The obsession of fitness tracking with devices that monitor steps taken, calories burned and even sleep
Lhendup G Bhutia | 09 Apr, 2015
As the four of us sat around a table in a newly-opened diner in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area about two months ago, bright cocktails in hand, sharing, in conspiratorial whispers with our chairs drawn close, the latest Bollywood gossip, a hand reached out from beside me for a piece of bread at the centrepiece. It was one of us, Amar Tipnis. The roll of his shirtsleeve moved back and I couldn’t help but notice his wrist. Edging out of the sleeve and encircling his right wrist was not a watch or an amulet or charm, but what appeared to be a strange cross between a Livestrong braclet and a wristwatch with a plastic band.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh this,” Tipnis, who works as a scriptwriter, replied. “It’s my Fitbit.”
“My what?” another companion joined in.
“Fitbit. It makes me walk 10,000 steps every day.”
“Here let me show you.”
Tipnis tapped the instrument and little dots of glowing green numbers appeared before us, telling us how many steps he has taken throughout the day, the floors he had climbed, the calories he had burned, and the quality of sleep he’d had the previous night. “It’s the future, really,” Tipnis said. “You track your data from your everyday life. And you improve upon it.”
Activity trackers are gradually revolutionising the concept of fitness, and how and where exercises can be done. Digital monitors are to be worn throughout the day and night. Most of them are strapped around the wrist, although some can also be worn on the collar and belts, and even as jewellery. People are now using them to track the number of steps they take, the calories they burn, what they have been eating, and what they should refrain from, and they often compete with one another on social networks. These devices, using motion sensors and algorithms, also inform wearers in minute detail of the hours they slept and whether it was of deep or light quality. When synchronised with cellphones, these devices even send users daily and weekly reports and help them set personalised fitness goals. Every few minutes that a person is inactive, the band vibrates and nudges the wearer to take a walk. And at the end of the day, when 10,000 steps have been completed, which amounts to about 7-8 km of walking, or a personal best has been accomplished, the band tingles and vibrates to congratulate the owner.
When I meet Tipnis some two months later, I find him lighter by more than 5 kg and several inches thinner around the waist. “You feel so good when you hit 10,000 steps that you feel like going out for another walk,” he says.
The big goal, however, is not just to count your steps, but, by also measuring your sedentary down time, bursts of exercise and sleeping habits, to obtain a complete picture of your most and least healthful behaviours. Most of these gizmos also offer tips and set specific sub-goals based on the data recorded. While all activity trackers have an accelerometer, some include additional sensors to pick up other signs of activity. Basis B1 Band, for instance, measures heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature; Withings’ Pulse measures heart rate; and a brand called Garmin offers trackers that can be paired with chest straps to record your heart rate during a workout. By crunching all this information on our bodies and behaviour, users of these devices believe, we can adopt a data-guided and thus better path to overall health and fitness.
Of course, there are those whose bands—after an initial burst of enthusiasm— end up stuck in a drawer with other gadgets that the owner has lost interest in. But to those who stick on, especially those who are slightly obsessed with numbers, these devices help them engage in a deep form of digital self-examination and enslave them to a healthy lifestyle.
It could begin with walks in a neighbourhood park. Wearers find themselves taking stairs instead of escalators, mapping out the longest routes possible, and walking around airport terminals instead of staying seated while waiting for a flight. They often send their cars ahead of them, preferring to walk several kilo- metres from, say, office to home. They walk even as they watch their favourite TV shows. Every opportunity, from a visit to the bathroom to a doorbell ring, is an opportunity to increase their tally of steps. And when midnight approaches and they realise they haven’t completed their quota of 10,000 steps, they run around the house or prance around in a room to achieve their target. The device often becomes such an integral part of their routine that it begins to act as an extension of their awareness of distance, with their sense of space measured not in miles or kilometres but in terms of a step-count.
Swapna Bhandarkar, a corporate communications professional at a bank in Mumbai who uses a Jawbone UP24, after her initial difficulty achieving 10,000 steps daily, now says she walks anywhere between 18,000 and 19,000 steps. To find the time to meet the target, she uses her car only to reach work, and walks back from her office in Churchgate in south Mumbai to her home in Parel in central Mumbai, a road distance of at least 10 km on one of the city’s busiest stretches. “I return home after walking for around an hour-and-a- half, almost panting,” she says, “but it is all worth it.” After every half an hour of sitting at a spot in the office, an inactivity alert goes off, programmed to do so after every half hour of no movement, and it prompts her to go for a short walk within the office area. Every time she finishes a thousand steps, the band vibrates to inform her. When I speak with her on the phone, it is Good Friday, a day her office is shut. When I ask her how she meets her target on such holidays, she says she does it by walking—as she is doing currently— at the Worli promenade, which is located in another part of the city.
