The One Fitbit: A story of obsession

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By Steve Guntli

In the 1970s, Stephen King published a book (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) called “The Long Walk.” The story involves a dystopian future contest where hundreds of young men compete in an endurance trial to see who can walk the farthest. If characters go too fast, too slow or stop moving for more than a few seconds, they are summarily executed. The walk goes on for weeks until finally, bloody, exhausted and crazed, the first of the remaining walkers crosses the finish line and is granted wealth and celebrity.

It’s a grueling story. I read it a few years ago and I find myself thinking of it a lot lately, not because I’m exploring the themes of dictatorship and control, but because I’m curious how many steps those guys would get on their Fitbits, if they had them. And it hasn’t stopped with the oeuvre of King/Bachman: I’ve started wondering how many steps Frodo racked up on his quest to destroy the one ring, or how the device would interpret DiCaprio’s hobbling through the wilderness in “The Revenant.” The Fitbit has infected my brain, intruding on the pop culture tidbits I usually care about and making an athlete out of me despite my best efforts to resist.

For the uninitiated, Fitbits are those little rubber wristbands you’ve likely seen people wearing in the last few years. It’s essentially a glorified pedometer, recording the number of steps you take, the calories burned, the flights of stairs climbed and your total mileage in a 24-hour period. The goal for most people sporting Fitbits is to hit 10,000 steps a day, which for me is roughly 4 miles of walking or running every day. When you achieve your goal, the wristband buzzes happily and the LED display congratulates you on a job well done. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the experiments Pavlov did on his dog.

My wife first started using her Fitbit about a year and a half ago, part of a company-wide initiative at her work. Employees who racked up the most steps each week would get small fringe incentives, like closer parking spaces or free coffee or a few extra bucks on the paycheck. The competition ended after about a month, but Nicole continues to plug on, hitting her 10,000-step goal more often than not.

When she first got her Fitbit, I was a skeptic of the most obnoxious shade. I’d make fun of her for sporting a pedometer at all hours of the day, or for walking in circles around our apartment when she was 300 steps short of her goal. Once, Nicole’s Fitbit stopped working, and she grew irritable and nervous until the replacement arrived. Now, I’m no doctor, but I’ve seen a lot of movies, and this was a melodramatic textbook example of addiction. Addiction is a serious business, but I still felt justified in making fun of her, because she showed little indication that she was about to rub the rubber wristband on her gums.

But by the time my birthday rolled around in late December, I was ready to change my tune. I’ve officially reached the age where my metabolism stops doing the heavy lifting. I’ve always straddled the line between fat and thin, but lately I’ve firmly taken up residence on one side of that line, and it isn’t the side I want to be on. I figured having a little digital motivation to get active wouldn’t kill me. I suggested this to Nicole in an offhand way while we were sitting in a restaurant; within seconds, she had ordered my tracker on her phone, with a speed that suggested she’d had the page queued up for months and was just waiting for me to say the word.

Now that I’ve been using the device for a few weeks, I almost regret teasing Nicole so relentlessly for her fixation (almost). I’m officially a convert, on my way to being an addict. I get just as twitchy if I forget to wear the little bracelet. I feel unreasonably guilty every time I fail to meet my step goal. And when my own device started to show signs of malfunction, my brain responded in kind by basically shutting down until my replacement came in.

The best and worst features of the Fitbit are the challenges. Included with the Fitbit’s companion app are a series of challenges you can issue to friends who also have the device. They range from small items like Daily Goal (basically just ensuring everyone hits their 10,000 steps), to Workweek Hustle, in which competitors try to rack up the most steps over a five-day period.

These challenges have turned me into a monster. I’ve stopped viewing my friends and family as fellow human beings, but as names on a bar graph that are constantly trying to vex me. I’m not a particularly competitive person in my day-to-day life, but something about these challenges brought out the worst in me.

During one Workweek Hustle challenge, I began to view my 12-year-old niece, who would be a serious contender in any competition for sweetest human being alive, as my personal white whale. The Fitbit app requires you to check in and sync up your device to monitor your progress, and my niece had the habit of staying off the app for two or three days at a time. So I would plug away, getting my steps in and making a real play for first place, when she would sync up her device late in the game and overtake me by a few thousand steps. So I did what any normal person would do: I would scream and curse at the data on my phone, then lace up my running shoes and do a few laps around the block at one in the morning. Then I would press the little “taunt” button on my app and let a digital frowny face convey my superiority over a child I love.

Maybe I was railing against her youth and athleticism, reasserting to the world that I am still young and vital and one day I will be thin, and I am the master of time, tide and destiny. Maybe I was just being a jerk.

While the Fitbit has been encouraging more activity, I’m not convinced that this is healthy behavior. I’m trying to use the device more moderately now. I hit my step count more often than not but I’m not participating in challenges every day. A lot of that may have to do with the fact that my friends and family are no longer accepting my invitations to compete, but who’s to say. Sometimes, I’ll glance at that little strap on my wrist and think of just how satisfying it would be if it would shake and light up and tell me I did a good job, and I start to salivate ever so slightly.

My preciousssss …

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