Life Hacking: Better Living Through Technology?

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that sitting in front of a computer all day is unhealthy, but then you don’t need to be a technology writer to gain weight. Indeed, 2 out of every 3 Americans are considered obese these days. If only we could use technology to solve the problem.

Well, maybe we can. Thanks to fitness wearables like Microsoft Band and various online services, it’s possible to track our physical activity, food consumption, sleep, and more. What these technologies can’t overcome—or, I should say, don’t currently overcome—are two important variables. One, that most people can’t make the permanent life changes—more activity, smarter eating—that would benefit them in the long term. And two, that today’s technology products and services don’t do enough to proactively keep us on track.

And it doesn’t help that the science—or at least the understanding of the science—behind fitness and nutrition is so ill-understood. The world is finally just now coming to accept Gary Taubes’ explosive revelations that fat doesn’t make you fat, and that the “calories in/calories out” model isn’t as simple as some would like you to believe. And we’ve seen every form of nutrition fad in my lifetime, including low-fat diets that are actually worse for you than high cholesterol, high fat diets. It’s just a mess, and when you grow up believe that eggs—the perfect food, as it turns out—are bad for you, it’s hard to look at breakfast correctly as an adult, let alone other meals.

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I’m not going to spend too much time on the nutrition stuff. The science is there, and now even the US government is getting the message so there’s no excuse for hiding behind out of date notions about this stuff anymore.

But the one thing I would like to communicate that I think hasn’t been discussed or researched enough is a notion, increasingly backed by science, that weight loss isn’t like a recipe or programming code that will always work the same way every single time. Thanks (I guess) to the complexity of the human body, to genetics and life experiences, to … whatever … you could put two people on exactly the same diets and get completely different results, with one staying thin and the other gaining weight. And this is unrelated to physical activity. There’s just a weird … something … to weight loss.

With that in mind, I can only do what I can do. And what that means is that I can monitor what I eat and drink, monitor and improve my physical activity, and try to lose weight and become healthier. Oddly enough, I already eat better—by which I mean quality, not quantity—than most people, and my family has been eating locally and eating well since, well, it’s been a family. This is thanks to my wife, who jumped on the local/organic/whatever you care to call it food movement long before it was trendy.

Too, I am more physically active than most people my age. I walk regularly, except in the dead of winter, when snow and cold makes that unbearable, and I use an elliptical trainer 4-5 times a week otherwise. I play basketball once a week for two hours for about 8 months of the year as well.

But like all of us, I can improve.

The big issue for me, I think, is that I sit in front of a computer all day long. I need to do this to work, of course, but there are two changes I could make right up front. I could get a standing desk—long overdue, and something I’d planned on doing as long as two years ago—so that I’m not on my ass all day. And I could get away from the computer for even short intervals throughout the day, and perhaps walk around the block or even just the house, a change that science agrees has important health benefits.

This is an area where I wish Microsoft Band—which is bursting with sensors and advanced technologies—could help. And it should do this. It should vibrate every hour or on whatever schedule I choose and tell me GET THE F UP, YOU LOAD, YOU HAVEN’T MOVED ONCE IN AN HOUR. Microsoft talks about the observations one can make with all the data Band collections, but these are observations you as the user makes. It never offers any prescriptive advice at all. MOVE, DAMMIT.

(Related note: I track my basketball activities using Band, and inevitably one of the guys in the league asked me what it did for me. I replied that it tells me I don’t move around enough. Which is funny, but it’s also not true. Band has never once told me that. And it should.)

I would also like to be more active in more regular ways. I noted that I walk regularly—usually for about 40 minutes a day—or use the elliptical, usually for about 30 minutes. This is about enough, with very little other activity, to get me to the 5000 steps that Microsoft Band recommended to me. That this figure is exactly half of 10,000 steps that most other fitness bands recommend for a day of activity has always troubled me. I don’t commute or even leave the house aside from those walks on most days, so the thought of hitting 10,000 steps daily on a regular basis is somewhat intimidating. I need to figure out a way to get there.

And it’s not just walking. I need some form of regular workout, with weights, and while I’d prefer to do that at home, a gym isn’t out of the question. There are certainly cheap ($10 per month) options locally.

From an eating/drinking perspective, I actually don’t feel that I have far to go, but I will test that theory by using MyFitnessPal—which integrates with Microsoft Band and Microsoft Health—to track what I eat and drink going forward, and see whether I can hit my daily/weekly/monthly goals for consuming fewer calories than I expend and, as the theory goes, lose some weight.

Well, lose a lot of weight. That’s the goal anyway. I have tried many times in the past, and have made significant and temporary gains many times. And I’m not sure how to change that, or improve on it. But I’m going to try.

And with that in mind—and with the assumption that many of you are in the same (dangerously lilting) boat, I’m curious how you have or plan to overcome these health and fitness issues, and whether there is any technology that has actually helped to make it happen. I’m starting with Microsoft Band and MyFitnessPal. But I suspect I’ll need to further than that.

Time to hop on the elliptical.

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