“Oh you go all the way to Worli to do that?” I ask.
“No, I walk it to Worli,” she says. “And then I walk on the promenade till I finish my quota.”
Tipnis is now a complete convert. He averages a minimum of 15,000 steps and climbs at least 11 floors per day. He times his sleep, logs in all the food and calories consumed, and religiously follows tips provided by his Fitbit. He walks and runs at Shivaji Park—the famed ground where Sachin Tendulkar learnt to bat—alone every morning and afternoon, listening to audio books, mostly those by John Grisham. He finds thrillers and quick page-turners the ideal material because he claims they keep his mind off the exercise. He walks long distances, from his home in Dadar to the offices of people with whom he collaborates in Mahim, a little further north. He meets friends for lunch in distant restaurants and returns home on foot. Every few hours, he taps his band to find out how many steps he has done. “If [my wife and I] ever go to buy groceries together,” he says, “I will send her in a cab and return by foot.”
When we meet, Tipnis shows me the records on his cellphone app, the increasing step counts over weeks and months, the green lines that indicate the targets reached, and the few red ones which show how much he missed a target by, apart from the graphs that show in sharp detail how much and how well he is sleeping, how much water he is consuming, and what all he needs to do over the next week to achieve his fitness goals. The previous night, he tells me, he got up mid-slumber to pull on a blanket, and this is reflected in a record that shows him awake exactly at 1.57 am. His records are now in synchrony with those of his brother and sister-in-law in the US, and the three of them compete on who manages the most steps over a week. “All this data tells me where I am at, what I’m doing wrong, and where I can improve,” he says, “It’s like a personal trainer, only more efficient,” he says.
“Self-tracking may look geeky now,” Tipnis says, “but who would have thought we would have cellphones which work as powerful computers a few years ago?”
Mayura Mantri, a freelance media professional who also cycles and runs, began to use a daily 24X7 activity tracker when she realised how sedentary her life was getting. Along with her husband, she uses a Garmin Forerunner 220 GPS- enabled multisport watch, which apart from tracking distance, pace and heart rate during runs, also allows one to upload one’s cycling data online when connected with cycle-sensors and a web service called Strava. Cyclists then compete with one another and the best records on any particular stretch of road gives that individual the title of King or Queen of the Mountain. When someone beats that record and the title shifts, it notifies anyone following records in that area.
However, after Mantri completed her latest project with a news channel a few months ago, she realised that apart from the few times she went on a run or on cycling trips, she was mostly home doing very little exercise. To fix that, she has begun using Jawbone Up24 that lets her keep track of how much she’s walking. “It makes you very conscious of how little you are walking,” she says, “It makes you go out and walk.” She rarely ever takes her motorbike now for errands, and spends free evenings walking in her building compound. She still watches TV at home, but instead of sitting in front of it, she now walks about with her eyes on the screen, picking up pace during ad breaks.
For many, understanding how well one is sleeping is crucial. Anand Kapoor, an infotech professional in a BPO in Mumbai who found his activity tracker most useful in tracking his sleep habits, says, “People often calculate the number of hours they have slept from the time they hit the bed to the [time] they wake up. If that is eight hours, we think that’s healthy. But often we forget to factor in the quality of sleep, the time taken to go to sleep when one hits the bed, and the number of times one wakes up.” Thanks to Jawbone UP24, Kapoor realised he was sleeping only about three to four hours a night. The device’s Coffee app, where he logs in his caffeine consumption and sees how this is affecting his sleep, also helped him cut down his caffeine intake. “The device’s accelerometer detects whether I’m moving and whether I’m awake or in light or deep sleep,” he says, “By the next morning, a graphic summary of the night’s sleep is displayed. I’ve been able to track how my sleep time has waxed and waned and how often I meet my sleep goals.” He now ensures that he gets eight hours of sleep every night and feels this is improving his fitness.
Kapoor and his wife Prachi Sharma also go out for regular runs, cycling trips, and compete regularly in various marathons. They have been using activity trackers since 2012, starting first with the Nike Fuelband, then Jawbone’s UP and later UP24 versions, and are currently using their fourth activity tracker, the Garmin Vivofit. “If by mistake you leave your tracker behind or your battery dies on you,” he jokes, “then your walks aren’t walks.”
