“See you next weekend!” the man in the yellow vest standing by the gate called out with a big wave as I walked out of the park towards my car. Crowds are heavy on the weekends at the nature preserve where I like to run. I usually park down past the rec center, but most people wait to be waived in and park on-site. Every person, whether on foot or in a car, gets a friendly greeting and farewell, more if he’s not too busy.
He treats his role like he is everyone’s motivational coach. As I walked away utterly exhausted, a human puddle with noodle legs after five miles of running up and down rocks and weaving through trees in August in Texas, I thought, sure, maybe I can come back next weekend! His friendly, encouraging attitude triggers a friendly social response in me. I do want to come back!
In contrast, my “Activity” app on my iWatch admonishes me with a relentless digital cruelty. On days when I have pushed myself to the limits, Activity continues to ask for more. If I double my Move ring, it suggests to me to triple it. The digital coach only works one direction, more — longer distances, more time, more calories. Activity ignores all of the contextual clues that could make it more than just digital noise. Held within my phone, even within this very app, is information about the temperature, the time of day, the total calorie expenditure, and so on. Instead of just pushing for more, what if it understood the idea of recovery, of rest? What if the digital guardian looked out for its human host?
The body isn’t a machine to optimize for more and more. Instead, recent science points us to a model of the body more akin to running a business than an input/output machine. The body makes decisions about resources depending on priorities and needs. Expending two or three times my usual Move goal doesn’t mean I lose a corresponding amount of weight or that I can eat two to three times more than usual, instead we see the body adjust, as always, pushing towards its ultimate goal — to keep us alive.
In all of the times that I’ve had that familiar exchange with the gate attendant at Cedar Ridge Preserve, he’s never asked how far I ran or what my numbers were. Simply being there, engaging in the activity, being part of the outdoor community is the accomplishment. Until next week.