I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a fitness watch –you know, one of those band-things you wear around your wrist that tells you what your heart is doing even if you don’t ask, and issues ‘gentle reminders’ when it thinks you’re slothing about too long for its liking. Although I want to think I’m fairly active, I suppose I may be deluding myself, inadvertently propagating false news and thereby falling into the echo chamber of my own confirmation bias -we all need to feel good about ourselves after all. But I must admit to a recent frisson of doubt about my motives, a soupçon of guilt about my guileless lack of cardio awareness. The idea of an independent arbiter seemed wise.
I think it’s rather poor taste to stare at wrists in public –almost akin to surreptitious glances at other bits of anatomic interest- but sometimes they are flaunted… Wrists, I mean. And it seems to me that the enthusiasm to show off these fitness bands is something new –‘trending’, as I heard one excited teenager say on a bus. She was sitting directly in front of me and I was staring idly at her hair as it spilled over the seat onto my iPhone. Since she already had my attention, I have to say her words poked at my curiosity. I never did see the band she was referring to, but I already had the feeling that I’d been Pandora’d.
I first got a real idea of how misleading they could be when I was in a coffee shop, though. One of the problems with ideas, of course, is that they can slumber like Shakespeare’s ‘unregarded age in corners thrown’ only to awaken like a Kraken and strike without proper warnings or disclaimers. The unexpected revelation blinked into existence, as many things do, in the shadows of a neighbourhood Starbucks.
I had picked a little table in a corner and while I was airing my steaming sausage and cheese breakfast sandwich so I could eat it without glottal injury, a couple of middle aged woman chose to sit at the next table. Well, actually it was the only one available, so I harbour no allusions as to whether they actively coveted my purchase. And anyway, they seemed too absorbed in their wrists to notice me.
“I’ve already completed 729 steps,” said one of the duo, a rather stout woman with shades of grey peeking out from the depths of her otherwise immaculately coiffed hair. “And it’s only…” she had to refer to her phone for a time-read, “8:30 A.M.,” she added proudly.
“I never use the step-count,” the other, thinner woman, said smugly, clad as she was in a stylish track suit with matching runners –everything shiny clean and ready for the streets. When the stout woman raised an eyebrow, her companion smiled. It was an expression that not so silently whispered that she ran. “I use the heart rate monitor, Joyce,” she said through her smile. “Don’t want to overdo it…”
Joyce was obviously caught off guard and was forced into a defensive shrug. “I find running hard on the knees though, Emily -don’t you?”
It was hard to miss the sarcasm on Emily’s face, although I could tell she was trying –sort of- to camouflage it. “I suppose I’ve been lucky all these years, Joyce. And anyway, I buy specially cushioned shoes and eat knee food…”
Joyce’s eyes opened wide. “Knee food? What do you mean?”
Emily shrugged, coyly, and the smile grew. “Oh, you know, lots of veggies, and fruits –I stay away from starchy, heavy things…”
I could see her eyes glance at Joyce’s breakfast donut, before she added some extra artificial sweetener to her own black coffee.
But Joyce wasn’t about to roll over and die. “They say all you need is 20 minutes of vigorous walking a day for cardiac health. I figure I get that.”
Emily nodded her agreement, and yet I could tell it was a feint. “But as I understand it,” she added like a teacher correcting an overly smug student, “You also have to get your heart rate up over baseline and keep it up for…” She rummaged around in her head for a figure. “…Uhmm, at least 30 minutes… or maybe it was 20 minutes,” she added to mollify the blow she felt she had just struck. “Strengthens it, or something.”
“Well, I think there’s a pulse thing on my fitness band.” She fiddled with it for a moment and then smiled triumphantly. “There,” she said. “Eighty-three, it says…” She sat back in her chair. “And I’ve had some coffee, eh?” She directed her gaze at Emily’s wrist. “What have you got?”
Emily blinked lazily, as if hers would obviously be lower, despite her coffee. “Sixty-one,” she answered and then tried to disguise a self-congratulatory smile by sipping her coffee.
“Wow –even with your coffee?”
Emily nodded as if she wondered what on earth Joyce thought it would be.
“Here, try my band…” Joyce sounded suspicious.
“Why? They’re different brands, and…”
“I just want to see if they both agree. And I’ll try yours…”
After they swapped fitness bands, Joyce was the first to speak. “Huh!” She glanced at her friend. “I get sixty-one on yours… no, sixty-three now.” She stared at Emily. “How about my band?”
But Emily just shook her head. “I’m getting ninety-something… Ninety-five it says now!” Her eyes narrowed. “That can’t be right. I haven’t even had my coffee – well, just a few sips…” She stared first at the band, and then at Emily. “One of them must be wrong…” But her face clearly indicated which one.
Joyce shrugged and they took their own bands back. “So let’s do it the old fashioned way –take our pulses.” She timed her pulse from her phone and compared it to her own band. “Uhmm, mine agrees with my pulse.” She tried not to gloat. “How about yours?”
But Emily just shrugged –she’d put hers in her pocket without looking at it. “I think the battery’s low on mine. I’ll have to charge it again tonight.” She stood up and smiled at Joyce. “Anyway, I gotta run,” she added irritably, obviously unaware of the double entendre after her disappointing show-and-tell. And I saw her feeling her fitness band in her pocket as if it had deliberately lied to her; as if it had let her down when she most needed it.
My sausage and egg sandwich was cold now –unappetizingly greasy. And as I put it back in its bag and sipped unenthusiastically at my tepid coffee, I noticed Joyce grinning at me.
I smiled back –it was the perfect opportunity to ask her something that had been bothering me. I leaned forward in my seat. “I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion about the discrepancy,” I said, but carefully, to indicate that I don’t usually listen to ambient conversations. “I was thinking of buying a fitness band…”
Joyce giggled and tucked into her donut. “Both bands are okay -I doubt if there really was a discrepancy,” she said with her mouth still full.
“But by the time Emily used my band, she’d already had half her cup of espresso… And I lied…” she added coyly. “Sometimes she rubs me the wrong way.”
I nodded and sat back in my seat. There are some things against which technology can’t protect us I suppose. Maybe it was too much to ask…