The Personal Trainer That Monitors Your Every Heartbeat
The Personal Trainer That Monitors Your Every Heartbeat

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Of course I harbor the delusion that within me — awaiting the right circumstances — there’s a paragon of incandescent healthfulness. Without that, I’m a person of extremes. I read seven magazines in one sitting, then the periodicals pile up for the next five weeks. I’ll cook a four-course meal, then won’t even turn on a burner for days. I’ll exercise vehemently — an early dance class, then strength training, later a bike ride across the entire city and back — only to follow this with complete inaction, muscles stiffening by the minute. But if I were monitored, I imagine, if I felt like I was putting on a stage play about my life, I’d just become balanced. Never too zealous, never too lethargic. Active, but not wild. So when I heard about a virtual personal-training program that would keep constant tabs on my movement, all day all night all week all month all year, I said: Yes, all right! Let’s see if this can even me out, once and for all. 

Online solutions to personal training predictably surged in popularity last year. An array of coaching programs offered by both fit-bots and real fit humans provide personalized schedules and workouts. But Future is the only program that didn’t seem like a simulacrum substitute of the in-person experience. Instead, its program is only possible using the expanse of information from available digital surveillance. Like other online personal-training programs, the Future coach (a real person) assesses your goals, arranges a schedule with workouts customized for you, and holds you accountable by checking in about any workouts, whether they’re skipped or crushed. But when you sign on with a Future trainer (for $1,553 a year), you grant them access to the fitness and health programs on your Apple Watch. Every step, every bump in your vital signs, every logged workout is beamed right to your trainer. If your heart rate is conspicuously low all day, they know you’ve only shuffled from chair to couch to chair again. A child of my time, I have high expectations that the very presence of a digital witness will change everything.

My first conversation with Lori, my personal fitness spy-for-hire, feels very encouraging because she compliments my goal for the program: moving at least once every day. That could mean stretching, holding some hip bridges, dancing around, biking to a friend’s house, whatever, for even five minutes. Lori’s solution is to bank a program of quick workouts, between 5 and 15 minutes, for me. Most of the workouts she’ll design to be just low-intensity enough that I don’t have to shower after, another deterrent.

Our careful shower-avoidance planning turns out to be a little irrelevant, because the first two weeks, I change my habits not at all. Workouts go incomplete, I continue to spend days in complete inaction, ignoring the possibilities of having a body. Lori’s positive-reinforcement messages — I’ve received more congratulatory muscle emojis from Lori than any other person in my life — provide no motivation. I just continue as usual, just lightly aware that someone’s supervising my failure. Praise the side effects of techno-surveillance tyranny, but I’m admirably unfazed.

Lori, meanwhile, is completely unsurprised about my failure. Apparently, it takes everyone about this much time to adjust to the idea of new habits, she tells me at our two-week video check-in. But Lori and I decide that I might respond well to nudging. So if I haven’t exercised by ten each morning (I’m a morning-workout loyalist), Lori would inquire about “my plan to move that day.” Thus began a parade of GIFs sent around 10:15 a.m.: someone looking dejected in the rain, a starlet searching the crowd, George Clooney’s concerned eyebrows. Some of them worked. To a few, I responded earnestly: “Okay, yes! Going to make time right after I send these edits! Before I cook dinner! After I walk the dog!” Others I just ignored.

I realize some of the appeal of the Future exercise-espionage program was that I wanted to offload the constant surveillance that I was enacting on my own body onto someone else. Lori would instruct me to do what I’d previously intended to do, instead of whatever I felt like doing at that capricious moment. Left to my own devices, I mostly behave instinctively, which doesn’t leave more room for the infamous human habit of setting goals.

I like that I never made excuses about my days of inaction. My exercise supervisor makes excuses for me, though. Lori messages me, with bright and well-selected emojis: “I know you probably need a rest yesterday after that super long ride … let’s get some moving in today!” In actuality, I wasn’t sore at all after that ride, and I probably would have felt better if I’d moved a bit and stretched the next day, instead of spending the entire Sunday reading a Japanese mystery novel on the couch, legs draped over the dog. Lori’s sensitivity only makes me more determined to be my own taskmaster. My twisted instinct is: I’ll show you, I don’t need kindness! After being given permission to skip a nine-minute workout, I don’t miss a day of moving for the next two weeks.

Then, one week while moving apartments, I miss three short exercises in a row. Finally and cautiously, Lori expresses some disappointment in me, sternly suggesting we shift all my missed workouts to another week. This works like a dam breaking. After a sweaty dance class, I barrel through the three short exercises I missed right in a row. I log each workout on the Future app with urgency, like I might be able to send them back in time to the days they would have actually felt good to complete. I feel a confrontation with my truest nature: 80 percent bounding centaur in the sunshine, 20 percent slacker hermit in my private cold cave. I am a creature of inconsistency, long bouts showing off and then a swift Irish goodbye.

Unfortunately, the very core of my personality, contrary to all expectations, failed to change when witnessed at all times. The ever-present weather of surveillance didn’t really seem to affect me. Even though I felt encased in a paranoiac filter, with a self-important sense that someone will confront me about my habits in a hazy future tribunal, it didn’t matter to me.

This trial layered two new factors — external (my exercise monitor, Lori) and internal (having a goal). I only hated one and I think Lori’s great. From logging all my movement into the Future program, I could see there had been a marked shift in my behavior. My weeks went from containing an average of two full sloth days to containing one full sloth day. It’s simultaneously very disappointing and very impressive, no? A true change was made! But my goal had a zero-sum quality — movement every day — and I didn’t do that. I don’t know how people have goals all the time. Having goals feels terrible and vulnerable. Even if it means undoing the progress I’ve made, I never want a goal again. I want to return to behaving instinctively in my truest, unperturbed slacker-achiever spirit, with only Lori as my witness.