On Christmas Eve a few years ago, I was trolling through a mall looking for a couple gifts for my wife. That’s a stressful situation. I only go to shopping malls once or twice a year and I don’t enjoy it, especially if the mall is crowded as is generally the case on December 24th. It is because of such experiences that we give experiential gifts these days. Our gift this past Christmas was a trip to Italy a few months later with our grown children. It’s a little nerve wracking to conclude that you haven’t gotten enough stuff for your loved ones, and now you have to go to a mall and hope for the best.
On that particular Christmas Eve trip to the mall, however, I did well. I bought my wife a Fitbit. I hadn’t heard about the new generation of personal activity trackers, but the sales person told me all about it and how much his girlfriend loved hers. I knew that I was accepting the sales pitch out of desperation, but it this case it worked – my wife loved the gift.
Almost immediately, our walks on the neighborhood paths changed in character. “Steps” started guiding my wife’s exercise decisions and our walks became less leisurely. We began walking faster because that would yield more steps over a given time. Her Fitbit also recorded flights of stairs or flight-equivalents of hills. I hadn’t realized at first that her frequent trips up the stairs in our house only to return a moment later were not a sign of forgetfulness, but a quest for flights.
She was not alone; there seemed to be a Fitbit cult. Funny stories started showing up online about the sometimes baffling behavior of women and their confused and embarrassed husbands. These articles were written by the women. They considered it funny how the Fitbit changed their behavior. They thought nothing about sticking their hand down the front of their blouses in public places in order to retrieve the Fitbit from their cleavage so they could check the number of steps so far that day. They also seemed to enjoy their husbands’ embarrassment during these times.
Men began to join the cult. One of the funniest stories I’ve seen was written by David Sedaris and published in The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/stepping-out-3). I don’t want to give many details here, but suffice it to say that Sedaris become almost enslaved to the Fitbit. Read the article if you have the chance – it’s a good one.
I got a Fitbit about a year and a half ago. It hasn’t changed my life as completely as it has for others, but there have been some incidences. I have a fairly active life as measured by steps taken, but I’m often too busy to get the exercise I really would prefer – running or other aerobic activities. Still, that daily steps total is compelling, especially toward the end of the day, and even more so when I’m on vacation.
Two examples. My son invited me to a 5-day “workweek” Fitbit challenge and I was on vacation in Las Vegas. Well, shortly after midnight on the first day of the challenge, I went for a long walk on the Strip and received a text from my son the next morning which read, “How did you walk 14,000 steps already?” I had to smile – my evil plan had worked.
A couple months later, I let the steps goal get the better of me. It appears to work on the same part of my brain that makes it hard for me to throw away food. My son and I hiked the Grand Canyon. To be more specific, we did exactly what the signs at the rim warn against. We hiked from the rim, down to the bottom, along the Colorado River, across the bridge, up the tributary to Phantom Ranch, and back in one day. According to my iSmoothRun app, we hiked 21.5 miles with a total elevation increase of 8,300 feet in 8-1/4 hours. A very good hike, but also very exhausting. Still, when we got back to the house, the Fitbit goaded me on. With about 25 minutes to the end of the day, I was at 48,000 steps. I went for a walk around town to get to 50,000. There’s a hint of obsession there.
The Fitbit does not have the same effect on me these days. I rarely check the daily total, but I still keep it in my pocket and the steps add up. In a little less than a year and a half, I’ve accumulated close to 6.5 million steps. Actually is more than that. Sometimes the battery dies and I don’t notice for a few days.
The main lasting effect from the Fitbit has to do with where I park when I go somewhere. I never park close to the entrance anymore, but way out in the empty parts and get a number of steps before I even get to the front door. And that add up – it’s a few hundred extra steps at each stop. And that has given me an idea.
I live in a state with a high obesity rate in a country with a high obesity rate. As determined by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, 30.7% of adults in Michigan were obese in 2014. This is a 133% increase over the 1990 obesity rate of 13.2%, which is a typical increase for the United States. The most obese state is Arkansas with 35.9% adults falling into the 30+ BMI category.
What if the overweight and obese citizens of Michigan are forced into taking more steps? That may improve the overall health of the people and reduce spending on chronic health issues like diabetes and heart failure. Health insurance rates for everyone in the state may go down, or at least grow more slowly, and state and federal spending on healthcare may also decrease. It sounds like a good situation.
So how do we force these steps? Big government program? Probably not – Michigan has a republican governor and state legislative bodies. No, my idea involves parking manipulation.
Those of us who like to get those extra steps by parking far away from the front door of a business may want to consider taking those closer spots in front of the businesses on the other side of the plaza and walking from there. We still get our extra steps, but we may also force extra steps for those who are less inclined toward exercise. They would now have to park where available and walk further to the front door.
Over time, this plan could lead to weight loss for the overweight and obese residents of Michigan. I can see two potential negatives though. Our parking plan may be noticed by others and there could be a backlash. I do not wish to have my car vandalized by an angry mob (okay, it probably wouldn’t go that far).
The other possibility is that this parking strategy may actually damage the health of those we’re hoping to help. How? The cumulative effect of never finding a parking space close to where you’re going could cause anxiety and depression instead of weight loss. You never know how people will react to such things. I think it’s worth a try though. I suppose I should create a movement on Twitter – #healthyparking perhaps. How does one go about doing that, I wonder?