By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty
My senior year of high school, I vowed to get in shape. At that point, I had been playing the role of “fat kid” since at least 5th grade, and I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin thanks to the teasing and invisibility to girls.
I decided to workout each day after school. I would go home, say hi to my mom, and then disappear into the basement, where I would lift weights and run tiny 25 foot laps across the room for 30-60 minutes.
I had always been athletic despite my weight, but the chubby kid will always get picked last for teams in gym class regardless of his abilities. My short basement laps weren’t just to get in shape; they were also to prove a point and train for a specific goal. Thus, my fitness coming out party was the day in gym when we had to do the PACER test (or “Beep Test”), which has everyone lineup on one side of the gym and run to the other end to the sound of beeps that set the pace.
It was back and forth in bursts, just like in my basement. As the test goes on, the beeps increase in frequency, and most people cannot keep up. Once a person fails to make it across the gym before a beep sounds, they are eliminated from the test. After more than one hundred beeps, the handful of runners remaining were typically stars on the track, cross country, and basketball teams.
Normally, I dropped out around 30-something beeps. But this time, I finished the entire test with the other fit kids, to the shock of everyone in the gymnasium.
I kept running for a while after achieving that goal, but I found it hard to stay motivated, because running was hard to measure on my own. We didn’t have a treadmill at home, and there was no track near the house, so measuring time, speed, and distance was difficult. I tried to make up arbitrary courses to time myself on with my handheld stopwatch, like running down the street around the cul-de-sac and back in the fastest time possible. It worked for a time, but ultimately it felt unsatisfying. I tried driving over to tracks to run, but it all seemed too complicated.
I fell away from running for almost a decade, and when I got back into it, one of the biggest motivators to help me succeed was my smartphone and MapMyRun app. Suddenly, I could run anywhere I wanted and know how fast and how long I was going. It also tracks all my data, so each time I went out to run, I could push myself to run a little faster and farther than before. In no time, I went from someone who dreaded running a mile or two, to someone who was running half-marathons. I could have always been running outside, but the app was that extra little push to motivate me.
Technological innovations that inspire and motivate us aren’t new, necessarily – they just continue to evolve and improve. For example, like many people, my fiancee is currently obsessed with her FitBit. There have been days when I find her walking circles around our kitchen table so she can make her daily goal of steps. The device’s accompanying app allows FitBit users to compete in daily steps challenges, and during her first challenge against family members, I thought she might attempt walking to the moon in order to claim victory.
That FitBits are so popular seems odd when broken down to its most simple function: it’s a pedometer, which is nothing new at all. But the FitBit is a fancy, elaborate, 21st century pedometer that will get someone like my fiancee to demand we go for a walk at night in freezing temperatures just so she can win her FitBit challenge.
Likewise, last week, I downloaded an app called “Productive” that is intended to build habits. Users input what habit they would like to form – such as exercising daily – and the app delivers notifications to encourage the behavior, as well as tracks data like successful/unsuccessful days and streaks of successful days.
I have five habits in my app, including exercise and writing. For writing, I felt I had fallen off the wagon pretty hard in recent months. Now, within five days of downloading the app, I have written and performed a nonfiction story at a local live lit show, penned an Op-Ed article that I submitted to the New York Times, and wrote this piece for the Flaneur’s Turtle. I’d say the free app has been worth it so far.
Of course, all of the apps and devices can only work if we support their missions with our own willpower and action. No app can do the exercising or writing for me; well, not yet, at least. There are also plenty of arguments that can be made that technology is making us lazier and more dependent, rather than self-motivated and independent. (See: Wall-E.)
Yet, sometimes it takes only the tiniest spark of motivation to spur us to keep pushing forward with our goals, and if that spark is a notification on our smartphones – a device we all have in front of our faces at all times – then it’s all the better and easier to be inspired.