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Step by step, bit by Fitbit, self-improvement becomes a losing game

If the gizmo counts, then some people can get a higher count than others. What could go wrong? (Courtesy photo)

If the gizmo counts, then some people can get a higher count than others. What could go wrong? (Courtesy photo)

How are those New Year’s resolutions going?

If you made the most common one – to exercise more – we have reached the time of year when our collective resolve starts to waiver.

Most people would say that’s a bad thing. In our house, however, I’m secretly hoping it will happen.

My partner and I bought Fitbits for ourselves in December, which looks like a simple strap bracelet but is one of the many wireless activity trackers on the market. These devices keep tabs on the number of steps you’ve walked, stairs you’ve climbed, calories you’ve burned and even how well you slept. It’s a device more of us could stand to wear; Michigan is the 11th-fattest state in the nation, with a 31.5 percent adult obesity rate that seems to climb every year.

The Fitbit is a brilliantly simple concept and motivator. I love it, actually. I like seeing my daily progress, and it serves as a reminder to get up from my desk several times a day to walk a lap through my building. It pushes me to get on the treadmill again. All good things.

For my partner, however, it’s a contest to win every minute of every day. She’s competitive by nature (she won’t do yoga because “you can’t win at yoga”), so the introduction of the Fitbit into her life has fueled her obsession with winning.

You can’t “win” at Fitbit, you say? Oh, yes you can. There are challenges. You can challenge yourself (my preference) or you can participate in a group challenge. She did that last week, and it was all-consuming.

She has what amounts to a desk job. She walks a fair bit at the office, but a lot of her work is done on the computer. The colleagues she competed with aren’t as desk-bound. One works in a hospital. A big hospital. Where he walks around all day. Where he routinely, in the course of just his work day, logs 15,000-plus steps. That didn’t count what he added on his own time.

So Betsy was moving at every available opportunity. Making dinner? Running in place. Playing a game with friends? Running in place. Watching a movie? Running in place. You get the picture.

She worked and worked and worked to keep her step count up every day. She was averaging 15,000 steps a day. On the final day she logged more than 25,000 steps. She did 88,000 in just five days and still lost by 1,300 steps.

“I feel like Mitt Romney,” she said, shoulders slumped, at the end of the challenge.

“Why? Because you keep running and running no matter what?” I asked.

“No, because I lost and I’m really bummed.”

Although I was getting an up-close look at only her participation, I could guess that there were similar obsessive traits in the other competitors, based on when they were logging their steps. They were running at 5 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. They were walking laps around their dining room tables. They were jumping up and down while having drinks with their friends, for crying out loud.

That’s great, you could argue. Movement and fitness and better health are all terrific goals. But how sustainable is this kind of activity?

So far, the answer in our house is “one week.” After the work-week challenge ended, Betsy announced she would not be participating the next week. She’d still be pushing herself, still logging miles on the treadmill, still aiming for 15,000 steps a day, but not competing with her co-workers.

They replaced her with another colleague in the next challenge – one who is a runner and was already ahead of the pack of eight on day one.

Challenging ourselves feels much saner, somehow. And it’s easier on our floorboards.

Robin Miner-Swartz is the vice president of communications for the Capital Region Community Foundation. She’s a #lovelansing cheerleader and bleeding-green Spartan who never met a cup of Biggby coffee and a spinach and feta omelet she didn’t like. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Public Health Destination

    Good for her and you. Is your partner’s response a hint into one reason why Michigan is 11th heaviest state? When we evaluate our level of health by comparing ourselves to others, is it a recipe for failure or success? I can look around at others who are getting bigger just as I am. I can look at them and feel like I fit in or belong. Think social norm. If we all work relentlessly towards better eating and a more active life, what will the social norm be then? I won’t proclaim to be an expert on or to understand competitive natured people.I hope that your partner is both competitive and tenacious. Try, try again until it is the new normal and we all win.

  2. Mary

    Various electrical engineers have torn apart Fitbit, and say that it can’t possibly be accurate.
    A rub band around one’s wrist would work as well.
    It is our attitudes about eating and pushing ourselves away from the computer to actually get up and walk that makes the difference.
    And trust me – I will NOT throw the first stone!
    We are in Michigan and it is cold out there!

  3. Duane

    Ms. Miner-Swartz,

    Congratulations, it seems you have enjoyed the activities and have been satisfied with socializing those activities.

    The question is would you like to turn your success into tools others could use to improve their health?

    I think elements you used in your competition could, with a bit of discussion, be used by those who are struggling to change their health. Are you interested?

    Those elements might also be used in addressing many other problems talked about on Bridge.

  4. Robin Miner-Swartz

    Thanks for the great comments. Yep, my partner is both tenacious and competitive. She’s back at the workweek hustle challenge again this week! She’s also fit and healthy and, in my opinion, a fantastic candidate for “Survivor” … if she didn’t get “hangry” :) The thing I admire about her is that she’s competitive with herself as much as anyone — she’s always pushing herself to do better. It’s something I admire greatly.

    I love the concept of group challenges like this, in that they’re good motivators for a lot of people. I know they don’t work for everyone, but accountability is a great motivator. It’s a similar concept to the website — it’s always intrigued me. Set your goals, put them out there and the fact that others know you’re working toward it can make a big difference in holding yourself accountable.

    BUT: There is also this great TED talk by Derek Sivers about how the exact opposite is true:

    It’s an interesting conversation.

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