I was walking home from the supermarket the other day when my wrist started vibrating.

I pulled up my cuff and saw the new fitness tracking wristband I had forgotten I was wearing.

The screen said “Congratulations, Rudi! You have met your goal!”

“What goal?” I thought. “What is even going on?”

I had purchased this wristband just a day earlier. I planned on using it to monitor my heart rate as I attempted a new exercise routine.

Now that I was wearing this gadget, it had started tracking my steps along with my heart rate, and without asking me, it had set a goal of 7500 steps a day.

My “success” at meeting this goal came as a surprise to me, not only because I hadn’t known about the goal, and hadn’t wanted the device to track my steps in the first place, but because I tend to think of my walk to the supermarket as a “nothing” walk. It’s a purely practical walk I take to get bread and peanut butter. It doesn’t count for anything. 

When I go on a “real” walk that extends far outside my neighborhood, this supermarket is the landmark I see on the way back home that tells me I’m almost there. If I only make it to that nearby landmark, and then I go straight back home, I haven’t really gone anywhere, have I?

But according to my fitness tracker, the round trip is a full 7500 steps.

I have a reputation for underestimating the time it takes to get somewhere on foot. If I say, “We can walk there in five minutes,” that means, “It’ll take fifteen if we go fast.” I always want to believe it’s possible to walk.

What do I take away from the fitness tracker’s insight that my “nothing” walk is not nothing?

When I felt that jubilant buzzing and saw the celebratory text flashing on the device’s miniature screen, it was as though a private, humdrum corner of my daily life had been lit up randomly. Never before had I received praise for completing such a routine activity – taking one of my practical, boring, “nothing” walks along the busy main streets in my neighborhood with rush-hour traffic underway. It was fun to be congratulated for a thing that I didn’t even think of as “a thing.” Who or what besides a pedometer would ever give me positive feedback on walking to my local Shaw’s and back? Certainly not myself.

And there’s the problem. It’s good that I walk to the supermarket with no hesitation. I can get a decent amount of exercise from this errand alone – two to three miles of walking depending on what route I take – without even thinking about it or planning it. But the fact that I consider it a “nothing” walk means that when I don’t take it, I might not realize that anything’s missing. Why would it matter if I skip “nothing”? 

There are lots of situations that can prevent me from taking this walk. If the weather is horrible one week, I won’t take the walk. If I get a ride to the supermarket, I won’t take the walk. If I’m really busy and stressed out, maybe I’ll have groceries delivered to my door, and I won’t take the walk. And if don’t take my “nothing” walk for many days in a row, then as for exercise, I might be getting literally nothing.

The bigger lesson I take from all this is that sometimes we’re not aware of the hidden infrastructure in our lives, the hidden sources of fitness or wellness that we rely on without knowing what they are.

I’ve been talking about physical exercise, but socializing is another important part of wellness. When I was working at a startup in the early 2000s, the office moved to a far-away location in the suburbs where I had a two-hour commute by public transportation in the mornings – several subways and a bus. In the evenings, I used to catch a ride home with a co-worker and during that ride home, we’d chat and vent and reminisce and talk about anything and everything.

While I would never choose to have that arduous two-hour commute in the mornings, there was an unanticipated benefit of the office moving far away. It caused me to get rides home with co-workers which meant that every single day, I was getting at least an hour of social time. 

When I started working from home, that daily hour of social time went to zero. A pillar of overall wellbeing was suddenly knocked away, but I didn’t notice it because I never thought about that ride as important except for the practical purpose of getting home. We can lose things that matter to us but if we never thought they mattered, we might struggle to understand why we feel so different when they’re gone.

Back to physical fitness, you know, my living space has two floors. I wasn’t looking for two floors when I chose the place; I would have been perfectly happy with one large floor. But the two-floor situation means there’s a staircase I walk up and down probably twenty times a day. I wonder how much of my fitness depends on that one flight of stairs that I never planned or sought to have? ■

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