Category Archives: Health and wellness

Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with the all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”

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Driving yourself crazy? Sell your car

I have structured my life so I can live without a car. That choice may seem impossible, and, at times, it is impractical. Like any counter-cultural behavior, it initially requires effort to adjust.

I can attest, however, that car-free living is a healthful, fiscally responsible and even joyful pursuit in later middle age.

When I travel for work to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other big cities, I never rent a car. I stay in the heart of downtown and use mass transit, and my feet. That discipline is doable in the Twin Cities, too, even if you practice it only on certain days.

Discipline? Practice? Some people shrink from those words. Certainly, I make use of my husband’s vehicle — a 9-year-old, manual-transmission pickup — when I want to get to my weekend yoga class or my favorite suburban dog park. It also helps that the two reasons for my old Soccer Mom van have grown and gone.

My purpose is not to suggest that you never drive again at all. Nor do I intend to sermonize or gloat. My hope is to convince you that driving less — and using alternative forms of transportation more often — is a calming, community-minded, Earth-conscious habit that, like mindful eating, becomes easier and more self-sustaining over time.

Five benefits of a car-free lifestyle

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Benefit 1: I exercise more. I seldom post in the 10,000 Steps Facebook group I joined because, unlike the other participants, I rarely struggle to achieve that goal. Between walking to and from work, having a job that requires me to move throughout the neighborhood, and riding the bus or train to my appointments — which generally involves some walking — I have my feet on the street an average of 4 miles a day.

A Metro Transit ad in the still transit-lacking Twin Cities claims that people who commute by bus or train walk 20 percent more than do those who drive to work. More than 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars, a 12-point jump from 1980.

Having access to your own vehicle is more convenient and saves you time. I hear that often from over-stressed workers and working parents. Even if they changed their commuting habits only one day a week, they would recognize how physical exercise can actually help them unwind and relax.

Benefit 2: I save money. My older son, who now owns my red Toyota Prius, pays $1,150 a year for car insurance. I routinely spent $200 a month on gas during the years I commuted from Northfield to St. Paul. My transit card, by contrast, costs about $30 a month, and my employer reimburses me for any work-related rides.

Granted, I am planning to invest in a high-end bicycle for my big birthday in July — a purchase I haven’t made since my college senior was a baby — but I can justify the expense now that I’m no longer servicing a car for my commute.

Benefit 3: I am part of my community. Living in the urban core makes a multimodal lifestyle both easy to navigate and an adventure. I am a 12-minute walk from the Green Line train to the north, a Whole Foods store to the east and the charming Grandview Theater to the south.

If I drove to these locations, I would lose the opportunity to observe architecture, peruse Little Free Libraries, and smile at barking dogs and blooming trees. I also would miss the chance to greet my neighbors. “In yesteryear’s compact, pedestrian-friendly communities, people walked to church and corner stores, and talked with friends on front porches while kids played in streets and alleys,” writes Katie Alvord in Divorce Your Car! (New Society Publishers, 2000). “Making communities walker-friendly can bring back that lifestyle.”

Each of us has the ability — and the authority — to take back our streets from the growing dominance of cars in our fast-paced culture. The City of Minneapolis has a pedestrian advisory committee. St. Paul Smart Trips, in my town, sponsors “St. Paul Walks.” Go online to sign a pledge that, as a driver, you will always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. See it as an opportunity to catch your breath.

Benefit 4: I have time to think and read. As a hyper-scheduled person, I need enforced alone time. I use my bus and train rides to read the news on my iPhone, to catch up on e-mail and, sometimes, just to rest my eyes. Leave the driving to us? Happy to do so.

Benefit 5: I mingle with folks outside my middle-class bubble. Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke at a recent Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce luncheon about concrete and bridges, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, making the state’s transportation system “work for the next generation” and the inherent class bias that underlies the resistance to mass transit.

We have to deal with “the identity politics of transit,” Zelle said, “the notion that ‘those people’” ride the bus or train, that “we don’t take transit.”

We, of course, is the professional middle class, people who see their own car as their birthright. As a Caucasian, I am often a minority on mass transit — except for the Blue Line when it is heading from the suburbs to a Twins game or the express commuter bus between Uptown in Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

I have seen homeless people on the Green Line lugging everything they own. I have sat amid boisterous Somali-American boys who disrupted my reading. I have quietly changed seats when a mentally ill person began to spout obscenities. I have never felt threatened or afraid.

This is the world. This helps me recognize my privilege and inspires me to work toward a greater understanding of why mass transit is essential, for all of us.

Becoming a non-drinker in a drinking world

Imagine that you’re a successful, middle-aged career person who has contracted late-onset diabetes.

Your new dietary regimen requires you to quit eating cake, formerly your favorite way to unwind after a long day at the office (with more frequent indulgences on weekends and vacations). You work hard to give up cake. You examine your character and compulsions, and you seek support from other diabetics to rid yourself of this once-satisfying habit that you recognize now as a fatal disease.

