Smartphone App “The Walk” and Feelings About Fitness Technology

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Probably you know from the thinly veiled personal blog that Queer Your Tech actually is that I’ve moved recently (a couple months ago, but it still feels very recent). And probably I have also mentioned, like, one million times that I have moved to a city. And one of the cool things about living in New York City versus living in rural New Jersey is the ability to walk everywhere all the time. In rural New Jersey, if you want anything at all within a reasonable time frame, you get in a car. In New York City, if you want anything at all, you hit the pavement with your feet. I love it. I feel better this way.

So it’s no surprise that I have a new app obsession to go with it. Queermos, may I present to you:

The Walk

Made by the same folks who brought us Zombies Run, The Walk is all about using innovative storytelling to get people out there putting one foot in front of the other. The plot: you’re at Inverness train station when someone mistakes you for an agent (of what agency? Who can say.) and drops a package with you. Just as they do this, the power goes out. You escape as the train station blows up. You’re not sure what’s in the package, but the agent that gave it to you says it could save the world. It just has to get to Edinburgh. And you have to walk it there. 500 miles.

via Wired

via Wired

The more you walk, the more bits of the story you uncover. And your phone sits unobtrusively in your pocket or bag. You can even leave it running and save listening to the story-bits of it later. I am loving the walk for a great many reasons — there are fierce female characters in it so far (women in charge of things that talk to each other about something other than a man! Saints preserve us!), and I’m holding out for a few queer ones à la Zombies Run. But mostly, I’m surprised because there are relatively few fitness apps and fitness technologies that I like.


 

I Can’t Stand Most Fitness Technology

Okay, so a while back I bought a Nike+ Fuelband because I got it at a deep discount and I needed a watch. Never mind that it’s officially super ugly, I really did need the watch. But secretly, in some corner of my brain, I was hoping that the measurability of walking and movement would get me out and moving more in my New Jersey home. That somehow converting my steps into “fuel” would encourage me to, I dunno, to just not sit as much. And it worked. For about two weeks.

Then came the first day where I had a bunch of deadlines to meet. It was one of those days where you just had to sort of sit down for ten hours and write at breakneck pace. I’m sure all of y’all have had that for your job at one time or another — a moment where there wasn’t the time nor the headspace for legit anything else other than what you were working on. That’s the kind of day I was. And when I failed to reach my goal for the day, I felt really bad about it.

And every time I had one of those days, I continued to feel really bad about it. At the time I’m writing this, I just canceled my yoga class because I have so much work to do. I don’t feel great about doing that, but at least I’ve stopped wearing that stupid Fuelband so no one’s going to tell me I “failed” for the day. Life happens — today life included a treasured friend from out of town, Lit Magazine’s launch party and deadlines coming out my ears. That doesn’t sound like a failure to meet my goal — that actually sounds like a lot of success. Especially if I actually meet all those deadlines. (I will.)

And I suppose that’s one reason that I don’t like most fitness technology — the assumption that your entire life’s work is to attain fitness. I’m sorry, Fuelband. I contain multitudes.

Then there’s the obsession fitness tech can engender — we’ve all read David Sedaris’s Stepping Out over the summer, right? If not, I highly recommend it. He details his experience with the FitBit, Nike FuelBand’s more evolved cousin, and how it changes the value of walking. The scary notion that his steps don’t count if it’s not witnessed by technology (a notion that was terrifyingly expanded upon in Dave Eggers’s The Circle, a book I didn’t like but think everyone should read anyway) takes over. The joy of walking around and experiencing something like a new city or a beautiful day becomes commodified. And we as humans become even more watched and measured than we already are. You may have noticed I didn’t cover Apple Watch — it’s the same principle as strapping a FitBit to your wrist and it’s the same idea that I find repulsive. Humans are to be measured. We don’t exist without a witness.

Illustration by Nishant Choksi for The New Yorker

Illustration by Nishant Choksi for The New Yorker

If that weren’t enough, much of fitness tech right now places the emphasis on weight loss. I don’t find that very helpful. Take Fitocracy, for instance. I originally thought I was going to love Fitocracy for the simple reason that it allowed users to obtain badges when they met their goals. I love shit like that — I secretly wish there were an organization like Girl Scouts except for adults and I could earn badges for everything (and yes, I know adults can be Girl Scouts, but it’s not like we’re going to camp and earning badges, okay?!). I goddamn love badges.

However, Fitocracy requires a user to put their weight in to have a complete profile. I finish (almost) everything, so I went and weighed myself for the first time in literally years. And Christ, I did not like the number, didn’t like it one bit. And for a solid hour of my time, I forgot that I look and feel the best I’ve ever looked and felt and became obsessed with that number, a number that didn’t bother me in the slightest until Fitocracy went and blew up my serenity. But I looked at the computer and said to myself, Ali. It’s a website. Really? Really!? And just logged off, never to log back on again.

Yes, I recognize that there are plenty of people that could benefit from both the emphasis on weight loss and the measurability of fitness and humans in general (athletes, people partnering with their doctor to change something about their nutrition or exercise regime). Heck, I bet there are even people who could benefit from the guilt factor if they find that particularly motivating. I am just not one of those people. And if I’m not, I’d bet y’all I’m not alone. I’d bet that some people are right there with me.

Which brings me back around to The Walk.


 

Why The Walk Is Different

Stories motivate people. It’s true. Stories are why people read books, watch television and see films. We try to find reflections of our life in art. We try to escape. We try to learn something. There are one million reasons why human beings love stories, but those almost don’t matter because the fact is the same. We love stories.

