Communicating with our own body

My first fitness band was a Xiaomi Mi band that I bought in 2016. Till then, even though I have been clocking a 5-kilometer run every day (since 2009), I had never known the impact of that on my body. My band purchase (much later than most people, I know) was an attempt to get to know the impact using specific numerical markers.

Since then, I have moved between 2 more Mi bands and 2 FitBits (with my current fitness band being FitBit Versa 2), and have firmly gotten used to tracking the daily numbers every single day.

This fitness band trend is part of a larger movement called Quantified Self that is about self-tracking using numbers. If the human body is seen as a machine, why can’t numbers define its operation – is the logic.

Quantified Self has gone to very complex methods now with people indulging in bio-hacking, the use of hacker ethics to improve the self/human body.

Now, I consider myself a step even before the beginner’s level of quantified self – the fitness band is the only device I use to track basics like daily steps (my everyday run is about 70-80% running and the rest a brisk walk – on a treadmill) and its related aspects like calories, and sleep.

It has its benefits. The device quantifies my everyday effort in a way I can understand. If there was no device, my body’s signs may be too subtle for me to read/understand because we are so preoccupied with simplifying everything through numbers. When I do not have enough steps (say, less than 8,000 a day), there is no sign from the body about it in the immediate term. When such days accumulate with no sign from the body, that’s when lethargy kickstarts and obesity (the visible marker) and health issues (invisible markers inside the body) start. It may be a bit too late to act on, so having basic devices could help.

Recently, due to the pandemic-induced tele-school default, my kids seemed way too lethargic. The usual activity that they would effortlessly indulge in, in a physical school, was completely lost. When my wife and I asked them to get more active, the ask seemed totally generic, without them getting a direction. So I invested in a cheap fitness band for my son (a Realme, at Rs. 999) and an old Goqii band that I had for my daughter (by the way, there is a serious dearth of entry-level fitness bands for children in India – ones that can be plasticky and versatile for rough use, and come in smaller-than-usual band sizes).

When they started using it (with a lot of enthusiasm, because they have been given yet-another-gadget!) my wife and I realized that the average steps they were taking because of no physical school was about 3,000 to 4,000, on weekdays and less than 2,000 on weekends! The numbers helped us quantify the problem and use a numerical target to guide them to do better.

Now, they are seen walking around the house whenever there’s some free time, instead of sitting in one place! They are keen to get at least 8,000 steps a day so that they can compete with each other, and with us parents. When their numbers are low, they are mildly concerned, which wouldn’t have happened on their own (only we would be concerned) and the tracking gamifies the effort between them/us.

There are several pitfalls to these numbers too, of course. One is obvious – the bands are not fully trustworthy; they are rudimentary and broad markers at best. But the numbers are indicative of a potentially larger problem that may occur after a period of time, so even basic, rough numbers help in a minimal way.

Secondly, the numbers are reductionist, for an incredibly complex machine like our human body about which we still know very little in totality. To treat it as a knowable machine the way we treat machines we built ourselves (computers, smartphones) is not doing justice to the sheer complicated magic of the human body.

A related third problem is about data fetishism – the obsession with data. This is particularly evident on days when I’m not well, or down with a viral. Those are the days I feel guilty about not having gotten the usual ‘number’ in terms of exercise or sleep. If I treat this as my body telling me that I need this rest to fight something bothering it, that’s good. But if I was obsessed with the numbers, I’d push my body towards something I should not be doing – because I would be listening to an external device’s communication more than my own body!

In India, yoga gurus and yogic practice had unraveled the communication between mind and body long, long ago, and was seen as an evolved science of tracking the body and improving it. Yoga could easily be called the most evolved bio-hacking methodology. But it did not reduce the output to numerical values that anyone could read. Because of that, it was deemed as a mystic art and its effects could be felt only over a period of time, unlike a fitness band that can supposedly illuminate your effort in numbers you can understand and be proud about.

We are in a state in our evolution as a species where we have stopped listening to a lot of communication, from nature, from our bodies, from each other, due to various reasons. If we look out of the window, we could deduce some basics about the weather like is it sunny, are there dark clouds that could start a rain, is it cold and so on. But we depend on our smartphones to tell us the same details without us learning how to ‘read’ the weather, or without us getting off our couch.

Some of the numbers that technology allows us as a way to listen to our surroundings and body are definitely useful. But they are simple markers that point to a larger direction at best, not perfectly accurate values that we should make much larger decisions. That’s simply because we still know a lot less about the planet or the body we inherit, and to assume that these basic numbers illuminate the complex, interconnected mystery that our nature/body is, is a fallacy!

And to think we have devices that can even tell us about the effectiveness of our meditation! That’s stretching mind-body communication to new heights!

Related: Here’s the type and amount of exercise you need, WHO advises (November 30, 2020)

Cover pic courtesy: VOAnews.

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