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Confessions of a 10,000-Steps Maniac

by on June 18, 2014 6:00 AM

When my sweetie gave me a FitBit – a little digital device that keeps a daily count of steps taken, miles walked and calories burned – for Valentine's Day, she would not have been surprised if it wound up in the drawer where I keep the gifts cards I never redeem and the subway fare cards I never remember to bring to New York.

She knew I wasn't a gizmo guy: I had, for example, walked, cycled and even jogged, briefly, through my entire adult life without ever owning a Walkman, a Discman or an iPod. Even now, I don't have a single song or game on my cellphone and have only jammed foreign objects in my ears when trapped in an airplane seat.

She also knew of my aversion to any activity that smacked of "measuring out my life in coffee spoons," as T. S. Eliot puts it in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." If you asked me, life was too short to track expenses or gas mileage or weight fluctuations.

But when she gave me the Fitbit I thought of a guy I met on one of the waterfall trails at Ricketts Glen State Park – one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, by the way – who told me he was following the 10,000-step path to physical fitness, and that it was working. He'd lost something like 25 pounds.

Since I don't like gyms or gym clothes or, needless to say, exercise equipment, but love to put one foot in front of the other on pavement, trails and bicycle pedals, I thought maybe I, too, could walk and ride my way into better shape.

How many steps are there between my house and my office, anyway? How many steps do I take during a 75-minute class (I'm a true pedagogue, if only in the sense that I walk around the room a lot while teaching)? How much walking do I do in a typical day?

I stuck the Fitbit in my pocket – my model, the Zip, is about the size of a pocket watch and chain – and found out that just by walking to work and around campus I routinely hit 10,000 steps. On days when I fell a little short, I was suddenly up for an after-dinner stroll, even in wet or frigid weather. (A fellow Fitbit fanatic I know went around the block in flip-flops one icy night to fill his steps quota and slipped and broke his collarbone.)

I began to notice other behavioral changes. Before, I would carry armloads of stuff from one part of the house to another so I would only have to make one trip. Now, I say more trips mean more steps. Forget the laundry basket. I'll bring my dirty clothes down to the washing machine one sock at a time.

Same thing when I pull into the driveway with a carload of groceries. The old me would carry a half-dozen plastic bags in each hand. The new me drags this task out long enough for the ice cream to melt and the milk to sour.

As you might imagine, with all my chores and errands taking so much more time than they used to, I'm not getting as much done. But at least I'm fit, right?

Well, one side effect of all this extra walking is a belief that I can eat with abandon. A 20,000-step day? Let's go out for hot fudge sundaes!

If I really want to get fit, I have to get another digital device, one that tracks my calorie intake and measures my blood sugar.

I can envision a time in the not-too-distant future when I'll start to quarrel with my digital health monitor the same way I've been arguing with Beatrice, the voice of my GPS, over the best route from Kennedy Airport to the Upper West Side. I can picture myself ordering a hot fudge sundae at Meyer Dairy and hearing this voice from my wrist tut-tutting against it.

"Have you forgotten the chocolate chip cookie you had at lunchtime?" the DHM will ask. "How many desserts do you need in one day?"

We'll probably also have a voice coming from our credit cards when our balance approaches the gross national product of Zimbabwe so we know to cool it on the spending for the rest of the month.

Or, since so many of us are afflicted with social anxiety to varying degrees, how about an app on our Google glass – call it Cyrano -- that whispers witty repartee in our ear?

I can imagine an entire chorus of electronic voices diagnosing, reminding, nagging and coaching us. Or maybe all these functions will eventually be linked in one universal Mom-chip.

Prufrock had no idea how easy his life was.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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