For 27 years he ate what he wanted and avoided exercise like the plague. Can an arsenal of fitness gadgets make this human healthier in just eight weeks?
From the snake oil salesman to the Thighmaster(TM), science and technology have promised the end of obesity, ill health and lethargy for centuries. Today, weight loss gadgetry is all around us, with affordable commercial systems available from Nintendo, Nike, Adidas and countless other manufacturers, all promising their technology will turn us into paragons of healthy virtue. How is it then, that for all of this, we live in an age where a quarter of the American population is obese?
Do any of these seemingly endless health aids actually work? Will a $200 wristband or a $100 pedometer cause you to banish microwave dinners and saturated fats, take up regular exercise at the gym at least three days a week and sleep well with no bad dreams? Or has the health industry made technology another ineffective distraction that only provides you with a vague sense that you're doing something positive? Is the real answer what it's always been: go for a walk in the trees and eat your greens?
I'm 27 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall and I weigh 239 pounds (108.4 kg). A typical day on the job for me is spent sitting at a desk, eating junk food and chugging caffeine like it's going out of fashion. Unsurprisingly, I'm tremendously obese, but then I always have been. Perpetually vacillating adipose tissue hangs from my every limb and has done so since I was a child -- it's been the source of poor self-esteem, bullying and depression. I don't go out in the summer, I wear a wardrobe of predominantly black clothes and I wake up in the middle of the night with heart palpitations. It's also entirely my own fault: when I was young, I condemned exercise as the pastime of those too stupid to read -- my regular sick-note forgeries got me out of gym class so I could spend more time with my head in a book. Unfortunately, it's become apparent that I've got the body of a middle-aged man on an express train towards type 2 diabetes and other weight-related maladies.
Next month, I'm getting married, and I want to arrive on the big day having made a change to my life, and so my poor spouse-to-be doesn't wind up living with an oleaginous troll for the next few decades. I've tried everything under the sun to make the change beforehand, and now it's time to see if technology can succeed where every faddy diet and pill couldn't. I've got the eight weeks before the suit fitting to try, and I'll give one device or program a go each week. So, can an arsenal of fitness gadgets really make me fitter, happier and more productive?
Week One: Nintendo Wii Fit
(108.4kg / 239 pounds)
I begin where I'm sure many others have too. In fact, since nearly 23 million editions of Nintendo's Wii Fit have been sold since 2008, I'd be willing to bet plenty of people bought it specifically to help them lose weight. So, can a $250 console bundle supplant the need to attend an $80-a-month gymnasium? It's certainly notorious for inspiring countless academic studies and websites, and the thrust of the company's advertising budget has been devoted to selling the idea that this is all you need to transform you from dumpy drone into Charles Atlas.
After firing up the console, I undergo the Body Test, measuring my height and weight to give me my Body Mass Index (BMI). Once discovered, my slender, anonymous avatar balloons into a bow-legged, morbidly obese Mr. Creosote before the game offers me pseudo-scientific advice about my balance and posture, saying that ensuring you stand with perfect balance is both healthier and more attractive than leaning to one side. Each day, I try to cover a good variety of the mini games on offer, alternating between the cardiovascular, rhythm, balance and yoga / muscle plans before capping them off with a 10-minute free jog. Yes, that does involve jogging on the spot, and no, I don't do it with the curtains open. Sadly there's a problem: the pace is so slow that I'm not benefiting much, because my pulse isn't increasing. If I want to go a little faster and get more out of it, the quickened pace causes my avatar to fall over and the game exhorts me to take it easy. Suffice to say, I'm not actually doing much exercise.
Using it as a fitness tool, however, is nearly impossible, as the tedious series of stops and starts saps your motivation in minutes.
The frustrations don't stop there. The mini games all take time to begin, with a repetitive intro and outro bookending each one. In isolation, it's like a sampling platter so the introduction is handy to get you reacquainted with the rules. Using it as a fitness tool, however, is nearly impossible, as the tedious series of stops and starts saps your motivation in minutes. More annoying is that the balance board re-calibrates before Every. Single. Game. It assumes you're standing perfectly in place between games, rather than idly shifting from side to side or attaching or removing the nunchuk peripheral. Because of this, you're rarely in the place you're meant to be, meaning the game that follows is too compromised to play properly (if you rested your weight on your left foot for a nanosecond, you'll find it impossible to stand straight in the game) or worse -- you'll injure yourself as you overcompensate for its failure.
