“You’ve achieved the March of the Penguin badge for lifetime steps!”
I got a notification on my phone the other day from Fitbit, congratulating me for walking 112km since I got my fitbit. Apparently this is the distance that penguins march in Antarctica. (I think I watched part of a documentary about this once on a plane. It’s a blur). I just got the fitbit in a burst of Black Friday greed, and I’m weirdly enamoured of all of the little artifacts of accomplishment.
As no one close to my life will be surprised to hear, I’m highly motivated by counting things. I actually bought the fitbit because the integration of my iphone with the carrot rewards app was clunky and insufficient, and I got annoyed with the recent iphone health app “upgrade” where steps are only updated every 10 minutes or so. If I’m counting steps, I want real time data. And, it turns out, I get a little burst of swelling accomplishment equivalent to some mini-high when I hit my carrot step target in a day and get my 2 aeroplan points. And don’t get me started if I get the extra 50 points for hitting the target 10 days in a row.
This is the same reason I went for short runs four days last week in the final run up to hit my 217 workouts in 2017 goal. I was on track, then was sick for 5 days, and don’t want to trip myself at the finish line. I’m at #210.5 and determined to find another 7 in the next two weeks.
I’m long-established as a bit of a “completist” — I notoriously rode my bike 30 km up and down a bike path in the rain to get myself to my 150 km on Canada Day when my fellow riders had stopped earlier for various reasons, and I never stop 2 or 3 km short of a round number. I like to count the number of countries I’ve been to, and adding to the list is one motivator in my choices of where to go. And in my long-ago running past, people mis-interpreted my pleasure in hitting certain time goals as “competitiveness.” It isn’t — I don’t care how I finish against someone else. What does give me pleasure is beating my own times, or ticking off a desired distance goal.
I started to notice that this pleasure is both conceptual – yay me! — but there is a physical element to it. A little spike of hormones coursing through my body when the fireworks go off on my wrist telling me that I’ve hit my 10,500 step goal for the day.
Do you remember the episode of Star Trek: TNG where Riker brings back a game from a planet where he’s holidaying, and everyone starts wearing visors and dropping disks into funnel-like receptors by manipulating their eyes? And every time the disk drops, they give a little mini-orgasmic sigh?
And of course, ultimately, this game is a way for the bad aliens to try to take over the Enterprise, with everyone entranced by their optically-induced orgasms?
Yeah, my counting thing is a bit like that. Without the aliens.
It’s well established that exercise releases endorphins, seratonin and dopamine, which contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness, can help keep depression at bay, and can boost productivity. It turns out that for me, because I’m so rewards-motivated, I get a double hit of dopamine, which is also known as the “reward hormone.” I feel the surge o energy from exercising, then I get another hit of well-being from feeling rewarded for exercise.
Taking up a Quest for More Dopamine is not without its dark side. There has been a lot of noise recently about screen “addiction” being fed by dopamine released by pings or likes on social media or levelling up on video games. I know I have been aware of this phenomenon when raising money for the project I work on in Uganda — I get the dopamine surge when I see the telltale email address that notifies me of a new donation, which is a little disconcerting.
Knowing that counting steps and workouts, getting little badges, aiming for distances keeps me motivated isn’t a bad thing. I’ll take some extra floods of dopamine as I navigate the dark and busy time of year. But it’s good to keep Riker and his little visor in mind and not let that penguin march right over me without question.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto. She writes for this blog on the second Friday of every month and other random times when she has something to say.