A Step too Far? When fitness apps becomes an obsession

Automation and maximising convenient living has resulted in our modern lifestyles becoming increasingly sedentary.

“This is resulting in a rising incidence of modern lifestyle diseases such as coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes and obesity. The scientific, medical, wellness and medical insurance industries have adopted several strategies in their attempts to alert us to the risks of a sedentary lifestyle. One of the most common and popular strategies has been to incentivise an active lifestyle,” says physiotherapist Jonathan Blake.

There’s no doubt that the benefits of exercise are far-reaching, explains exercise physiologist Dr Alessandra Prioreschi (www.activitycentral.co.za). “These include improvements in fat and muscle mass (which can decrease risk for developing many chronic conditions including diabetes and hypertension), improvements in emotional and mental health and capacity, and improved quality of life and general wellbeing.

“Many studies have tried to find ways to encourage people to be more active, but changing behaviour is complex, and often improvements in physical activity are not sustained as people tend to lapse into old habits. The motivation to be active needs to come from within and this is where fitness apps and incentive programmes have hit the mark. By targeting reward pathways, as well as altering group ideals and habits, these apps and incentives are motivating people to keep training, with great results,” he says.

The 10 000 step obsession

Step counting is not new. “The first pedometers became popular way back in 1964 because of the hype generated by the Olympic Games in Japan. These were marketed under the name’manpo-kei’ translated as the ‘10 000 step meter’ with the numeric origin of the step-counting device based on the number of steps it takes for a Japanese man to burn 3000 calories. Considering the average stride length, 10 000 steps could add up to 8km of walking to your daily activity profile,” Blake explains. “This could roughly translate into the 150 minutes of low- to medium-impact activity required per week to produce health gains as proposed by the Centre for Disease Control, and it’s also a convenient and seemingly reachable daily target.” He does, however, questions the relevance of the 10 000 step per day goal.

While Blake believes that the incentives, subsidies and rewards of step counting are a good initiative, particularly for the sedentary, he maintains that the 10 000-step yardstick falls short in light of the fact that stride length and terrain profiles vary and a leisurely stroll places less physiological load on the body than a meaningful stride or a power walk.

“Ten thousand is just a number, and yet it has become a universal point of reference when it comes to gauging daily activity levels – so much so that there are some rather creative methods of achieving this goal without having to even do anything. Attaching your step counting device to your dog’s collar or the ceiling fan will earn you your Lifestyle Rewards Points, but how will this benefit you health-wise?

“Walking, of course, is a good mode of exercise. It’s effective in developing cardio-respiratory and muscular endurance and has a relatively low injury risk as there’s reduced impact on the body. But while there’s no data to suggest that there’s an increase in the number of walking-related injuries due to the use of digital step counters, in my practice I’m noticing patterns of excessive behaviour in pursuit of this activity benchmark,” says Blake.

Dr Greg Hager, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, recently suggested at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Boston that the obsession with taking 10 000 steps a day could actually be detrimental to health. He pointed out that a one-size-fits-all fitness approach doesn’t take in account the vast differences in our individual capabilities, so while this may well be a healthy, attainable and beneficial objective for some, it could also be quite dangerous for others.

This is why Blake – and many other medical experts – believe that 10 000 steps should not be a target, but rather a guideline.

Take a step back

There’s no doubt that fitness apps and incentives have got people talking and more physically active. While Alessandra maintains that the positive findings of physical activity researchers have also been implemented in the workplace by companies aiming to improve corporate health, some companies are taking things a bit too far.

For example, eyebrows were recently raised when it became known that a Chinese company has made 10 000 daily steps mandatory for its sedentary workforce, with a penalty of 50-100 pushups for those who don’t achieve it.  Blake believes the goal should be more about moving than just a simple number. “When you’re just counting steps, there’s often minimal engagement with an active lifestyle, no incorporation of the other components of physical fitness, such as strength, flexibility and neuromuscular skills. There’s also no incentive to pursue the other, more beneficial, incentives of Lifestyle Rewards Programs such as wellness assessments, non-smoking declarations and dietary counselling. So as convenient, reachable and measurable as 10 000 steps may be, it may also be a step too far and in some instances not far enough.”

So rather than listening to all the hype and blindly following the herd and the instructions of that “magical” app or device, do yourself and your health a favour: take a step back, listen to your body and follow your doctor’s advice instead.

Prioreschi stresses that it is essential to take your age into account. “Although it’s important and beneficial to continue exercising as you get older, you need to be aware of your body’s limitations,” she says. “Over the years, you may need to decrease your intensity of exercise and change to movements that are easier for you. Be aware of any pain or heavier-than-normal breathing during your training and always give your body time to rest.”

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