During the week, I find myself coming up against this same brick wall of engagement: very few of the three-minute games were of sufficient intensity to get my heart going (necessary for optimal weight loss and exercise) and it doesn't even provide a sense that I've making a good choice. Instead, it felt like a passing attraction that lacked the necessary depth that it promised and left me unmotivated. I was glad to box it away, even if I was ruing the purchase.
Week Two: Zeo Sleep Manager
(108kg / 238 pounds)
Sleep isn't something I'm very disciplined about, and spending most nights with a throbbing chest isn't helping. Waking up's never been a strong point either. It's a fight, often requiring two or three alarm clocks if I need to be up early to cover an event or catch a train. However, sleep is as important to health as good exercise, and many fitness gadgets offer sleep monitoring as part of their feature set. This one's slightly different, because rather than using motion sensing, it actually monitors electrical activity in the brain. Imagine a sleep cycle as an inverted bell-curve, you start light, fall down deeper and gently come back up to being nearly awake. It's a process that people go through several times a night. With the Zeo Sleep Manager, you set an alarm "window" of, say, 20 minutes (so if you'd get up at 7:00, you'd set it between 6:45 and 7:05) and the device will see when you're at the peak of a cycle within that window and wake you up then, rather than at a defined time. If you're still deeply asleep at the end of the allotted time, the Zeo will helpfully wake you up anyway.
I strap the Zeo Sleep Manager onto my head and I feel self-conscious as I realize I'm wearing an obsidian tiara to bed. It pairs to your phone for control, but you can only use one in the house, as it's essentially a "dumb" device. Most importantly, you must leave your phone on without pressing a single button for it to work -- I miss that fact the first two days I use it, instinctively pressing the "screen off" button as soon as I put it down.
Wearing a device like this can, at times, be unforgiving if you're an awkward sleeper.
Wearing a device like this can, at times, be unforgiving if you're an awkward sleeper. If you sleep with your head on your arms, you'll sometimes find yourself awake for hours just relentlessly aware of its unwelcome presence. What alarms me the most is that the Zeo actually seems to work. After a few days of adjustment, I find that it wakes me without the horrendous fighting that I've normally experienced over the last two decades.
There is one important caveat to add, because beautiful sleep does come at a price. If you are cohabiting, you may wake up every morning free from fatigue and full of joy, but you'll also discover your significant other will be irritable for most of the day. Your alarm clock will be supplanted by a sharp elbow to the ribs.
Week Three: Just Dance 3 (Wii)
(107kg / 235 pounds)
Acting upon the advice of several svelte, active people, I pick up a copy of Ubisoft's Just Dance 3. They promised me that it would remove my jaded feelings toward the Wii and reinvigorate my campaign for healthiness. In the interests of science, I give it a go. The song selection isn't to my taste (most of the titles are bowdlerized top ten hits, instrumentals or Euro-pop singles) but I find something inoffensive and begin. It's at this point I realize that I shouldn't have tried doing this in jeans and a T-shirt. Copying the movements of a trained French dancer with decades of experience is not something that comes naturally, and halfway into that first song, I'm already a gibbering wreck.
It's at this point I realize that I shouldn't have tried doing this in jeans and a T-shirt.
As tempted as I am to give up, I'm forced to admit that it's both fun and funny. Once you close the curtains, change into something a little looser and leave any pretension you might be carrying at the door, it's fantastic fun. Ubisoft found the same thing, that the game encourages people to get moving without realizing that's what they 're doing (paging Carmen Sandiego). One woman in Florida was so motivated to get a high score, she shed 50 pounds playing the game, so the company added a "Just Sweat" mode. It won't disclose the ratio of "Sweat Points" to calories, but with a little research, it's in the (very subjective) ballpark of 2.5 points = one calorie (some think that ratio is lower, some think it could be as high as five, so let's play it safe). You can choose one of three fitness programs, "Fresh Start," where you can burn off 1,400 calories in seven days, "Healthy Choice" to tackle 2,800 or "Sweat Explosion" for 8,400 in the same period of time. Undeterred, I select the latter and hope for the best.
