When was the last time you opened Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or Snapchat? Seconds ago? When we think about the “why” behind these products, corporate titans design them to be habit forming.
Despite our increased familiarity with these platforms—and for most of us, I’m referring to the acute frequency with which they appear throughout our daily lives—these behemoth apps have been known to form toxic behavioral patterns that negatively affect mental wellness by instilling feelings of anxiety, depression, inferiority, and loneliness in their users. To say nothing of the tremendous amount of time and productivity squandered each day.
That was my jaded view until I signed up for a virtual 5K race for the conservation of Nantucket in July. The virtual nature of the race meant I had to download a fitness app, called Strava, to track my time. Strava is a service that tracks all types of exercise from stand-up paddle, hiking, skiing, and of course to running. Finally! An app with healthy, beneficial “addictive” qualities. Follow your friend’s progress and give them kudos for their activities—brilliant. Before July, friends would have laughed if I called myself a runner, having never run more than 3 miles. Flash forward 6 months, and now I am running up to 50 miles a week at an average pace below 6:30 minutes per mile. I had never imagined in my wildest dreams this would happen. The routine-forming nature of the Strava app pressed me to continually improve my times and mileage with tremendous backing from a super supportive community. Quite a feat for social media! Knowing that my followers would see each of my runs inspired me to give it my all on every run—which, over time, has transformed me into quite a competitive runner. During COVID-enforced isolation, my circle of friends came to rely on Strava to remain motivated and stay connected. Ironically, Strava not only helped us better ourselves as individuals, it also compelled us to us to build stronger bonds amongst each other by motivating us to keep in touch via the Strava app. I now have old, as well as new “Strava friends” within the Strava community, all of whom I chat with often. Ultimately, Strava spurred me to lose 40 pounds, ditch unwanted anxiety, morph into the most competitive runner within my friend group, and form meaningful connections with hundreds of equally motivated Strava enthusiasts.
But I’m not the only fitness app addict in my family—that would be my dad! Two years ago, I introduced him to the extremely popular app, WHOOP. Used by some of the world’s greatest athletes: Lebron James, Patrick Mahomes, and Michael Phelps to name a few, “WHOOP is the first system to automatically track your body’s unique physiological state to determine your personal readiness to perform each day”(whoop.com). Captivated by WHOOP CEO Will Ahmed, dad dug into the app and grew so inspired that he even wrote a book about it, Flip The Youth Switch by Dr. Bob Arnot (J.T. Colby & Company, Inc.). Dad used Will’s key metric, “HRV” (Heart Rate Variability, a measurement of the time between successive beats of the heart), which WHOOP calculates in metrics related to biological age. When he started, Dad’s HRV measured that of a 70+ year old. Within a year, his HRV had dropped to the equivalent of someone in their mid-twenties—just like me! I even introduced Dad to my WHOOP group, “Whoop Hardos”. Strava users rely on the WHOOP app to compare results (part of Ahmed’s genius has been game-ifying WHOOP).
Dad’s become a total WHOOP fanatic. As many as three times a week he scores number one in a group of 40 ex-college athletes and captains, all in their 20s. He won’t even get out of bed in the morning before checking his tallies to see how hard he can press his workouts, and he won’t go to sleep at night without seeing where his scores stand within Whoop Hardos. Last year my father represented the US at the Winter World Masters Games in Austria in Alpine Skiing and Nordic Combined. Thanks to his physical stamina as a result of using WHOOP, his dream of re-living the life of a 25-year-old athlete had become a reality!
My father is a lifelong endurance athlete who has competed in numerous Ironmans, marathons, and triathlons. He is also the World Champion of paddle boarding for his age bracket. For years he had longed for me to get competitive in endurance sports, but I always resisted. On probably one of the happiest days of his life, I called him and asked, “Dad, how would you like to run-bike a half marathon with me?” I hardly had to say another word before he flew down to Nantucket—it had been 8 months since we had last seen each other due to the pandemic. We successfully completed the half marathon in an hour and a half, all the while tracking our performance on WHOOP and Strava. These apps not only helped my physically (an accomplishment for which I will be forever grateful), but even more meaningfully, they helped me personally by bringing me closer to my father. Using the apps during a physically distanced activity, we were able to see each other for the first time during the pandemic—as well as share a newfound passion for endurance sports—and healthy, social apps that crush it!