10,000 steps on the road to health

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I threw out my old bathroom scale on Friday. I like to think I would have done so even if it hadn't consistently shown me as 2kg heavier than the scale my parents use or the one at the office gym.

You see, this is an era unprecedented in the amount of data one can collect about oneself and, by golly, I will only look at the most useful and accurate set of information.

Take the pre-set health apps in my new smartphone, which I was forced to buy when my old phone quietly expired last month. At the tip of a questing finger are apps and sensors that measure my resting heart rate, stress level and the number of steps I take every day.

One can get quite addicted to the idea of monitoring oneself, especially when the gadgets are now watch-sized wearables that are both stylish and functional.

Think of TV-certified items such as the BodyBugg or FitBit, which will track my steps and jogs, the calories I burn and my skin temperature.

But how should we regard the data we collect?

The pedometer on my cellphone ticks on quietly and unless I switch it off in vehicles, counts the acceleration of MRT trains as 200 steps.

As my mother points out, repeatedly checking my resting heart rate will only elevate it, turning the threat of stress into a reality.

More useful might be the preset targets of my smartphone health app, which tell me to aim to walk 10,000 steps a day.

I have heard this 10,000 target in conversation and in national health campaigns in the United States, Britain and even in Singapore some years ago.

It seems to be an accepted bit of folk wisdom that moving 10,000 steps daily will address everything from obesity to dementia.

How hard could 10,000 steps be for me? I'm a journalist who loves to beat the streets and meet sources (albeit at kopitiams). I race up escalators and find regular walks in between writing help fine-tune articles.

As it turns out, 10,000 steps works out to about 7.5km for my striding frame. An estimation of my daily activity - pedometer switched off in trains and buses - puts me at between 3,000 and 7,000 steps. More simply, I walk between 2.5km and 5km a day.

Hitting 10,000 steps means adding a 2km walk to my morning routine and opting to walk to MRT stations rather than taking the shuttle bus on a boiling hot afternoon. It is an achievable goal but tiring.

Looking deeper into this 10,000-step thing, I find to my horror that it is not a scientifically determined target but an offshoot of Japanese marketing: pedometer in Japanese is "manpo-kei" or "10,000-step measure" and the 10,000-step challenge was marketed to walking clubs.

Two years ago, journalist Rick Smolan tackled the world of "big data" - the vast amounts of information collected every day in the world by satellites, smartphones and other sensors.

In his 2012 book, The Human Face Of Big Data, he pointed out that the average human today processes more data a day than anyone in the 16th century did in an entire lifetime.

The first day a baby is born, the resulting data in terms of the hospital monitoring vital signs or photos taken by adoring relatives is equivalent to that contained in America's Library of Congress.

So amid all this chatter, how do we pick out the information that is useful to us, which will help us move towards healthier, happier, more fulfilled and useful lives?

The first step is clearly to not just accept information but also find out where it came from. The oft-touted body mass index or BMI, for example, has been shown to incorrectly judge athletes as unhealthy and obese - these Olympian men and women have dense bones and muscle mass that throw the readings off.

Of course that does not change the health benefits of walking more, it just means I need not beat myself up mercilessly when I hit only 7,400 steps or, on one terrible day last week, 9,801. After 14 hours of work, all I wanted to do was collapse onto the sofa rather than shuffle another 199 steps.

Then there are days when I happily run up more stairs and head to the farther-away Bishan MRT station rather than Braddell when I leave the office.

Already, I feel more energetic and better able to withstand long sojourns outdoors on hot afternoons, proving just how many steps I have taken on the road to better health - some 300,000 in the month since I started monitoring myself, actually.

Any low-step days are made up for by weekly outings with the family. We usually and easily log an average of 12,000 steps while having fun.

akshitan@sph.com.sg