It is enormous fun doing it because, while yes, it is a dancing game, and yes, it is heavily skewed towards a female demographic, I really enjoy being able to move better, learning how to move properly by copying a professional and taking a moment to not be so deathly serious in a world that demands it. Some men will find it an affront to their masculinity to even consider playing it, and those people are missing out on a fantastic way of increasing their fitness levels that's both high-impact, and means you don't have to embarrass yourself outdoors. By the end of the week, I'm mildly proficient with the game, but better than that, my heart palpitations have reduced considerably, I stop looking so sallow and start sleeping through the whole night without the customary heart-beating disturbances. For those reasons alone, I'll keep the game around for those moments when I'm feeling whimsical.
Week Four: Striiv
(105.5kg / 233 pounds)
Described as the "personal trainer in your pocket," Striiv is a $99 touchscreen pedometer that looks like a tiny Android phone. Once you learn how to prod that resistive touchscreen (very, very hard), you clip it to your waistband and watch as it keeps track of how many steps you take, how much you run and how many stairs you climb. Pedometers are easily gamed, so I give it a good hard shake to determine my margin of error, but it isn't biting. If you're fixated upon sabotaging your own progress, you can learn how to replicate a stepping motion in your hand, but it really isn't worth it.
How can a lowly pedometer motivate me? On day one, it tells me that I took around 1,000 steps and only scaled my stairs three times, which is a bit of a shock. However, it isn't enough to make me remember to take it with me on the second day. Unfortunately, a graph can't grab you by the lapels and explain how rapidly you're rushing toward your own demise. Instead, it's got a three-pronged attack that attempts to coerce you into becoming more active.
Walkathon is a program in partnership with Global Giving, whereby every time you hit 18,000 steps (around eight miles), the company donates cash to protect a parking-spot sized square of Tanzanian rainforest for a year, or supply a day of clean water to a Bolivian child. If you fancy a loftier challenge, you can save up 60,000 steps and donate a dose of polio vaccine for a child in India. I choose the water option and I'm immediately presented with an empty water jug -- the more I walk, the more it fills up. When it's full, I simply plug it into the desktop and send my donation off.
If you're fixated upon sabotaging your own progress, you can learn how to replicate a stepping motion in your hand, but it really isn't worth it.
Then there's Myland, a fantasy-themed game on the device where you help a Zelda-esque centaur to plant a garden. The more you walk, the more plants you can buy, enabling the garden to grow even bigger. I won't lie: the only reason I spend longer than 20 seconds with this is that I had to write about it. But everyone's different, and I'm sure plenty of people will enjoy playing Zelda: The Greenhouse Years. I certainly won't judge.
Finally, there are challenges, which crop up and offer you a "step bonus" (which won't affect your count, but will contribute to your Walkathon or Myland tallies). Having just climbed the stairs, it eggs me on to climb a further 25 (or walk up and down them again twice more) for a big bonus, and since I had nothing else to do, I fall in line. Watching that water jug fill up with clean blue water provides a moderate kick because I'm not going out of my way to make a greater effort. That's how it gets you: it's insidious. It isn't long before you start accepting the challenges as a matter of course and eagerly select them when you're out and about.
The moderate exercise offered here is a step backwards compared to the high-impact efforts of Just Dance, but once it gets its hooks in me, it changes my daily routine -- offering enough incitements to improve my exercise at such a gentle level that I don't resent it. Moreover, I know I'm not doing it just for myself; as I lose weight and became more active, I am paying it forward to those in even greater need.