In some ways, these are not new ideas. There have been pedometers in the past and athletes and their coaches have always made detailed notes on training sessions, nutrition and sleep and other variables. But these new technologies, affordable and user-friendly, yet detailed, are aimed at a wide spectrum of users, from fitness enthusiasts to office-goers worried about their sedentary lifestyles. “With these devices,” Mohammed Hussain Naseem, one of the founders of the Bengaluru- based 2mpower Health Management Services that produces three types of activity trackers in India, says, “anyone, from an adolescent to a housewife, can get an accurate picture of their lifestyle.”
Wearable fitness devices form a multibillion dollar industry in the US that is growing rapidly. But there are also fears that the Apple watch—which among other things also has an activity tracker app—will turn the exclusively activity tracking device redundant. If and when that happens, countries like India, where Apple does not have as much sway, will become crucial to these businesses.
Naseem, who quit his post as the head of IBM’s healthcare vertical to start 2mpower in 2009, claims he got into the business of activity tracking after realising how sedentary the urban Indian lifestyle was becoming. “You go to a doctor when you have to fix an ailment, but what about improving your lifestyle so you never have to visit the doctor? How could I push people to become healthier? [That’s] what I was thinking,” he says. As a first move, he established a wellness centre in Bengaluru, where employees of corporate firms, under the supervision of a team of doctors, physiotherapists, and nutritionists, enrolled themselves in a typical fitness programme with a personal health coach. Within a span of six months to a year, he says, there was an 80 per cent dropout rate. “People wanted to take initiatives towards better health,” he says, “but they hated someone else regulating their lifestyle.” Naseem also made another startling discovery. On an average, the corporate employees he surveyed were taking only about 1,242 daily steps. “That is very sedentary— in fact, dangerous. The WHO classifies 7,500 daily steps as not sedentary, and recommends at least 10,000 daily steps for a healthy life.”
After about two years of research and work, the firm came up with two tracking devices, GetActive Slim and eZ. The third, GetActive Tapp, a wrist band, was released last year. According to Naseem, the three products currently have around 50,000 users, most of them corporate employees.
The three devices, like the others, track steps, sleep, and provide personalised health updates. Connected to a smartphone app through a buddy programme, users can train and compete with each other. Whenever pre-programmed fitness goals are achieved or some measure improved upon, users are rewarded with virtual currency, which can then be redeemed for real gifts at retail stores or a free health check-up. Speaking about the industry and its potential, Naseem says, “These are exciting times. No one in history has been able to get so much data on something small enough to wear on your wrist.”
Healthcare professionals see another upside to this movement. Dr Richa Anand, a dietician at Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital in Mumbai, says, “We’re get- ting data that we’ve never had before. It’s quite extraordinary.” Most of her patients now use cellphone applications to track their calorie consumption and levels of physical activity. “You don’t have to rely only on what patients say or think they have accomplished. There are cold hard numbers registered on cellphone applications that tell us what the patient has been doing,” she says. According to her, by simply asking individuals to track the levels of their daily activity, it often spurs them to do more of it. “There is so much happening that in a few years,” she says, “these activity trackers may ultimately change the way we relate to our own health.”
As more individuals around the world start using these devices and their lifestyle data gets uploaded onto internet clouds, the scope for large-scale data collection expands hugely. Users can then analyse their own readings and compare them with those of others. Naseem says, “With healthcare costs rising and obesity and other lifestyle diseases becoming a bigger issue, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on the monitoring, prevention and maintaining of wellness in the future, with patients taking a more active role.”
However, even the best of trackers aren’t able to recognise all movement. Most of them only measure motion, not exertion. So while they may do a good job when a user plays tennis, they offer very little indication of the exercise being put in, for instance, when the user pedals through the city on a cycle. The tracker in these cases, strapped to a mostly motionless wrist, fail to register any activity. Some users complain that on a few occasions they have found their devices mistakenly registering steps when they’re travell- ing in a vehicle or riding a motorbike. According to Naseem, this is because most of these products have been designed for the Western market, and hence do not factor in the bumpy nature of most Indian roads. GetActive, he claims, doesn’t suffer from this problem.
About a week ago, Mantri was speaking on the phone with a friend for over half an hour. Since she sometimes fails to reach her required quota of 10,000 steps, she has now begun to walk around while performing other tasks whenever possible. “I walked and walked during the conversation, knowing very well that I was clocking in a good number of steps,” she says. “But when I hung up and looked up my device to see how near I was to my 10,000 steps, I realised it hadn’t registered a single damn step.” The arm holding up the phone was also the one on whose motionless wrist the band was strapped on.
Bhandarkar once left her activity tracker at home. She, however, had a cellphone application that also tracks steps—although not as efficiently as Jawbone UP24—that day. I ask her what it would be like if the cellphone had not been able to register the step counts. “Oh, I don’t know,” she jokes. “The whole purpose of walking would appear pointless, I think.”