Essays on Technology and Culture

The First Push

I’m writing this while short of breath and in a bit of pain. I just finished a brief, intense, workout using FitStar.I bought the app back in August of 2014, and then forgot about it, but after reading Federico Viticci’s amazing piece on using his iPhone to get back in shape after cancer treatments, I was inspired to give it another try. I’m hoping it sticks this time. After all, if Federico can get back into shape, if not into better shape, after beating cancer, by using apps on an iPhone, surely an out-of-shape, overweight, but otherwise healthy 31-year old guy can, too. What do I have to lose by trying?

I found Federico’s piece inspiring, but I was also intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between Federico and ordinary consumer technology for bettering his life. It’s true that you don’t need an iPhone, a fitness track or a smartwatch, and a suite of apps just to get into shape. You need willpower, and a plan of action. This is true for so many things, but it sells short the power and potential of these tools to change our lives. Federico notes early on in his essay:

In the back of my mind, I always knew that I was the kind of person who would be interested in a daily exercise routine and healthier lifestyle with kind encouragement and the ability to visualize data and progress. That was the perfect motivation to get into the world of fitness tracking and lifestyle apps that was flourishing around the iPhone and the App Store.

It’s one thing to know what you need to do to get in shape. It’s another to know how. Awareness of the ecosystem of apps and services around fitness on the iPhone offers the potential for direction. As someone who’s struggled with fitness and being overweight his entire life, I can sympathize with Federico’s motivation. A few days ago, I was looking up exercise programs—not apps—and thinking about enrolling in a gym again. After reading up on several programs, ostensibly for beginners, my eyes glazed over and I began to smell burnt toast. The last fitness program I followed to completion was Couch to 5k, and only because the instructions were simple: run for a while, walk for a while, repeat, and eventually reduce the amount of time spent walking. [1]

The problem with getting into shape for a lot of people is that building habits, especially ones around physical fitness, is hard work. It often takes a huge amount of effort just to get started. Technology can help us clear the initial hurdles, and give us the first (and second, and third) push to get moving. There’s no shortage of ways in which we can use the tools we use daily to change how we live and our habits. Part of the sales pitch for Apple Watch is its role as a fitness tracker that tries to instill good habits, including spending less time seated. Since I already use a fitness tracker, having the tools I use to build a fitness habit coach me and adapt to what I’m doing (or not doing) would be insanely useful.

Of course, this goes far beyond just physical fitness. I’ve been trying to find for the technology I use each day to help me build other habits. Taking inspiration from Sean Korzdorfer’s explanation of how he uses, I’ve started using gentle reminders in Due to nudge me to do things I know I should to, from taking out the trash every few days, to brushing my teeth at night. My system isn’t a tenth as involved as Sean’s, but we all have different needs, and respond differently. There’s a million apps and tools that can help us accomplish what we want to accomplish, if only we take the time to find them and use them.

All too often, we take a passive role in our relationships with technology we use every day. Our devices are going to beep and buzz, and we are going to be at their command, while still thinking we’re in charge. This leaves so much untapped potential that only comes when we take the time to think about the raw power in our pockets can be used to help us do the things we really want, or need, to do. Fitness and habit building are one way in which we can have a truly symbiotic relationship with our devices. Encouragement of seeing the numbers go up, or down, guidance in what to do next, or avoid, and the full picture of what we’re trying to change for the better—these are things that become that much easier with the tools so many of us already have on our person. The potential is there for amazing things, we just need the first push.

  1. The nine-week program took me the better part of four months to complete due to things like injury and travel, but I did complete it! And then proceeded to fall off the wagon, entirely.  ↩