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Experiments in Wellbeing – Step by Step

This post is part of my experiments in wellbeing series – and is about regular physical exercise.

Being Active Is Important

I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably active, getting out and about matters to me. In the past I’ve cycled a lot and run a bit. Currently I walk a fair bit, and cycle occasionally. I enjoy my walks – whether they are to and from the station, or further afield, for me they are useful not only for the physical exercise, but also for the time to think. Often, rather than trying to carve out time in a busy schedule specifically for walking, I try to integrate my walks into my day, particularly during the week. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my walking, and here is some of what I’ve learned so far.

Getting Into A Habit

Last November I joined up with a small group of people based in the USA to take part in Runner’s Week Run Streak, or #RWRunStreak for short. Thankfully for the eyeballs and sanity of my neighbours, this was a challenge to take part in regular exercise rather than a commitment to run naked down the street every day. *Shudder* The idea was to commit to running at least a mile a day, every day between Thanksgiving (November 27th) and New Year’s Day. I opted to walk rather than run, and despite having manflu for a few days in December, I got the job done, covering 111.1 miles over the duration of the challenge. It took discipline to get out each and every day, I enjoyed doing this, and the motivation of knowing other friends were taking part helped a lot too. You can read more about how I experienced the challenge here.

Data Data Everywhere

Part way through #RWRunStreak I began to find the process of logging all my distances a bit tedious. I was using an app called Strava, which although it records data very well, you need to remember to switch it on before you start your exercise, then off at the end, and sync it. I wanted something which made gathering the data easier, so I asked Santa for a FitBit. He duly obliged, so on December 27th I charged up my new FitBit and put it on. I’ve now accumulated a months worth of data so I thought I’d share a few things with you.

FitBit Data 27 Dec 26 Jan

I use a FitBit Flex – this particular model does not measure going up and down steps, which is why ‘floors’ shows as 0 on the chart. I’m also not currently entering any data about what I eat, or how much water I drink (though I am definitely drinking more water) so the calories count is a best guess by the software, and I am currently ignoring that too. As you can see, I’ve notched up over 150 miles in a calendar month. That distance really surprised me, I thought the 111.1 miles I covered during #RWRunStreak was a lot, and I had anticipated taking a break, not going further.

FitBit Sleep Data

You can log data about your sleep with this FitBit – tapping in when you go to bed, and tapping out when you wake up. It is supposed to log sleep, and any periods of being awake and restless during the night too. So far, I’d give it about 4/10 for accuracy in the awake/restless department. You can log your weight – either manually or via wifi scales, you can input nutritional information and you can keep note of specific exercise activities too. I’m currently just scratching the surface.

What’s Good?

The FitBit Flex is unobtrusive – I don’t know I am wearing it. It’s easy to use – you just put it on your wrist and apart from remembering to charge it every few days – that’s it. If you are interested in logging your sleep and you forget to tap in and out, you can manually input the timings later. I feel a little fitter, and more motivated – and I am getting better at sequencing and prioritising stuff. I’ve noticed that as I walk more regularly – I pay attention to the little things. Nerd alert – how I do up my shoes matters much more now than before. Tight enough to be comfortable over a reasonable distance, not too tight to pinch. I used to walk at a considerable pace, over 4 miles per hour. I’ve slowed down a little – focussing more on feeling comfortable rather than hot footing it from A to B, and I have thought much more about my posture, and eased into a more relaxed way of walking. As well as taking ideas for a walk – something I’ve done for years, sometimes I am just walking, with as clear a head as possible. A more meditative approach perhaps?

What’s Not So Good

When it comes out of the box, the FitBit is set to give you a congratulatory buzz on completing a daily target of 10,000 steps. I’ve noticed myself paying too much attention to that – on a few occasions when I’ve found myself close to 10,000 at the end of the day, I’ve gone for a short walk round and round the kitchen to make the target. And there are badges handed out too, both for specific and accumulated distances. Nice, shiny badges. It’s interesting how I’m allowing myself to be gamed – who is in charge here? I have also joined a FitBit group, something I chose to do as part of looking at how to maintain motivation, a bit like how our small group interacted in the #RWRunStreak. I knew everyone in the #RWRunStreak group well, and we encouraged one another, whereas I know hardly anyone in this larger group, and I seem to be currently using it competitively rather than cooperatively. What is my motivation?

Uses At Work

If you Google ‘wellbeing at work’ you’ll find tons of stuff that links the two subjects. For example, This ACAS report published in 2012 states that:

The key factors that can determine whether workers will have a positive or negative relationship with work are:

the relationships between line managers and employees
whether employees are involved in organisational issues and decisions
job design
availability and acceptability of flexible working
awareness of occupational health issues

The report recognises that wellbeing is something employees and employers share responsibility for, and though a lot of the published research talks about the productivity benefits for the business of having healthy employees – I haven’t yet found anything that speaks of the human benefits. I think it is worth reusing a piece from a recent New York Times article, which despite referencing a study showing benefits of regular lunch break walks, also noted:

…tellingly, many said that they anticipated being unable to continue walking after the experiment ended and a few (not counted in the final tally of volunteers) had had to drop out midway through the program. The primary impediment to their walking, Dr. Thogersen-Ntoumani said, had been “that they were expected by management to work through lunch,”

This says to me that wellbeing is OK as long as we can derive productivity benefits for the business, but we’re much less keen on reciprocally doing the right thing for people.

I would be interested to see what we could learn from employers optionally offering their employees devices such as a FitBit, in order to encourage more physical activity. Care would need to be taken to ensure this wasn’t seen as ‘nanny state/big brother’ behaviour, so I don’t think it would help if the employer then tried to gather any direct data from people using these devices. But, if the employer simply made the offer and left people to get on with it, then based on my experience so far, some genuinely mutual benefit could arise. As always – it’s less about the tech, so much more about the behaviour.

In summary – two months into taking more regular exercise, I feel fitter, more motivated, and even a little more productive in my work. I also feel conflicted about motivation, given my responses to the gamification elements of the tech.

Next time I will focus more specifically on my current experiences with mental wellbeing.

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