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A workout app made me a better gamer

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I didn’t believe fitness apps had any point until I found one for myself

Anyone that knows me knows that I like to exercise. I actively enjoy the physical exertion that others might consider a chore or a necessary evil. It's because I can't remember the last day that I went without exercising that I've generally taken a dim view of workout and fitness apps. I’m fine without your help, I thought in my broccoli-addled hubris. This is one part of my life that doesn’t need the aid of a digital assistant. I was, of course, wrong.

This past weekend, as I was busy installing and delighting in the novelty of Android 5 on my Nexus 5, I stumbled upon an app in Google’s Play Store called Trackthisforme. It’s ridiculously simple in both its design and function: I just punch in units of whatever it is I want to track and it keeps daily totals that are then turned into pretty line graphs. It’s also ridiculously powerful.

Tough lesson number one: I wasn't exercising as often as I'd imagined

The first thing I learned from Trackthisforme is that I don’t work out as much as I think I do. Working from home, I find brief but regular exercises like pushups and squats to be the best way to stay in shape, but it turns out I’ve overestimated the regularity with which I do them. In my mind, I’m doing a set of pushups every hour, but according to Trackthisforme, I’m doing them every two or three hours. I also don’t usually count my reps, instead doing a certain set until my muscles fail or I get bored, but this app quickly disciplined me and — through my innate fastidiousness about neat round numbers — got me to do more reps in each set. Two days in and I’ve already got a much better idea of my own habits than I’ve had in all the preceding months.

Humans typically like numbers best when they are growing. That’s why we obsess over sportspeople’s stats and World of Warcraft hero levels -— and it’s why I was so immediately and hopelessly addicted to adding more data to Trackthisforme. It’s just plain satisfying to beat your own high score. The brilliant thing is that for me to indulge this habit, I have to become more focused and consistent in the way I do the things that I am tracking. In order to beat myself, I have to become better, which is essentially the entire point of self-improvement.

Better health means better everything

I didn’t expect any of this to make me better at playing video games, though. And yet it has: I’ve lost only two Dota 2 matches all weekend (where a dozen would be a more common number), I’ve set new high scores in Bejeweled 3 (a game that never gets the credit it deserves), and I generally feel sharper and quicker with my reactions than usual. I still don’t get enough sleep and I haven’t changed what I eat; the only thing that’s different is that I’m now paying attention when exercising. I’m also pushing myself that little bit harder and getting out of breath more often, which might be as much as my body needs to give my mental acuity a boost.

I've never lacked motivation, but now I have rigor and focus too

There’s no shortage of studies showing the beneficial relationship between physical activity and brain health. Even though I’ve always been cognizant and motivated to stay active, this app has added a layer of quantified rigor that I’d previously been missing. I can’t be sure if its appeal will stand the test of time, but it has certainly opened my mind to the usefulness of quantifying and gamifying my exercise. Being late to the party isn’t going to stop me from enjoying it.

Numbers brought clarity and visibility to my daily routine, which in turn helped me quickly improve it. I thought I was doing fine before, but now I feel better and healthier for letting a bit of simple technology into my life. I’m keenly aware that I’m working from a small sample size and could just be enjoying a placebo effect from having another set of numbers I can improve — this wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun without the automated graphs and daily comparisons — but I don’t really care. Adding this extra game to my life has made me better at everything else that I play, and that’s what matters to me.