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It’s A Great Tool if You’re Already Healthy
I became an early adopter of Apple Watch when it was a 1.0 product. Like anyone who doesn’t have an active lifestyle and suddenly finds themself with access to how many calories they’ve burned in a day, I quickly became fascinated with the job of finding out exactly the best way to close my activity rings. When I mastered it, Apple Watch raised the bar. This is every user’s experience, as I understand it.
Another part of the user experience is the potential to top out, meaning the bar has been raised so high that it’s impossible to progress without making lifestyle changes. When that happened, I, probably like some users, focused on being consistent about closing the rings. All I needed to do was ignore the notification at the beginning of each week that prompted me to agree to raising the bar. The model of watch I had was no longer supported, and I decided that $400+ for a replacement was $400 I could put to use elsewhere. The way I saw it, I didn’t need exact numbers as long as I felt that all-important rush of endorphins when the last song on my workout playlist ended and I started cooling down. I looked at it this way until 2020.
I began experiencing chronic fatigue and pain in the summer of 2018. I put off going to the doctor until the beginning of 2019, and that visit led to another doctor that led to another doctor and I ended up in physical therapy when I expressed concern that my legs were not as coordinated as I felt they should be and I was worried about falling. By March of 2020, I had realized that PT wasn’t doing shit for me and my therapist was spending my time and money to keep her hope for me alive. When the pandemic arrived and locked everything down, I took the opportunity to ghost my therapist.
I realized two things in the absence of PT. First, I really really really enjoy endorphin rushes and being stuck in my apartment was depriving me of even the normal levels I’d get from walking to the bus stop or my office. Second and more importantly, falling was still a possibility for me and I couldn’t count on anyone stopping by if I didn’t show up at my office because nobody was showing up at our office by that time. I bought a new Apple Watch for the fall detection and started closing my activity rings to get the endorphin rush.
I knew but still needed to learn that chronic pain is a great unmotivater. Apple Watch hadn’t changed the way it sets goals, so the bar kept getting higher and higher until I topped out. This time, though, it took me three years to do that because I was inconsistent about closing all the rings. I was observing the rule that says don’t do what hurts.
My move goal was increased to 1260 calories last week. I set it, then scaled it back later that afternoon. A flare up was playing keep away with my fitness goals. Furthermore, I realized when I turned a critical eye to my situation, my days had become exercise marathons of 90+ minutes to even get within haling distance of the prescribed goal. Further furthermore, chronic fatigue is still a problem and most of my energy was going into meeting these goals and I was missing out on activities that make me happy. I had perfectly valid reasons for lowering my goals… And yet…
And yet I was annoyed with myself for not following through on that particular commitment. I eventually figured out that was not entirely my fault.
Apple Watch is a health tool that promotes the health of those who are already healthy. You enter your bio info and it spits out a predetermined goal for exercise, movement and standing based, I believe, on the body mass index (BMI) and other health guidelines. In other words, the goal of Apple Watch seems to be maintaining your already healthy self and building on it. That’s fine if if your only physical problem is that you aren’t active enough. That isn’t my situation.
I’m in a situation where burning 1000 calories is no problem one day, but 500 calories is a point on the distant horizon another day. Since Apple Watch only explicitly presents users with the opportunity to adjust your goals at the beginning of the week (and it’s only the move goal), I don’t expect that many users know it is possible to adjust all of the goals in the fitness app. Even so, there’s no easy way to adjust the goals based on my level of pain that day. Computers are only sensitive and flexible to variations in data when they’ve been programmed that way. Apple has not done that to the best of my knowledge, but this situation is not entirely Apple’s fault.
I mentioned earlier that Apple Watch prescribes goals for users based on pre-established health guidelines. Whether or not Apple realizes it, the watch also sets goals based on the social paradigm that says being disabled is the worst thing that can happen to someone, even, according to who you ask, worse than death—evidence available upon request. The result is there is plenty of focus on meeting and then maintaining certain standards for those who want their body to look a certain way or have had a sobering doctor visit that boiled down to make these lifestyle changes or you’ll turn into a disabled person. There’s a lot of preventative good that comes from this approach, but it has significant failures.
The other result is there is no focus at all in mainstream technology like this on managing an invisible physical disability and maintaining an attainable level of activity. I found out from online conversations I am not the only one in this situation, but the current standards tell me I am. For all of the focus on well-being the makers of fitness trackers seem to miss the boat for mental health almost entirely. Unless the people one befriends on fitness apps are also in a situation like this, it doesn’t take very long for a person disabled in this way to first have trouble competing, then get left behind altogether. Since people with disabilities are already prone to isolation, this is an unfortunate consequence if your approach to physical well being is motivated by the good of all.
The simplest solution, then, seems to be some changes to Apple’s approach to fitness. I would suggest leaving everything the way it is because this is the most common social approach to fitness, but add the option to have daily flexible goals the users can adjust based on how they feel that day. If Apple makes that setting easy to find, that might be all it takes to begin the conversation about what I tend to think of as FitFlex, meaning flexibility in the definition of fitness. I have had some experience with Fitbit, and it also seems to approach fitness in the way western society does.
This is not a call to dump on Apple, nor is this piece a dump on Apple. Similarly, it is not a call for people to start railing against their fitness conscious neighbors. What this is is a call to reexamine how we view and approach fitness and what it means to have a productive day in that regard. I suppose it could also be considered a call to start being critical about recommendations made by computers, but that is frankly a much bigger problem than I am prepared to express at this point.