It’s become oddly compulsory.
Someone famous once muttered that you need to take 10,000 steps every day if you want to stay alive. And suddenly you had apps that could measure every step you take, every move you make.
The apps were watching you, so you couldn’t help checking them every day, every hour, every minute.
But could you be entirely sure they were accurate?
Perhaps it didn’t matter, as everyone you know could cheerily open their phone and tell you exactly how many steps they’d taken in order to meet you at the bar.
It was simply a thing.
I succumbed to flights of fancy
I confess I fell beneath the spell of my iPhone’s Health app.
There before my eyes were not only my steps taken, but my walking and running distance, my walking speed, my walking step length, and even a measure of my walking asymmetry. (This seemed to be something to do with the evenness of my gait.)
There was even the measure of flights climbed.
I wasn’t sure why this was at all important. Why did it matter how many times I’d gone up the stairs? Surely what mattered was how many steps I’d taken.
Well, my Health app told me that “a flight of stairs is counted as approximately 10 feet of elevation gain (approximately 16 steps.)”
Which inspired this enthusiastic response from me: “OK and…?”
Still, I’d give it a cursory glance as I cursed how few steps I’d taken — or praised myself for breaking through the magical 10,000.
A steep climb to credibility
Then something very odd occurred. My iPhone insisted I’d suddenly taken up climbing as a regular sport.
I’m not sure whether this happened with one of the regular software updates or not but — from one day to the next — I seemed to be climbing at least five times as many stairs as previously.
There was only one issue with this: I wasn’t climbing at least five times as many stairs as previously.
I was functioning in my same, relatively regular fashion, exercising in my relatively regular fashion, and not at all aware that I was soaring to any new heights.
Naturally, my first instinct was to blame myself. I switched the phone on and off, yet my alleged ascensions continued.
It couldn’t be that I was alone in my elevated quandary, could it?
Taking steps toward the truth
I contacted Apple to see whether the company could shed a little light on my ascending confusion. I’ll update, should a response descend.
I ventured further, however. On the Apple Community pages, I learned that this has been an issue for some time, in both iPhones and Apple Watches.
An iPhone X owner expressed their perplexity like this: “I recently started feeling the stair count was overstating but I was never able to confirm it. Last night I managed to find out how far off it is. My house has 12-foot ceilings and my stairways are 18 stairs vs the typical 12. Last night I climbed one flight of stairs, at about 12:15, so I was recording a new day. When I checked things this morning, prior to going downstairs, I noticed I had recorded 4 flights!”
The poster added: “I’ve looked everywhere and cannot find a setting to change and I cannot figure out what has happened. The phone was not dropped nor has it seen any severe handling of any sort.”
They weren’t alone. On another Community page, an iPhone user observed: “I’m always having issues with my [Apple] watch severely miscalculating flights climbed. It has happened in all three [Apple] watches I’ve had. When climbing stairs it counts about 50% of the flights I’ve done. For example, if I climb 20 flights of stairs in a day it may show 9.”
Wait, so emotions invested in the Flights Climbed part of your iPhone Health app can go up or down?
For this Apple devotee, there seems no end to the pain: “The bigger difference is when hiking. I will hike 1000 ft in elevation gain which the [Apple] watch will show accurately in the hiking app, but will say I’ve only done 6 flights of stairs. This has been going on for years. I feel like I’ve done everything to try and fix this.”
Just this week, another troubled devotee offered: “My understanding is they use barometric pressure to guess that you are going up or down. That is not an extremely accurate measuring method.”
Still, I couldn’t find any definitive answer to why this might be happening.
Numbers need an interpreter
The issue, of course, is that many people take such data seriously. Some of the data recorded by your iPhone or Apple Watch can be both vital and accurate, as my colleague Jason Perlow once experienced.
It’s reasonable, though, to maintain your own internal sense of how much you’re exercising every day. It’s also worth considering what staring at the numbers does for or to you.
Why, two French academics suggest that some athletes are giving up their total focus on their connected devices’ health data. Why? Because “for some participants, putting numbers on an activity actually leads them to experience it more as forced labor than as free, self-determined leisure.”
Sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, they even offer fables.
And sometimes they give you ideas that you’re climbing much higher than you really are.