March 8, 2021


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My Step Counter Obsession Got Worse During Quarantine

You’re averaging fewer steps a day than last year.

On average, last week’s steps were less than the week before.

Since the start of the pandemic, the alerts from the Health app on my iPhone have felt more pointed than usual. I know it’s bleating out an emotionless statement of fact, but if it were a person, it’d be the parent who’s not mad—just disappointed.

Since March 2020, when I carried my laptop home from work for the last time and my social life dissolved, the daily incidental exercise I didn’t even realize I was doing to get around my city evaporated. A week later my Pilates studio turned off its lights and turned on its webcam. I now had to walk only about five steps from the Zoom call to the mat where I tried to undo all the damage my new house-bound life was doing to my body, and the accelerometer inside my phone that calculates my movement had less and less to do.

Meanwhile, almost overnight, peak-hour traffic was replaced with bicyclists, and people filled the parks and walking tracks around Melbourne. I became one of those people. We all had the same idea: spend some time freaking out and narrating news headlines with a friend under the guise of getting fresh air, and participate in the global activity of white people: Getting Our Steps In.

For all my 30 years, my relationship to exercise has been a complicated one, especially when it’s done in public. I’ve been fat my entire life, and for the first half of it I subscribed to what I was either told directly or absorbed through culture and conversations: people whose bodies are smaller are behaving “right.” They eat well and they exercise; fat people do not. They’re healthy; fat people are not. To stop being fat by mimicking thin people’s actions is to choose to pursue not just health but goodness.

I was first exposed to the fat-acceptance movement online when I was nearing my 20s. I immediately felt drawn to the communities that sprang from it. Sometimes diluted by the more palatable tag of “body positivity,” fat acceptance means, among other things, divorcing of our size from ideas of health, goodness, and inherent human value. In more recent years I’ve read vital writing by people experiencing invisible illness and chronic conditions, proving that health is something that cannot be seen, no matter a person’s weight.

This newfound perspective made me appreciate my body’s worth and potential. I came to understand that exercise could be something besides a punishment or path to a thinner, and therefore “better,” self. In addition to a weekly Pilates class, a swim when the weather is good and the incidental exercise I get while living my life, going for a walk has always been my go-to.

When walking endless laps around parks and trails became my only way to accumulate steps, it lost some of its appeal, but was still a welcome way to escape the monotony of life inside my apartment. Then Melbourne moved to a strict “stage 4” lockdown model, and outdoor exercise was restricted to an hour per day. Motion was an unspoken part of the rule; we couldn’t stop and sit while outside. Instead, we were always moving, making the most of the time allowance. (These restrictions were first scheduled to last six weeks. They didn’t begin to lift until fifteen weeks later.)

Suddenly, every step felt heavier and more consequential. While the logical part of my brain knew that hallowed 10,000 steps a day marker was a figure cooked up by a company selling pedometers and not an indicator of optimal physical performance, it still acted as my white whale during those dormant months.

In normal life I’d accumulate those steps running to catch a train or dancing at a concert. Now, I could walk to grab groceries on my lunch break—that would clock up around 4,000 steps. If I factored in time for a walk before work, I thought I was starting my day off on a good note. But I’d barely be 10 minutes from my house before I was checking my Health app to see how I was tracking. Only 1,500 steps? I’d come home from my hour of state-sanctioned constant movement to see I had only registered 6,500 steps and feel disappointed, as if I’d wasted the time by not pushing my body longer or testing the rules.

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