Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

For most of my adult life, walking has been my “go to” exercise – whether it be walking with family and friends outside or taking advantage of my treadmill and/or various walk at home DVDs when the weather isn’t conducive to exercising outdoors. Like many walking enthusiasts, I jumped on the pedometer bandwagon in the early 2000s. After all, I needed to know if I was achieving the recommended 10,000 steps a day to help maintain good health. As an added incentive, the company I worked for offered a walking challenge as part of the employee wellness program and I could earn prizes based on my steps.

I recall becoming frustrated with the pedometer over time. I had the simple kind that just hooked on to your pants, but this posed a problem if I wore a dress or some other outfit without a place to attach the pedometer. Even if I wore pants, the pedometer often slipped off. And there was always the question of what to do with it when needing to use the rest room so as not to lose said pedometer down the toilet. Eventually, I gave up and stopped wearing one altogether.

Wearable fitness trackers: friend or foe?

Fast forward about a decade to the introduction of wearable fitness trackers. I recall a friend owning one of the earliest products, which was technically still a clip-on device, but it did more than just measure steps. These new products could also track and monitor calories burned, sleep activity, and floors climbed. I’ve never really been an early adopter when it comes to technology, so I took a wait and see approach. As the technology and design improved, I finally jumped in a few years ago and purchased one of the more popular band-style fitness trackers. (Note: I am not going to name which brand I use as I am not endorsing or criticizing any particular device or company.)

At first, I was enamored by the wealth of data this device could supply. The accompanying app was user-friendly and the dashboard was customizable, so I could set it up to include as much or as little information as I wanted. My primary interest was in steps taken, minutes of exercise, calories burned and sleep. I have to admit it was fun at first, monitoring my progress and hoping to see green icons at the end of the day, meaning I had met my goals. I invited friends to participate in step challenges, so that we could hold each other accountable with a little friendly competition.

Wearing the device has definitely made me more aware of my level of activity and it has helped me achieve some health goals. But recently, I have started to question whether the fitness tracker is as beneficial as I first believed it to be. For example, I aim to get 10,000 steps per day. On average, my normal daily activity typically adds up to about 5,000 steps and then with at least 30 minutes of exercise, I can usually make it to my goal. However, I sometimes find myself “gaming the system,” if you will. I use the feature that reminds me to get up and move each hour if I have been inactive…except more and more lately, I find myself ignoring the notification and staying put in my seat. Then, later in the day when I realize I am behind on steps, I may find myself pacing the halls to get to 10,000 steps before bed. This is not helping me sit less during the day, and it often drives my husband crazy when I pace the bedroom trying to get in those last 500 steps or so.

The other feature that I have started to second guess is the sleep tracker. At first, I was excited to have this information at hand to get a better sense of the quality and quantity of my sleep. I typically aim to get about seven and a half hours of sleep per night during the week and maybe a little more on weekends. I have never really had a problem with sleep. I usually fall asleep quickly and often wake up before my alarm even goes off. I am an early riser as I meditate and exercise in the morning before going to work. Because of my schedule, it’s important for me to get to bed at a decent hour. So, I aim to have lights out no later than 10pm and wake up around 5:15am, giving me between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep.

When I started looking at the sleep data, I was surprised to find that I was often getting less than that according to the tracker. Most days I was lucky to be getting six to six and half hours per night, and sometimes it was even less. In looking at the breakdown of sleep stages, it indicated that I was often awake for an hour or more overnight. I realized over time that seeing these numbers was actually stressing me out about not getting enough sleep…when in reality, nothing had changed about my sleep patterns. For the most part, I was not waking up for significant amounts of time during the night and I usually felt refreshed and alert when I woke up. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that having this sleep data was doing more harm than good, so I recently made the decision to stop wearing the device at night (it was never really comfortable to me anyway) and I removed the sleep data from my dashboard. It is the best decision I have made in a while.

A ha moment

I have been having mixed feelings about my fitness tracker for some time now, but the “a ha” moment happened last weekend when I was in the middle of Nia class. I glanced at the tracker to see how many steps I had and found myself disappointed that it was less than I expected. Then it hit me – I had totally lost sight of my true goal. The bottom line is I exercise to maintain good health so I can enjoy life. The most important thing is that I am active and that I enjoy the activities I engage in. Whether or not I get 10,000 steps a day is really irrelevant. I had taken my eyes off the prize: being active because it feels good and is good for me.

So, does this mean I am tossing out my fitness tracker? No, at least not yet. I do believe there are benefits to wearing it and monitoring the data, but I won’t allow the data to stress me out or dictate how I spend my time. I am also going to take breaks from it now and then so I don’t feel so tethered to this little device on my wrist. Unfortunately, it seems that fitness trackers have become one more piece of technology that we can become addicted to, so it’s good to unplug from them every now and then. Take it off, then go walk, run, swim or play…just for the fun of it.

Movement, Exercise and Rest – Part 2

This is the second post related to this area of the Wheel of Health. Previously, I discussed Exercise and Movement. Today, I will focus on Rest/Sleep and why it is just as important for your overall wellbeing.

Rest/Sleep

While movement and exercise are important for good health, so are rest and sleep. Our bodies need down time to recover from physical activity. Although sleep needs vary by person, in general the recommendation is 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for adults. However, almost a third of adults in the United States report sleeping less than 7 hours per night. If we don’t sleep enough, the body can’t complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. We also wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully in work, school and social activities.

The quality of sleep matters as much as the quantity. Many of us are so busy that we find it difficult to “turn off” when it is time to sleep, resulting in sleep that does not restore us. We’re likely to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping soundly.

If you struggle with getting a good night’s sleep, consider these sleep hygiene recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Even on weekends, avoid going to bed or waking up more than an hour later than usual.
  • Use bright light to help manage your internal “body clock”. This means avoiding bright lights in the evening and exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime ritual such as taking a warm bath, reading a calming book, lighting candles or listening to soft music.
  • Create an environment that is conducive to sleep. The bedroom should be quiet, dark and cool. Consider removing work materials, televisions, computers and other electronic devices. Be sure that your mattress and pillow are comfortable.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, particularly later in the day.
  • Regular exercise can help with sleep, but avoid moderate to intense workouts close to bedtime as they can have the opposite effect.

If you try some or all of these methods and still struggle to get adequate sleep, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional. S/he may recommend a sleep study to determine if there are underlying medical issues that are interfering with your sleep.

In addition to adequate sleep, it is also important to allow yourself time to rest and relax (good old “R&R”). That might mean walking in the woods. Or fishing. Or lying on the couch with a good book. Whatever you find calming and restorative. This applies to taking breaks during the work day too. Many of us may find it difficult to do so in our culture that emphasizes working long hours and being plugged in 24/7, but a growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion. So, let go of the guilt and make time for yourself. You won’t regret it.

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