Week Five: Motorola MOTOACTV
(104.1kg / 229 pounds)
Motorola's long-gestating Nike+ rival, MOTOACTV, is the most powerful device I'll use. It's also the one I'm most intimidated by. It's pitched by marathon runners to people who categorically know what they're doing. Letting me use one is like giving the nuclear codes to a particularly testy child. After connecting the unit to my computer, it launches the Motocast software (a nice touch) and pulls my playlists directly from iTunes. Once set up, I go to the accompanying website where you can schedule your sessions, launch pre-defined 12-week fitness programs and plan your routes. It'll act as a wrist-mounted music player, but it's also a very accurate GPS tracker and will pair to a compatible Android phone when you're on the go.
On those rare occasions when I go for a run, it's an open invitation for members of the public to give a toss about what I'm doing. That means they'll usually offer up an insulting opinion or two to the risible character they presume me to be. I've experienced it frequently enough for me to take as a certainty. Fortunately, England is beset with a period of torrential rain during my test drive, meaning that I'm able to jog around knowing that everyone else is confined indoors.
It's surprisingly fast to find the satellite as I get going, and for the first 500 yards, decades of agonizing running experiences disappear and I start to feel that running might be something I could take to.
I then hit what I've been told is "the wall."
Hot sparks of electricity shoot up my shins, my chest compresses to the size of an ice cube and my face balloons to the size of a small country. It's at this point that I begin to resent the MOTOCACTV for trusting me with the intelligence to choose my own course. Windows and OS X will nanny you incessantly if you want to run a program it doesn't trust, but as I go through the stages of a heart attack, I wonder where the "Are you sure you want to set a three-mile run? Shouldn't you set your sights a little lower?" popup has gone to. Half a mile later, I walk back to the house and lay down in the hallway. It advises me that I'd burned 86 calories in the seven minutes of exercise I'd done, and I am heartened a little.
However, I don't (and can't) stop there, much as I would love to. I have an experiment to carry out, and I'd be damned if I was going to let something as simple as my own mortality get in the way. Each time, I trot out with a short and blissful run, followed by an agonizing retreat home (with one eye on looking for a liposuction clinic in the nearby regions). Worst of all, I'm in love with using the unit. I managed to marshal all of those features with ease and I never had to worry about its allegedly short battery life. If I had 12 weeks to go on one of its tailored plans, I suspect I'd be stumping up the cash to buy one right away -- my only gripe being that it doesn't have a pedometer to fall back on when you're monitoring data indoors.
Week Six: Couch to 5K
(103.5kg / 228 pounds)
Let's begin with an apology, because I was clearly out of my depth with the MOTOACTV. While having a reach that extends beyond your grasp is often considered noble, it was nothing of the sort in this case. It is a painful reminder that being five weeks into a health and fitness program doesn't mean that I can leave the minor leagues of pedometers and make the leap to professional running gear. In short, I just wouldn't be worthy of the MOTOACTV until I'd learnt the intermediate stages of exercise, and since I can't afford (or justify) a personal trainer, I have to find an electronic equivalent. A couple of co-workers suggest I stump up £1.49 ($2.30) for Active.com's Couch-to-5K app for the iPhone, designed to transform sofa-bound fatties into runners capable of completing a five-kilometer (three-mile) race.
So what can an iPhone app do? It offers up a staggered, managed program of walking and jogging in order to build a base level of fitness. If you've never jogged before, it's hard to demarcate it from running, but eventually you find a pace that feels comfortable. After two or three bursts of activity I find myself succumbing to stitches, but every time I'm on the cusp of giving up and sulking off the app switches to walking. It's ridiculously easy to use (it's hard not to, as you just do what you're told) and it's fantastic that you have an encouraging voice talking you through things -- I clearly respond well to nannying.
I do have one niggle with the app itself: if your phone is locked, it won't maintain audio coaching. However, the app's own screen lock works inconsistently which can knock you off your pace. If you time your screen locks right, you can force the countdown timer to stutter before it tells you to run again, great if you need to delay the next burst of jogging by an extra second.
I notice that I'm starting to move around involuntarily, just shifting from foot to foot while cooking and generally being more active.
