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I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with running and exercise. On the one hand, nothing quite beats the feeling of knowing you’ve just completed 10 k. Running is also good-quality thinking time. I’ve made some pretty important — if not life-changing — decisions whilst running. It’s also a great time to be creative, to work out how you’re going to get that great idea off the ground, have that important conversation or simply get over a hurdle that has been hindering you personally or professionally. Sometimes running is none of those things though. Sometimes it’s just you and a great playlist, enjoying each other’s company. The best runs are when you feel that burst of energy and excitement, it ebbs and flows as time goes on and the run gets harder, but it’s always there, pushing you forward. And afterwards, you feel great. Runner’s high is real, but it’s easy to forget this on the occasions when you feel overwhelmed with fatigue and you just want to get the whole thing over with. Haruki Murakami even wrote a book about the combined agonies and almost sublime joy that accompany life as a runner. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running ‘chronicles Murakami’s training and completion of 62 miles or an ultra-marathon. It’s a sweeping and highly visceral love song to running — one that reminds us of the innate connection between physical competence and the power of the mind.
What I do know is that running is an important part of my life — and the health benefits, mental and physical, make the aching feet all worth it. Having had something of an exercise hiatus since the summer — and feeling about as unmotivated as it is possible to feel after the delectable indulgences of the festive season — I decided that I needed something that forced me to take action. A few years ago, in a desperate bid to get more active and lose some pounds, I came across an activity app (or game as its devotees prefer to call it.) StepBet is part of a slew of new accountability apps that make you put your money where your mouth is in order to ‘win’ the game. Other useful accountability apps that I’ve recently come across include Beeminder. With Beeminder you pledge a certain amount of money in exchange for the promise that you’ll complete or work on a certain task. The app gives you gentle nudge along the way and lets you know if you’re close to veering off track. It’s helped people lose weight, get their dream job, and even build businesses from scratch.
So back to StepBet, how does the app work? Step bet’s algorithm works out the number of steps you should take for the challenge by using your chosen device (in my case, a Fitbit Charge) and measuring your current activity level, then increasing this level to ensure the challenge is suitably challenging. I’m quite active anyway, running a few times a week and walking wherever possible, so my goal was set at 14,621 on ‘Active’ days and 17, 678 on ‘Active Days.’ Quite the challenge indeed.
So, what’s the driving motivation for signing up to StepBet? The obvious conclusion is that people just want to get fitter, lose a few pounds and start building better habits as we begin a new year. But desire alone is not enough — and this is where the genius of StepBet comes in. What people generally like is money. What people generally dislike is losing money. StepBet takes advantage of this human proclivity by making you bet on yourself and taking your money off you if you fail. If you win, on the other hand, you get back your original bet and a cut of the whole pot (including some of the losers’ money!)
Your winnings will not be particularly substantial — perhaps £10. But for those of us who are more motivated by the stick than the carrot, I think it’s the thought of losing money that is the ultimate motivator. In the game I have just completed, DrizzleMeSkinny’s Stepping In the New Year the bet is $40 or approximately £30. Not enough money to bankrupt you if something went wrong and you did lose it, but just enough money to hurt a little if you did lose it. £30 is enough money for two cinema tickets and a few drinks, a new outfit or maybe even a cheap meal out for two. It’s just enough money to stop you thinking ‘Sod it, I can’t be bothered anymore, I’ll just lose the money.’
Starting the five-week challenge in January, I probably picked the worst month of the year to start a challenge that involves lots of outdoor activity. January is for hibernation, long luxurious baths, cosy weekend lie-ins and hot chocolate, a time for lounging around and just coddling ourselves a bit. Not anymore. This challenge has seen me run and walk in rain, hail, ice, and snow. It became even more difficult when I started a new full-time job at the end of January and had to find increasingly creative ways to get my steps in. I found that eating lunch at my desk and spending my lunch break marching around the streets, going to the upstairs loo in the office, walking into the city centre after work and then walking around the streets (or sometimes the shops if it’s too cold) just about does the trick. If I didn’t get enough steps in during the day, an after-work run was the way to do it. I’ve no doubt looked ever so slightly insane to the staff in shops ranging from John Lewis to Topshop as I’ve marched up and down the isles — the bigger the shop the better. The challenge does provide a good opportunity for window shopping.
So, today, as these five long weeks have come to an end, and I’m declared a StepBet champion, what am I taking away from the experience? Well, like anything worth doing, there have been positive and negative aspects of the challenge. On the negative side, doing the challenge can be exhausting, it zaps a lot of your leisure time in the working week — time that I could spend reading that book that’s been on the shelf for months, working on my writing or, let’s be honest, binge-watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It also does make walking a bit of a chore — when you’re walking to achieve something, it seems like time slows down and every step becomes an effort, a formula that you must follow in order to succeed. It makes you miss the kind of walking you do in the majestic countryside or on a warm summer’s evening. The kind of walking where I look down at my Fitbit and have magically achieved over 20,000 steps with what feels like no effort at all. That’s the kind of walking I love and the kind of walking I look forward to getting back to. The challenge also hasn’t helped me lose any weight — the main reason I signed up for StepBet. After the delicious indulgences of Christmas, I expected that by getting my diet in check and upping my activity level — I typically needed to run for over an hour a day or walk for two in order to achieve my steps — would pay dividends. Not so.
Yet, in spite of the frosty walks, the painful feet and the static scale number, the benefits of doing the challenge have been overwhelming. My fitness levels have increased drastically. My resting heart rate has completely normalised — given that I have had tachycardia most of my life, this is an incredible bonus — and I’ve saved about £15 in bus tickets.
It’s also made me reflect on the positive habits and behaviour that the challenge encourages and which I hope to continue with. Walking through the peaceful gardens near where I work is an energising experience. Time away from my desk where I can think, relax, and contemplate. It allows me to return to work in the afternoon feeling calm, balanced, and ready to be productive. Sitting at your desk and watching re-runs of The Office is just not the same. It also encouraged me to run 13.3 k — that’s a half marathon! I haven’t signed on any dotted lines yet, but it has made me consider taking my hobby up a notch and perhaps signing up for a 10k.
Hitting that elusive 13.3 k
The challenge has been difficult, and if I’d been working full-time since the beginning of the challenge I think it’d have been a lot more likely that my money would have ended up in the losers’ pot. I don’t think I’ll be ready to sign up for another game until the spring or summer — because the challenge does interfere with and, to some extent, rule your life while you’re doing it. I’m not ready to give up all my autonomy to a fitness app quite yet — I worship at the altar of the StepBet gods who sign up to challenges back-to-back. What StepBet has done for me has pulled me out of the apathy I was feeling — that stay-in-bed-all-day and drink buckets of tea in your dressing gown kind of apathy. That has its time and place and is a wonderful treat when done sparingly, but it shouldn’t become a habit. StepBet got me back into gear, feeling motivated, energised, and enthusiastic again — and for that, it’s worth the £30 entry fee alone.
I look forward to the challenges and triumphs that my next StepBet game brings, but in the meantime, I’m off for a weekend jog.
NOTE: this article was written the day I completed my StepBet challenge 09/02/2018, but because of life, it wasn’t published until today.