to get our outdoor steps completed. We either had to walk before 9am, or after 8pm, to avoid baking in the sun. This probably plays a part in why Texans are a little heavier these days, as it isn’t always a very outdoor exercise friendly climate. It seems as if it is either brutally hot for six months, or rainy and cold for a few months, with a couple of pleasant months thrown in the middle.

The first week with my Fitbit motivated me to move probably a little bit more than normal due to the constant reminder and the friendly competition with clients. It is amazing how powerful it is to have other “eyes” on you. The only negatives for me was that I think I got too obsessed with checking my steps during the day, and on some days I think I “forced” some extra steps in to meet my goals. This made me a little less productive on work tasks such as writing and researching exercise programs. The good news is that the obsession slowly wears off and I am now settling into a normal routine that is balanced and manageable long term. Stella even seems more relaxed now that the initial burden of having to achieve 15,000 steps per day is over.

I did quickly come to the conclusion that it was pretty easy for me to get to 10,000 steps, which is commonly the goal for weird people who track their steps. 10,000 steps equate to about 4.5 miles for my stride, and I can get to this number during the course of an average work day at the gym. I also was noticing that my clients were having a much more difficult time getting to 10,000 steps, especially those who had jobs which required many hours at the computer. So depending on your job, the 10,000 step goal is either very easy or very difficult to attain. My desk job clients only got about 2,000 steps on many days at work, which meant they would have to find the time for a 3-4 mile walk before or after work to get in the right amount of movement. As I am writing this column and sitting for the past four or five hours, I have accumulated only about 500 steps.

So what does all of this mean? Well, if you have a job that requires a lot of driving, sitting behind a computer, attending constant work meetings, or traveling, it is likely that you are not getting anything close to 10,000 steps a day. The average American gets about 5,000 steps a day and this has a direct impact on our growing waistlines. Think about the difference between my average of 13-14,000 steps and the normal 5,000 steps a day. That equates to me burning an extra 300-400 calories a day, and while that may not seem like a lot, it does add up over time. Assuming that the calorie equation is perfect and I don’t eat a piece of cake each night due to calorie overconfidence, I would be 20-30 lbs. lighter over the course of a full year. (You know, the whole 3500 calories equals a pound of fat equation?)

Finally, I leave you with a few parting words of wisdom that will hopefully lead to some positive actions. If you are concerned about losing weight, then you probably need to do more than just exercise at a gym a few days a week. My most successful clients are both consistent with me at the gym AND they get 8-10,000 steps in a day. This just means that you have to move more during the rest of the day. The workouts are very important as they make you stronger, increase your metabolism, make your brain work better, and make you feel better and younger.  The workouts should be focused with good intensity, but not so long and draining that they leave you couch bound the rest of the day

If you have the normal job where movement is not required, then you really should get a pedometer like the Fitbit. You should try to build in 10 minute walks every hour or two during the day, take a walk at lunch, and consider switching to an adjustable desk that allows for sitting and standing. There is even a Georgetown company that makes an awesome adjustable desk and you can view their products at www.nextdesks.com. With more movement at work, not only will you shed pounds, you will also fix nagging back pain, improve flexibility, and be more productive during the time you are actually working.  Management should also be encouraging employees to move more, rather than strap them down to their desks all day. The research is piling up to show that more movement is the key to long term health, and the good news is that it is a very easy problem to fix, with a little bit of Fitbit obsession.  Just don’t walk too much and get yourself fired. That would make me feel very guilty.

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