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(Christine Rösch for The Globe and Mail)
(Christine Rösch for The Globe and Mail)

A virtual drill sergeant? Why this growing digital trend might help you get fitter Add to ...

Jogging sluggishly along a waterfront trail at 6:45 in the morning, the relaxed mood created by a mix of dim sunlight and mild air is interrupted by a man yelling in my ear. “Ten hut,” he screams. “ Speed up! Cooool iiiiiiiit dooooooown!” He has set the rhythm of my five-kilometre run, bullying me on in an aggressive fashion that he no doubt believes is for my own good.

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The man in question isn’t a personal trainer or random passerby who has taken a sudden interest in the intensity of my workout. The man in question doesn’t, in fact, exist at all. His name is Sergeant Block and he lives inside my smartphone.

Sergeant Block is one of five personas that come preloaded in Couch-to-5k, a mobile app designed to whip a totally sedentary person like myself into shape. It logs the distance, pace and time of my runs down to a tenth of a mile, allowing me to see how I’m progressing and to share that information with friends on Twitter and Facebook, should I be so inclined.

Overzealous personal coaches are nothing new, but an app like Couch-to-5k fits into a growing movement of digital self-tracking called Quantified Self (or “ QS” to its adherents, who are presumably too busy quantifying themselves to call it by its full name). The QS tagline is “ self-knowledge through numbers” and its mission is to find out more about our day-to-day operations through the use of consumer-grade biometric technology. As QS co-founder Gary Wolf told The New York Times Magazine, “instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, [ trackers] are using numbers.”

Back on my own couch – plush, yielding, obliging the contours of my laziness and half-assed commitment to rigorous diet and exercise regimes – I am roused by a pop-up alert on my iPhone. “ Been a few days,” badgers KettleBell Workout 360. “ Wanna work out?” I don’t, but I do it anyway. Huffing and puffing and whipping a 10-kilo kettle bell around my body like some sort of wheezing carnival creature you might spot in the background of a bazaar scene in Game of Thrones, I bend and wriggle through exercises with goofy names like Goblet Squat and Russian Twist.

When I’ve done the 10-minute workout, the app asks me if I want to take a picture. I snap one of my face. Maybe the look of pain and exasperation will appear less severe as I lurch toward peak physical fitness; call it selftracking through selfies.

I’m also logging my daily food intake using MyFitnessPal, an app that boasts over 50 million users. It’s kind of like those caloriecounting diet diaries your mom might have kept around the house. Except it allows for greater accuracy, thanks in part to a Cloudbased network that stores millions of food and exercise combinations.

“We describe it as ‘ making the invisible visible,’ ” says MyFitnessPal co-founder and CEO Mike Lee. “Imagine you were trying to balance your budget, and you had no idea what you were spending and no idea what you were saving. You just knew when you ran out of money. It’s sort of like that.”

Beyond tracking calories, MyFitnessPal breaks down daily consumption into fat, carbohydrates and proteins, generating a pie chart in real time. It’s a handy app, but has its limitations. Bar code scanning offers you almost forensic-level details about prepackaged foods, but the info gets fuzzier when you accidentally down too much all-you-can-eat sushi at a restaurant.

“These devices are limited as to how accurate they can be,” Lee admits. “ The accuracy down to the calorie is less important than the endurance in continuing to track.”

Beyond concerns of accuracy, the QS health trend has met broader ideological criticism. “The end point of self-quantification might look like something from The Matrix,” wrote Katy Waldman in Slate. “ Material reality endlessly dissolving into a stream of green figures.” Waldman and other QS doubters think we should measure the value of a life with the airy-fairy metric of qualification, where “ a particularly ineffable bowl of chocolate mousse” cannot be computed as a breakdown of nutritional percentages. Waldman also notes that while some QS lifeloggers relish the stream of data, others “ feel hounded, shamed or hopelessly overwhelmed by all the numbers.”

That sort of anxiety – numbers are eroding our humanity! – is understandable. But it feels, like Waldman’s apocalyptic Matrix analogy, overstated. Nagging can be productive. Shame is a powerful motivator. New technology makes ordering a pizza directly to your sofa that much easier, so why shouldn’t it help us reckon with the physical cost of that pizza? Sometimes the bark of a virtual drill sergeant might be just the motivator you need to haul your lazy butt out for a run – even if it’s only a measly 5k.

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