Our Word: Just watch me

By Joel Dembe

At first, I was skeptical. Another expensive, overhyped gadget, right? I was certain it would distract me. Or that I wouldn’t use the ‘cutting-edge’ features cleverly advertised by Apple’s slick marketing team. More importantly, as someone who uses a wheelchair, I wasn’t sure those features would even work for me. Boy was I wrong.

After two weeks of non-stop use, I can say, without hesitation, it’s a must-buy for all abilities— especially active wheelchair users like myself.

Like it did for many others, COVID-19 disrupted my entire fitness regimen. Gyms were closed. Recreational wheelchair sports were off-limits. And, for some reason, I wasn’t motivated to use my handcycle or push my chair outdoors as much as I usually would. Essentially, I stopped moving and I lost my edge.

However, once I got my hands, (or should I say wrist?), on the Apple Watch and activated “wheel- chair mode”—everything changed. Here’s my two-week journey:

Day 1: I’m getting hourly reminders to move my wheelchair. “Time to roll!” displays on the watch. I go outside. I push my chair for a few minutes. I hear a ‘chime’ sound. It’s a virtual reward for completing a task. Another notification pops-up that I’m 260 active calories from obtaining my daily goal. This is interesting.

Day 3: I arrive home after a five-minute outdoor push. The watch tells me to wash my hands. That’s a good reminder! But I do it for precisely 20-seconds until the automatic countdown timer chimes ‘complete.’ I get another reward.

Day 6: I open the watch “workout” app, selecting “outdoor push, running pace.” I listen to a work- out playlist synced from the watch to my AirPods. I wheel around my neighbourhood. The watch tells me I’ve burned off 20 calories. I keep going. I push harder. 50 calories, then 75. After 30-minutes, an animated ring ‘closes’ on the watch. I still have to close two more rings to reach my daily activity goal. I am motivated to get that reward.

Day 8: Another workout. Another reward. A text message pops up on the watch. I ask Siri (the watch’s virtual assistant) to say the message out-loud. It’s my wife. I respond using only my voice. I haven’t stopped wheeling and yet my message to her is completely accurate. No fumbling around with my iPhone while pushing anymore. It’s seamless. So, I keep going. But now, I feel like the wheelchair-version of Dick Tracy.

Day 9: I’ve had a long day at work. I get a notification that I should breathe. Apple Watch begins displaying an animated breathing exercise. I inhale slowly, then exhale as the animation shrinks. A minute later, I feel better. I hear a ‘chime’. A reward for breathing. Then, I use the Blood Oxygen app on the watch for the first time. I’m at 98 per cent. What about the remaining two per cent, I ask myself? My heart races again. I panic. Am I okay? I ask Siri. Siri says I’m fine. But I should do that breathing exercise again, I tell myself. I hear a chime. Once again rewarded.

Day 11: It’s getting late. The watch vibrates. It’s bedtime. I keep the watch on while sleeping. It’s monitoring me throughout the night. It’s now the morning. Instead of a noisy alarm, I receive a gentle ‘tap’ on my wrist, waking me up at 6:30 am. That was pleasant. The watch tells me I slept just under seven hours—three of which were in a state of deep-sleep. Apple Watch says I need more sleep.

Day 13: My wife and I finish converting our garage into a gym. My handcycle is now mounted on an indoor trainer. In tandem with the Apple Watch, I’ve created an accessible version of the Peloton. I’m now tracking multiple work- outs. I’m synced into the Nike Training Club. I’m now participating in online fitness classes. I’m completing challenges against other Apple Watch wheelchair users. I’m beyond motivated.

Day 14: I look at a summary of the data Apple Watch has collected. It’s tracking everything from forced expiratory volume to the total movement distance of my wheelchair. I’m using my iPhone less. I’m relying on Siri more. Apple has me completely hooked. I’m obsessed with my progress. Obsessed with the daily and stretch rewards. Obsessed with closing those activity rings. Obsessed with competing against my friends.

I want to type much, much more. But I hear a chime. “It’s time to roll!”

Indeed it is.

Joel Dembe is a Paralympian, public speaker and global advocate for accessibility and inclusion. He was Canada’s top-ranked wheelchair tennis player (2011-2015), winning more than thirty titles internationally.

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