How a FitBit Encouraged My Daily Walks

I try to walk every day. Walking is the only regular form of exercise I get these days, because it is all that I have time for. Most health authorities agree on the many benefits of daily walks. For me, the most obvious benefit has been a peace of mind. On days that I walk, I feel better, more relaxed, and more alert throughout the day.

I started taking my daily walks around the same time I got my first FitBit device in the spring of 2012. I became interested in wearable devices, like a FitBit, after reading Stephen Wolfram’s essay on “The Personal Analytics of My Life.” I am fascinated by data, and I wondered what some of the charts that Wolfram displayed in his essay would look like for me. I began a search for fitness trackers, and quickly settled on FitBit.

One of the criticisms of fitness trackers is that they discourage fitness as much as they encourage it. The focus is on a particular fitness goal (10,000 steps per day). Hitting that goal feels good, but missing the goal can stimulate strong feelings of guilt. Those feelings can turn discouraging quickly.

That isn’t what happened in my case. I was fascinated by the data I collected, and for the first year or two, I monitored the data obsessively. I started with the goal of hitting the recommended 10,000 steps/day. Then I upped it to 15,000/day. And for a long time, I achieved that goal regularly.

Over time, however, I found that I enjoyed the walks more than the numbers, and my obsession with the latter began to wane. Reviewing my blog posts in 2012 and 2013, you’ll find many more posts on my walking stats than you’ll find in the years since. What really matters to me today are the walks themselves.

At work, I try to get out at least twice a day. The most focused part of my work day tends to fall between 7-10 am. There are few interruptions. I try to avoid email. My goal during those hours is to complete the most important thing I need to get done that day. At 10 am, I go out for my first walk.

A walk around the block on which my office building resides comes to almost exactly 1 mile (just about 2,000 steps, according to my FitBit). I listen to audiobooks while I walk, which allows me to get exercise, fresh air, and read all at the same time.

I walk south to the corner, past an apartment building, and then turn west, for the most scenic part of my walk. There is part to my left and nicely landscaped apartment towers to my right. The street gradually curves to the north, and I find myself in a small retail district, with apartment complexes to my left and shop to my right. This is the single longest stretch of my walk. I walk to the far corner, and turn right, along a street that runs parallel to I-395. This is the least scenic part of my walk, and the only place where I have to pause, on occasion, for traffic. I turn one final corner and I am back on the street where my office resides, and halfway down the block, I return to my starting point.

I try to walk the block twice in the morning, and three times at lunch. It varies depending on my schedule and the weather, but for the latter, I will always try to walk so long as the weather isn’t overwhelmingly against me.

The 10 am time slot used to be inviolate, but my increasingly busy schedule has made it necessary to skip now and then. I always feel worse off on the days I skip walking, not because I am not capturing the steps, but because of the sense of peace that the walk gives me. It is familiar and comforting, and something I look forward to from the moment I wake up. On my walks I see familiar faces, I see how the neighborhood changes with the changing seasons. In the first warm days of spring, the sun feels delightfully warm on my face. In the first days of fall, the cool air is refreshing.

I suspect I would never discovered this particular joy were it not for the encouragement that my first FitBit gave me to get out and walk every day. In the last year or so, my walking has declined as my life as gotten busier, but I’ve also noticed a corresponding increase in my daily stress level. It is no longer the FitBit that encourages me to get out and walk. It is the knowledge—gained from nearly 13.9 million steps since March 2012—that I feel better when I walk every day.

There has been a pleasant side-effect to all of this. As I mentioned, I listen to audiobooks while I walk. I have read scores of books on my walks, and I am often reminded of the books as I walk. The light of mid-summer sun, as I begin a walk reminds me of the few months I spent listening to a 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Snow on the ground and my breath visible in the morning air brings to mind the early winter months when I listened to Stephen King’s Christine.

And my walks don’t stop when I am out of town. There are a few places that we go each year which have become so familiar to me that I look forward to the walks there as much as my morning walks at the office. Walking to the town in Maine that we visit in the summers is always pleasant. Walking around the circumferential bike path at my in-law’s is also pleasant, particularly because, despite being December, it is warm and sunny and gorgeous to look at.

A walk in the woods with the kids
A walk in the woods with the kids

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned, thanks to my FitBit, has nothing to do with how much I walk, how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, or how many calories I’ve burned. The most valuable lesson is that I feel better on days that I walk than I days that I don’t. My stress level is lower, I feel more cheerful, and I feel more accomplished. That lesson has been worth the cost of the device, to say nothing of the 13.9 million steps I’ve put on it over the years.