How many hours per day do you spend in your chair? If you are like an average Brit who spends about 8.9 hours each day sitting, I’ve got bad news for you: medics now estimate that diseases linked with too much time sitting kill as many people globally as smoking does. For instance, a major 2012 Australian study showed that prolonged sitting was associated with a 7% increase in risk of death over 3 years
One of the biggest reasons for the increase of sedentary lifestyle is technology - from the home computing revolution of the 1990s to Generation X-Box, digital technologies have the unsought potential to glue us to the couch. Yet there are people now using technology to help us re-engage in physical activity. Rob Finch, the marketing director for London digital workplace health start-up StepJockey, that encourages people walk on the stairs using technology, has written for Consciously Digital blog an overview of useful tech apps that are undoing the harm that technology has done to our health, and helps you move.
The tech helps
The trend to help sofa-surfers back onto their feet probably started with games consoles. From X-Box Kinect Sports to Wii Fit, we’ve seen the best part of a decade’s worth of innovation in digital gaming technology coupled with the magic (AKA algorithms) of remote sensing. Tech like this allows usually sedentary gamers to take an active break or get active gaming into their normal routine.
The iPod revolution and subsequent podcast phenomenon enabled health-conscious innovators to come up with wonderful motivational fitness series. These include the incredibly easy and successful Couch to 5K and its imitators. It gives everyone a hand up off the sofa, gradually increases fitness, helping you reach an achievable goal of running 5km non-stop in just 8 weeks.
And in some ways, some of the simplest of functions of smartphones can help you get active. Geocaching, for instance, uses very simple GPS locating technology to turn a walk in town or country into a fun game with a prize.
And for the increasingly sedentary office worker, there are now several apps to get you to give your butt a break. Move is an app that reminds you to stretch and stay active throughout the day. Users can do 300 exercises that you won’t be embarrassed to do in the office.
If you’re ready for something more strenuous, apps like RunKeeper can calculate your running pace, cycling speed, route distance, elevation and calories burnt and blend them with audio coaching and training plans for the more serious.
For a more fun spin on jogging apps, Zombies Run, combines fitness motivation with the pop culture zombie zeitgeist that’s spawned “The Walking Dead”, “World War Z” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”.
Wearable tech makes it super-easy to be nudged into getting active Jawbone’s Idle Alert will buzz you when you’ve not moved “enough”. The Apple Watch Activity App and Nike+ FuelBand remind you to move around every hour.
I’m yet to be convinced that wearables are the future. While they’re great at nudging us, they’re too easy to ignore, switch off and put in the drawer. As yet, there’s no “killer app” that makes wearables a must-have, but I firmly believe there soon will be one.
What’s next for digital health?
We’ve already reached a flowering of creative ways to encourage activity. The next step will be to make the comfort of sitting somehow uncomfortable.
Maybe we’ll see apps lock your fun apps until they detect motion every hour. When will we see the app that makes you use Just Dance so that you can unlock Just Eat?
Our lazy lifestyles can’t be cured by digital tech alone. But I’m confident that some very smart brains are working hard to ensure that current and future generations live longer, healthier lives through innovations that stop our armchair existences.
Consciously Digital asks: do you use any health apps or programs yourself? Do you see the change thanks to it? Post your answers in the comments!
“Technology is like a chair – if you sit on it for too many hours, it’s not good for you. You won’t prohibit using chairs just because people sit on them for too long. However, as a chair designer, you need to design your chair better if you want people to be healthier”. Professor Rafael Calvo leans back into his chair as he sips his refreshing drink in an unusually hot London weather.
He has just presented a seminar on Positive Computing in UCL, attracting a group of engineers, psychologists, educational specialists and other people interested in the impact of technology on our mind and well-being. Rafael Calvo is the ARC Future Fellow, Engineering at the University of Sydney, and a co-author of the book called Positive Computing: Technology for wellbeing and human potential. Positive computing is an interdisciplinary field that sits between design, computing, psychology and social sciences and explores how technology can help us be more human, and not more computer-like.
“The main thing that applications and computer programs should do if they want to help people change their behaviour is support their motivation and help create this motivation. Technology is an environment and so it should create an environment”, Calvo says.
This is quite an innovative idea for the tech world, where most app developers are primarily concerned about engagement of the user, and not their motivation. Candy Crush the game is a good example of a game maximizing engagement – it adapts to how much you play it; so if you stop playing it, it gets easier, and if you spend a lot of time playing it, it gets harder. Whereas engagement is important, Calvo says, we should also focus on developing other sides of the human brain, and especially social emotions.
Productivity comes second
Most tech developers today also see humans as efficient and productive machines, which to be fair is not the most typical human aspect. So they build products that encourage the sense of achievement, and sometimes overachievement (like catching up with emails, buying something or tracking via wearables), and help release dopamine that is also known as an anticipation and addiction hormone. Only a few build their products to encourage contentment and affiliation, like expressing gratitude, empathy or praise to others.
Even when websites want to encourage their users to praise each other for something, they often choose speed over psychological benefits (see example of Linkedin vs Yammer from Calvo's presentation).
Nowadays technology doesn’t take into account people’s well-being. When companies choose to make interventions to influence behaviour of their users, they often do so by just redesigning the product to prevent a negative impact, rather than encouraging the positive. For instance, Facebook can offer you automated solutions on how to block a person who is abusing you (i.e. unfriend/block/report them), but it’s not designed to encourage people to be nicer or more supportive of each other.
What Calvo proposes is to build a generation of new apps and games that will promote well-being, social connections, empathy and help us to, even further, develop the qualities that we traditionally consider human.
How to remain sane
At the end of our conversations I ask Calvo about what allows him to keep a healthy digital routine and remain human in the computer age. Here are the four things he finds works really well for him:
1. He keeps separate business and personal email accounts and only subscribes to anything on his personal one, so that he doesn’t get distracted when working.
2. He has specific days for certain types of activities – Monday is the meeting day, Tuesday is the writing day.
3. He uses delayed emailed function, downloading his emails only once an hour. He also does all the admin stuff only in the afternoon and uses mornings productively.
4. He keeps phones and laptops outside of the bedroom, and says that removing the TV from the living room and replacing it with the projector helped a great deal to reduce the time his kids watched TV. The very removal of a physical device helps you become less distracted.
Want to read similar stories and tips?
Listen to the full interview with Dr Michelle Blanchard on how modern technology can help you be healthier in Consciously Digital podcast section, where we cover the following questions:
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Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.
Having spent over 10 years and numerous hours in front of the screen promoting the benefits of digital for top media and advertising brands and witnessing hundreds of overstressed colleagues, Anastasia concluded she needed to change her lifestyle if she wanted to remain healthy.
She gave up her smartphone and now trains people on mindful use of digital technologies and claims she has never felt so productive and happy.
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