At the end of week six, I notice that I'm starting to move around involuntarily, just shifting from foot to foot while cooking and generally being more active. I even start looking up exercises that would help to reduce my considerable thighs and, best of all, I go to purchase a running top and I can now wear a large. A large. It's an achievement purely because since records began, I've always worn XL or XXL at a bare minimum. My jeans aren't forced by my physical geography to linger around my hips -- I can now wear them around my waist (something I'll have to get used to, admittedly) and I'm generally feeling very, very good. I wonder if this fitness bug is somehow catching. In fact, this app is something I'm going to have to go back to when not trapped by the confines of an eight-week experiment, even if that does mean my future fitness will have to wait until after my nuptials.
Week Seven: Fitbit Ultra
(101.1kg / 223 pounds)
I'm entering the final straight now and my suit fitting is coming ever closer, so it's time to make one last big push. I'm so close to weighing less than 220 pounds (100 kg) for the first time as an adult. I've even looked up what my ideal weight should be: roughly 165 pounds (75 kg). I couldn't dream of making that in the few short weeks before the nuptials, but suddenly that goal doesn't seem like an insurmountable challenge. I'm determined to get down below that golden 100-kg number before the wedding, with the Fitbit Ultra as my next companion.
It's the oddest-looking product I've seen in a while, built like a clothes peg you can't open clad in a blue, plastic body. It's designed to be clipped onto your waistband during the day and on a supplied wrist cuff in the night -- offering both activity and sleep-tracking functionality in one device. A handy charging dock doubles as a wireless access point, meaning it'll sync automatically with the Fitbit website and keep you updated on your progress via email. Its versatility is a weakness too, since none of the sensors are as reliable or accurate as those on a dedicated device -- for example, after the first night it told me that I burned nearly 1,000 calories while I'd been asleep.
When I go for a run, it's utterly unobtrusive, but there's no GPS integration, just that pedometer and altimeter that tells you how many steps you've made and it works out the rest of the data from your height and weight. You'll do most of your interaction over the Fitbit website, which will tell you how far you've gone each day (including an amusing list of equivalent landmarks you'll have climbed) and offer pre-selected food- and weight-tracking plans. It expects you to make a lot of effort on its behalf, so only people who enjoy entering a lot of data onto a website will get the benefit. The site offers food- and calorie-tracking options, but the math could get tricky if you're trying to follow a controlled diet.
Food tracking would be better if the database was exhaustive -- despite my rather un-exotic diet, I still have to manually enter all of the foods I eat. To get good data, I have to weigh my meals and hunt around in the bin for any calorie information I've omitted -- which makes me wonder if the database is aggregated for all of the device's users. I've learned that obsessively journaling your food intake isn't healthy, so the fact that this isn't easy is a big turn-off for me -- and after a few days, I give up trying.
I like the Fitbit because of its unobtrusive nature. I'd be happy to keep it on me forever, but it doesn't offer me any encouragement to do well. It's a reasonable sleep tracker and great if all you're looking for is an all-in-one device to keep yourself in check. If you're looking for something to wrestle you away from the sofa, I don't think this is for you.
Week Eight: Nike + SportWatch GPS
(100.4kg / 221 pounds)
It's the final roll of the dice. At the end of this week, I'm off for the all-important suit fitting and the end of this project. I finish with Nike and TomTom's Nike+ SportWatch GPS, a bulky black and neon timepiece that also serves as a fitness coach, GPS tracker, stopwatch and timer. As soon as I strap it on, I instantly feel more athletic. I'm reminded of the joke, "How do you know if someone has an iPhone? They tell you." The watch has an unspoken cachet of exercise that speaks of weekends spent climbing mountains rather than chugging biscuits in front of the TV. Now I get why so many people wear heart-rate monitor watches to the office: to show off.
Fashion aside, I'm pleased at how comfortable it is on the wrist and how easy it is to operate. You may lament the absence of a touchscreen, but it would add an uncomfortable level of complexity to this unit. Instead, there are three sturdy rubber buttons (up, down and enter) along the left-hand side and a touch- (okay, slap-) sensitive bezel for activating the backlight and marking laps on the go.
The USB port is built into the strap itself, which makes me paranoid about breaking it, but it is clad in sturdy black plastic and I'm unable to do it any damage during testing. Once I'm set up on Nike+ online and the management software is in, I'm ready to go. I set up a fitness program and lay down a challenge on the Nike + website for anyone to join me. Within the day, I have four challengers all vying to hit the target of running 14 miles in the week-long period I've allocated.