And the people behind The Walk understand that. What they’ve created is, essentially, a new storytelling medium—app-based, borderline augmented reality, audio and visual (sound and maps and text). It’s this crazy multimedia experience with the added benefit of being a fitness app that doesn’t suck a potato. They really nailed it. I love The Walk’s method of encouraging activity rather than guilting me into it. And I love that the emphasis is simply on the act of walking, rather than on weight loss goals or appearance-related anything. And you can still earn badges.

The Walk is $2.99 for iOS and $3.99 for Android. And it’s worth every darn penny.


 

This has been the ninety-ninth installment of  Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Feature image via Shutterstock. Header by Rory Midhani.


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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. This looks awesome. Totally feel you on the problems with the fitness apps. Here’s one I majorly recommend: Nike Training Club. It has 15, 30 and 45 minute workouts and this Siri-kinda voice that guides you through, plus little videos. It also gives you points and badges but there’s nothing about weight or anything. You can also create programs.

    I like it because if you have some weights or soup cans or a 4-litre water bottle at home you can do these without ever having to go to the gym. It’s the motivation and structure without the weird quantification!

    Plus there are babes like Serena Williams who do guest routines. Woot! Time to get sweaty.

  2. I loved this article a lot and if I had money, like, at all, I would check it out. But mostly I lived this article, especially this

    “I’m sorry, Fuelband. I contain multitudes.”

    and this

    “There are one million reasons why human beings love stories, but those almost don’t matter because the fact is the same. We love stories.”

    Also I love Ali. You are great, Ali. Which from the sound of things you pretty much know. Which I’m glad about.

    (Semi-irrelevantly, I’m also glad about having learned some linguistics knowledge and knowing that Proper Grammar is not the same thing as real grammar and that I can write sentences like “Which I’m glad about” and feel good instead of guilty. Because linguistic elasticity. Or something.)

  3. I find Fitocracy problematic for some other reasons.

    First off, the general community on that site is SO. FUCKING. OBSESSED with image. Like, half of the people who follow me appear to be headless torsos with abs. This is encouraged by the folks who run the site. Their social network sites are full of “fitspo” images with impossibly muscular/low-fat people. The ads on the sidebar of the site are full of things like “Blast the Fat Bootcamp” and “Symmetry and Strength.” (Honest to god first line of the description on the last one: “Everybody who spends any time at the gym does so because they want to look, feel, and perform better.” I’M SORRY, BUT YOU DON’T KNOW ME.) And whenever folks speak out against this, they’re immediately greeted by a brick wall – ask how I know.

    The other thing I find problematic ties into the “if my technology doesn’t see it, I didn’t do it” thinking, but it goes a little further than that. It has to do with the way that Fitocracy assigns points. Let’s take two hour-long workouts. If I use an hour to lift weights, the number of points I’m going to get is going to be rather high. But if I use the other hour to go for a hike or a run, I find the numbers are quite a bit lower. But going for a run or whatever is not inherently worth less than lifting weights – that’s just what the site’s creators find more important. When I was first using Fito and really into it, I found that I would try to do the exercises that got me more points, *even if I enjoyed them less*. That was dangerous.

    Same with the quests – have a scroll through and see how many quests there are for, say, swimming or running compared to weight lifting. I think the last has more than the former two combined.

    I still use the site, but it’s pretty much just as a notebook for my training progress these days. Everything else is too frustrating and even a bit triggering for me.

  4. I love Zombies Run so much and have been on the fence about The Walk but you’ve easily persuaded me!

    I was also so excited to find out about Fitocracy but was demotivated when I downloaded it: not really gaols and quests that matched what I wanted to do.

    Also: badges for life ! So much yes!
    “Bin Badge” – awarded for remembering to put the garbage out for one whole month.
    “Kills Bills Badge” – paid one round of bills before the due date.
    “Bee Charmer Badge” – shops at farmers markets and supports local queer scene.

  5. Looks like there’s a new app I should try!! I’ve JUST gotten back into running!! This is PERFECT!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have to say that the Fitbit looks better than the Nike Fuelband though. There was a time where I considered getting one but then I got my Samsung S5 and it has a built in pedometer and it tells me how ‘far’ I’ve gone. It’s sort of estimated I guess and probably off by like .25-.75 of a mile. I guess it’s the same principle as Nike Fuel but I don’t pay attention to my steps as much.

  6. I highly recommend HabitRPG. which is more of a gamified to-do list than a strict fitness app, but you can totally make it fitness oriented. The extremely customizable check lists allow you to decide what’s important to quantify and what’s not. It also has a bit of a story element – you can earn cool gear, raise pets, and battle monsters by getting shit done!

  7. Thank you for this. I’ve been sort of vaguely considering a Fitbit lately, mostly because I get a lot of exercise without trying most days, but sometimes a week or so will go by when I don’t because I’m busy or whatever, and it would be kind of nice to have a reliable method of recognizing that and correcting it before I start to wonder why I’m not doing great. But something about it felt kind of wrong to me, and I haven’t been able to articulate it until I read this article. It definitely has to do with your life not counting unless technology sees it, and I will leave the Fitbit unpurchased and accept that there are some weeks where I get a lot of exercise and some weeks where I don’t, and I suppose it will all balance out in the end.

    About The Walk… I may have to give it a shot. I’m a huge Zombies, Run fan, but no longer running, and it might be nice to try something similar.

  8. I got hit by a car two weeks ago while training for a marathon. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been needing something to motivate me through practicing walking when I used to be doing 20 mile runs that ended at the beach. I’m lucky to be back on my feet so soon, but this will make things a bit more exciting!

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