And yet, everywhere you turn — whether at Target or Cub Foods, at company parties or celebrations — cake is available. Cake is glorified. At work, cake is pressed on you as a key to networking, getting ahead and building relationships.

Welcome to the world of the high-functioning alcoholic — or problem drinker, if you prefer. Except that cake is a vodka gimlet and a glass or three of Chardonnay. Cake is the monthly “happy hour” your employer sponsors for exempt staff, the event you skip because you don’t want to feel removed or resentful. Cake is the predictable reward and the requisite joke (“man, do I need a big piece of cake”) after a project is completed, a deadline has been met.

Every adult eats cake. It is assumed. It is a given.

Shaken and stirred

For those of us who have chosen to quit drinking at middle age — due to addiction, long-term health or other reasons — the linkage of alcohol with work success and socializing can be daunting on the bad days, and merely tiresome on the best.

How do I explain my irregular attendance at the aptly named “Afterglow,” a convivial gathering at various local watering holes after the daylong meetings of Leadership Saint Paul? Billed as “a unique opportunity to connect with other leaders,” LSP is a competitive and prestigious program sponsored  by the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce whose value can be traced as much to informal relationships as to the formal curriculum.

Informal business relationships often are constructed around alcohol’s power as a social lubricant. I get it. I remember how freeing it used to feel to drink with colleagues after work, to laugh and share our stories. Drinking was a lot of fun until it ceased to be fun, until it became a solitary escape from the pressures and perfectionism I placed upon myself.

Now, after six hard-won years of sobriety, I have less tolerance for the artificial connections and amped-up conversations that alcohol inspires. I don’t want to be the square, sipping a club soda or Diet Coke while others soften their edges with beer and wine. Neither do I want to seem standoffish or disapproving. So, with rare exception, I stay away from alcohol-infused business functions — or I make a token appearance and slip out.

Sometimes I contemplate a return to that bubble of instant warmth where walls melt and insecurities wash away. But the temptation is a siren song. I can’t go back there. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

Shaken and stirred

That chemical dependency runs in my family, and that I reached a point in middle age where my drinking scared me — those facts are my story, my reality and my problem. “I understood that it was not the world’s job to understand my disease,” one of the venerable recovery books says. “Rather it was my job to . . . not drink, no matter what.”

Few ordinary abstainers or normal drinkers realize, however, how much practice and commitment sobriety really takes.

This journey began for me at age 43 and consumed a lot of mental energy throughout my 40s. Finally, at 52, I conceded. I gave up and began the halting process of starting to define myself as a nondrinker.

It’s easy enough to stay away from bars (though I miss going out to hear music), and I enter liquor stores only when I want to buy a special gift. What’s harder to avoid are reminders of drinking in a society where alcohol is both romanticized and ubiquitous.

  • On Facebook: “Opened a bottle of wine and a can of Pringles,” writes a former colleague about her Memorial Day weekend at the lake. “If I am not careful they will both be gone in one sitting. Loving the day at the cabin!”
  • At my yoga studio: Two of my teachers at CorePower Yoga are recovering alcoholics. All of my instructors tout the physical and emotional benefits of yoga. Yet, no one sees the contradiction in the “Yoga & Wine” events that the studio markets to women, especially, as a way to pamper themselves and get away from it all. I thought yoga was about the discipline of being present.
  • In the media: The Star Tribune recently featured a collaboration between a yoga studio and a craft brewery with a headline claiming that “studies” confirm “exercise and drinking go together.” The journalist quoted no fitness experts and cited no academic evidence. Instead, she interviewed the young participants whose bodies still can take abuse and dressed it up as medical research. “Research suggests,” she wrote (emphasis mine), “that both activities can give people a feel-good buzz that gets stronger when they do them in succession.” Like hitting your head with a hammer after sex?

A better path

I recognized the weight of navigating a booze-soaked culture when I encountered an alcohol-free bar at the recent Great River Gathering in downtown St. Paul and breathed a sigh of joy and pure relief. “To promote a more inclusive environment this year, we’ve established a dry bar,” the program read. “No alcohol will be available at this location. Soda, coffee, and water will be available for purchase.”

Sold! How hard was that? Did my ability to get a club soda without staring at glistening bottles of wine impede the rights of drinkers lined up at the three other bars?

I’m not pushing for Prohibition. I don’t need you not to drink. In fact, I still serve beer and wine to guests in my home. I am simply asking you to acknowledge that not drinking, for me, takes effort — that a work-sanctioned “happy hour” is work.

So, join me in a soft drink, as my friend and colleague did at a financial-planning event for women, generously claiming that she was counting calories. Understand why I leave the party early or sometimes don’t show up at all.

Please don’t pity me. I’m not suffering. “I want to see life at its own speed,” NBA great Bill Russell once said about his refusal to use drugs. It’s an accurate explanation for my late-in-life sobriety; and life has never had so much clarity, or felt so good.

Note: Journalist and author Andy Steiner published a follow-up story in MinnPost about this blog post on June 15, 2016.