Running with technology, and without. Moving through 5 stages of fitness gadgets.

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Our health, physical training and well-being is morphing with technology. If you wear a smartwatch, for example, it will log your activity in various ways while you are being quantified. Some call it self-tracking. This blog is about using technology for fitness activities, and the stages you go through as various gadgets make you more aware of yourself, based on insights you get from the data.

I have used a number of devices to track my activities, including for example pulse bands from Polar, the Nike+ and Runkeeper running apps for iPhone, Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex activity bands and GolfShot to track my golf score and accuracy. As technology is entering health and fitness on a new scale, and by observing my own use of it, I have noticed how the approach to training and technology seem to move through 5 different stages. Let me take you through it.     

Stage 1 – No exercise at all 

When you are at stage one, you don’t do any exercise or physical activity at all. It can be for medical reasons, or that you simply do not enjoy it, or don’t know where to start. It follows that you would not use much training apps at this stage either. Since I have always been quite active, I was never really at this stage. But if you look at a city like Stockholm, for example, studies show that almost 50% of the population works out more than twice a week, while around 25% never do any excercise. When and if you start working out, you move to stage 2.  

Stage 2 – Activity!

This is where I have been most of my life, I guess, before the time of smartphones, smart watches and activity bands. At stage 2 you do regular (or irregular) activities; running, working out, pumping iron at the gym, cycling, skiing or whatever you enjoy, or force yourself to do. In any case, you do it without much thinking about the data. “Data” means things like the exact route an a map, your pulse for various activities and the distance and number of steps you walk every day. You have no idea. You don’t care. Maybe the use of technology is limited to a stopwatch during a run. The main thing is that you do it, and that it’s good for you.  

Stage 3 – Awareness

When you start using technology like pulse sensors, GPS running apps and activity bands, you track your activity. In the beginning this will be a sensation, because now you see your running pace, how long that run around your neighbourhood actually is and you’ll get a number for your daily number of steps. The data is surely entertaining, and you can track your progress and compete with friends. Your training gets an additional dimension, and you gain more insight. Self-tracking and the ability, with technology, to monitor our daily activities – from running, daily steps and training diaries to sleep cycles, heart rate and calories – have created a huge new market for both software apps and devices. For the user, it heightens or awareness about the personal data we aggregate as we move around. This data provides insights that we did not have before, and can help us to be better. In addition, since most of the data is in the cloud and can be shared with friends, it adds a social dimension. A group’s activities (for example a team at a company working out together) becomes a collective awareness about each others habits, acting as a driver for activity.   

Stage 4 – Running free

I have since long known that my heartbeat ranges from around 55 (resting) to 215 (maximum), and that easy running or skiing occurs in pulse zone 3 (a pulse of around 120-150) and fast running is in pulse zone 4 (150-185 beats per minute). My typical running pace is 1 kilometer in 5 minutes (12 kilometers per hour) and when I approach 4 minutes per kilometer (15 kilometers per hour) my legs starts hurting. I normally walk between 10-15 kilometers during a normal working day, (to the office, picking up my kids, buying groceries), excluding exercises. My standard run in the park is 6.3 km (almost 8 km if for the longer route), and it takes me a little more than 30 minutes. If I run somewhere else, in a new city, for say 25 minutes, I know that run is about 5 kilometers. I don’t need an app for that. I can run free of apps. When you’re training at this stage you don’t need to measure, because you know. Now I’m not talking about elite athletes or if you train for an event or competition and want to improve your performance. For most general practice, you will be aware of the basic data, like pulse, speed and distance.

Stage 5 – Continuity and Balance

At stage five, it’s no longer about how fast or long you run, or knowing your data by heart, but to have continuity in what you do. And balance. The focus of your attention shifts to achieving a continuous high quality in your training and daily life. How often do you want to exercise every week? Say that your goal is five times/days per week. And what do you exercise? Can you mix two weekly instances of cardio training like running or cycling with two weekly instances of weight lifting for strength and put in one hour of yoga for mindfulness and stretching? When you exercise you also need to eat right, for example a solid breakfast, lunch and dinner, ideally with some snacks like a fruit or nuts in between. It’s also essential that you sleep, normally somewhere around 6-8 good sleep per night. How often can you, realistically and given your life situation, achieve that? If you can maintain a continuous level of training, mixing various forms of exercise, while also eating right and sleeping well, you will have a great balance, that will build your foundation for health.

Now, to help you keep up the continuity and balance, you might need need the support of your friends and family, or technology. Also at stage 5 training, simple apps are helpful to keep you on the right track. I’m using a Google Spreadsheet to track my training days (any day with at least 30 minutes of training) according to my weekly goals. I know this sounds nerdy. To make it even nerdier, I also follow if I eat right and sleep well. Once you have made your training frequency and balanced eating and sleeping into a natural habit, you can again let go of the technology.

And this is the point. Apps and gadgets serve an important health and fitness function; the technology and data helps you to raise your awareness during a period when you go from ignorant to aware, and then you can let go and run free, on a new level. This means that the main advantage of technology it’s not really physical, it’s mental.

Finally, new technology introduces new ways to track, and thereby new ways to raise our awareness. With the Apple Watch soon available, there will be a completely new market for health and fitness apps and opportunities to learn even more about our activities and ourselves. And remember, we always have a choice to switch on / switch off, to run with technology, or without.