Should Couch Potatoes Wear Fitness Bracelets?

Looking for a gift for a runner in our family, I wandered into our nearby sports store and stopped by a large display of devices and gadgets that monitor activity: sleep, calories, heart rate, and perhaps in the near future, how well your investments are doing from minute to minute. The price, as well as the tendency of the gift recipient to lose anything not fixed to her body (she is a young teenager), made me look for something else, but it got me wondering who would get the most use out of such gadgets? I have seen the rubberized bracelets on the wrists of people going into spin class or lifting weights, and the ever-increasing variety of devices suggests an ever-increasing market for self-health monitoring. But like the proverbial preaching to the choir, are these fitness devices attractive primarily to the already fit? Or are they like scales, to be avoided if you know you are sedentary and have gained weight?

The relevance of devices that measure activity to those who shun it was pointed out to me by my dog, an exercise avoidant dachshund, who tends to combat me for every inch he walks. Worried that his already slothful ways would increase as the temperature dropped, I considered buying a canine fitness device that, like a human fitness bracelet, would measure his daily mileage or centimeters walked. I reconsidered when I realized that his walking was my walking as he was always on a leash. The free app, MOVES, would tell me how many steps I was taking and although I am too mathematically impaired to see how that corresponded to four footed steps, at least I would get some idea of how weather was changing activity for both of us. Indeed, on some exceptionally frigid days, we both were quite sedentary (except that I could go to the gym).

Everyone knows that we as a nation are growing fatter, and lack of physical activity still remains one of the most prominent causes. But how much physical activity do we not do? How sedentary are we?

Patients who come to see me for weight-loss counseling usually claim to exercise a few hours each week and only a few would acknowledge how little they actually do. Those with gym memberships are vague about how many times they worked out and walkers are equally vague about the frequency of their perambulations. In fact, their vagueness is matched only by their inability to recall with any accuracy what they eat every day, especially at non-meal times. And once on a diet, promises to increase their physical activity are made but unlike Robert Frost’s poem, rarely kept.

Measuring physical activity, either with a free APP or purchased device, might be extremely useful in helping my patients reach their weight-loss goal. Calorie intake is only one part of the weight-loss process, and if physical activity monitoring showed very little activity, it would explain why the pounds were coming off so slowly.

Conversely, most people on diets, or just those seeking to become fit, would respond positively to even a slight increase in the number of steps taken and miles walked each day. The MOVES app tells you, as soon as you turn on your cell phone in the morning, how much walking you did the day before. And sometimes the results are surprising in a good way. You the walker might think you did relatively little walking the previous day, and find that all that going and coming from the basement to the attic, shopping at the mall for holiday gifts or, in my case, walking the dog, adds up to a respectable number. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so hard to move off the couch and get moving. And the congratulations, “Today is an all-time personal best for you” message appearing on the phone is a virtual pat on the back, and must have some positive impact on continuing to move.

The days that show little activity are just as important. Why was there so little walking? Was it because you had to sit in meetings, at your desk, or in a plane all day? Were you stuck doing errands and chauffeuring kids around? Was it simply too cold or too hot to walk outside? Were you getting or getting over a cold? Some situations that prevent you from walking may be resistant to change; you can’t alter the polar vortex or stop a trial so you can go for a walk. But if your app or monitoring gadget shows about the same amount of activity as if a 200 year-old tortoise wore it, then this is a warning of transformation back into a couch potato. Even something as simple as walking rather than sitting if you are talking on the phone, or getting up from your desk chair rather than rolling it over to the printer add steps to your day, and therefore caloric burned.

It is not easy to get thin and fit, especially as we recover from Thanksgiving and head into the pudgy season of Christmas. But these monitors may help support you, each step along the way.

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