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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 5, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Tough New Year’s resolution? Zombies and data can help

It’s amazing what you’ll do for a number. Or to outrun zombies. Or both.

Numbers first.

I got the Nike FuelBand for Christmas and have barely taken it off since. Shaped like a bracelet, it uses a sensor called an accelerometer to measure my physical activity throughout the day, displaying my steps, calories and an activity metric Nike calls Fuel in bright LED lights at the press of a soft oval button.

I was a few feet from a movie theater escalator last month when my sister-in-law dashed for the stairs.

“Do it for the Fuel points!” she yelled.

So I did.

Now, I’m no athlete. I haven’t been to the gym in months (working on that) and don’t have a specific fitness target in mind. Yet.

But when I manage to hit the humble daily goal I set for myself, with jumping jacks in front of the TV if that’s what it takes, those LED lights do a little dance on my wrist. It feels fantastic.

My health aside, the rising popularity of wearable trackers like the FuelBand, the Jawbone Up and the FitBit is a sign that this growing genre of self-improvement tech is in the best shape of its life.

Got a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, eat less or sleep better? Learn your own tendencies with apps like SleepCycle or MapMyFitness, or combine the tracking power of a smart gadget with the custom data entry of MyFitnessPal or Seattle fitness-rewards app EveryMove. Those daunting personal goals might start to look like a series of easy victories.

Of course, technology alone can’t put your feet on the track. (Yet?) But the more work these tools do for us, it seems, the more work we’re willing to do ourselves.

A 2002 study from the University of Scranton showed that fewer than half of people who make New Year’s resolutions succeed after six months.

“We have the studies to show that self-tracking can really turn things around for people,” Susannah Frame of the Pew Internet and American Life Project told a crowd at the Medicine X conference last year.

Nineteen percent of smartphone users have at least one health-tracking app on their device, according to a recent Pew survey.

The possibilities are exciting.

Bellevue’s Ed Wilkening, 52, lost 75 pounds since he got the Withings Wi-Fi body scale three years ago. He hopes to shed 50 more. Wilkening steps on the scale every day and, by the time he walks back to his computer, his weight, BMI and other metrics have uploaded onto a private online profile that tracks his progress.

If he falls behind, he puts on his coat and uses a smartphone app called RunKeeper to log a leisurely walk. That, too, is uploaded to his scale’s private profile.

The more these tools work with each other and adapt to our routines, the more helpful they become.

And they can use more than just data to motivate. Which brings me to the zombies.

When I asked online last week what tools you use to work on self-improvement goals, I didn’t expect an app called Zombies, Run! would be among them.

The app is a game, and a story. Put on your headphones and you’re not just a jogger, out on the street or on the treadmill. You’re Runner 5, taking supplies to survivors of the zombie apocalypse. As you jog, you take on missions, speeding up to outrun vicious zombie hordes. It even works with your own workout music. Neat, right?

These tools are far from perfect. Calories are tougher to calculate than fitness and food-diary apps make it seem. And already my husband is fed up with how my FuelBand seems to award me more points for lounging around the house than his awards him for taking an afternoon walk.

Still, we’re making time between breakfast and work to take the baby for a stroll. And we’re walking, instead of driving, to the grocery store and the library. For us, that’s something.

You manage what you measure, after all. And now that we can measure everything, every little step truly does count.

Know someone in the Northwest with a cool story, app or project around self-improvement tech? Email me and stay tuned. I’ll be featuring neat ideas from our region all month.

Thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far! Here’s one post where you shared your favorite gadgets and apps, and another with your thoughts on local projects.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Habits, Mobile

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