When you start a run, it takes several seconds for Nike+ to hook up with the local GPS satellite, only annoying if you're standing still in torrential rain as you wait. It even comes with its own interval training program. Be warned, however, as soon as it's activated, it puts you straight into a two-minute run without a warm-up. When it switches from "run" to "rest" phases, it beeps, but between the noise of busy roads and the sound of my own heavy breathing, it's impossible to hear. This means I have to keep looking at the watch to make sure I don't miss a transition or two. Upon finishing, it tells me that I've had a good "first run" and offers an aloof, yet motivating message, storing my personal bests for my edification (or boasting) after the fact.
Because I'm able to wear it as a watch, it becomes a permanent reminder to run, and motivates me to stay active. With its help (and the experience gained over the last eight weeks) I am able to maintain my own exercise much more effectively. Now all I have to do is try and beat that community challenge...
Those were eight very long, sometimes very painful weeks. So, did technology improve my life? Without question.
Many of the ailments that have aggravated me over the last two decades disappeared during the course of this experiment. I now get a comfortable eight or nine hours of sleep and my concentration has improved markedly.
Physically, plenty of the less attractive landmarks on my body have reduced in size and I'm able to wear clothes a decent few sizes smaller than when I started. In my mind, it wasn't until the weekend between weeks seven and eight that I had my epiphany. After eight hours, 23 minutes of sleep, I got up on Saturday morning and felt compelled to go for an extra run. I've previously only ever tried to achieve an early-morning run in those misguided attempts at post-New Year's Presbyterianism. But there I was, jogging around in a hailstorm in the hope of shaving a few more inches from my frame and minutes from my time.
For me, there are three broad categories of exercise gadget: those which didn't work, those which relied upon self-motivation and those which did the hard work of coaxing me out of my chair. Of course, no talking watch can force you to get up, and if it could, you'd soon "forget" to charge it, but as soon as you find that spark of inspiration, you'll find things much easier with one of these at your side.
The Zeo did it by giving me the tangible and welcome benefit of painless morning routines. Just Dance made a workout silly, ridiculous fun that helped me sweat off plenty of calories in the privacy of my own home. Striiv appealed to my social conscience, and I wanted to do better to help those less fortunate. Couch-to-5K made it impossible for someone as exercise-averse as me to come up with a decent reason not to go for a run.
The Fitbit was a fantastic all-round companion and, while I doubt its accuracy, I adore its ease of use and its power as a true all-rounder. The MOTOACTV is a technical achievement that I love and would readily buy tomorrow if there was a watch-based version that was also iOS-compatible. The Nike + Sportwatch made me feel like I'd achieved things and I respected and liked plenty of its features -- you never know, it might become my next timepiece.
Wii Fit? Without a doubt, a significant waste of my time, money and motivation. I suggest no one attempt it if they're pondering a weight loss program. It's simply not challenging enough to coax people into exercising. I'm sure some have managed great success using the device, but I'm not one of 'em.
A plastic-surgeon called Maxwell Maltz is credited to have said that if you do something for 21 days, it becomes a habit. I'm coming to the conclusion that, as difficult as it appears when you're on the sofa, when you find a gadget that you can respond to, it doesn't take too long at all before it becomes second nature to use it.
Of course, you want to know the results, so here goes: Eight weeks ago I weighed 239 pounds (108.4 kg) and now I weigh 219 pounds (99.6 kg). I've lost around four inches from my hipline, having swapped a pair of size 42 jeans for a pair of size 38s that I'm wearing as I write this. I've gone from having a shirt size of 17.5 inches to 16.5 inches and when worn, they no longer bulge at the midriff (or worse, pop open when I'm eating) . I've also started to think more seriously about my eating -- after all, I've still got nearly 25 kg to lose before I'm a healthy weight, but that no longer seems like an impossible goal. So, to answer the question then. Did technology make me fitter? Happier?
Yes. Yes it did. I'm as shocked as anyone.
This piece originally appeared in Distro #44.