I was a postman for two decades and have therefore done a lot of walking over the years. On average the job entailed somewhere between three or four solid daily hours pounding pavements, garden paths, hallways, steps, stairwells and so on - six days a week for most of the last century, then reduced to a five day week since the millennium. That's a lot of ground covered. I once read an article comparing the distances covered by members of professions who walk for a living. We came in second, just behind policemen on the beat but ahead of traffic wardens. I think our average distance was supposed to be something like eight miles a day, although at the time it was hard to judge the accuracy of this figure what with all of the stopping and starting, standing around rummaging in the pouch for a parcel or whatever.
Whilst delivering to the flats along Lushington Road in Catford I climbed one hell of a lot of steps. Most blocks had three floors with two flats to a floor, and there were at least twelve blocks to a street, and there were four of these streets lined with blocks of flats. One day I took a ruler and a notebook and measured the height of the steps, then multiplied the figure by how many of those steps I had to climb each day. It worked out that I scaled a height equivalent to that of Mount Everest roughly every nine months, assuming I've remembered correctly.
Exercise has never been something with which I have consciously engaged up until recently. Dora the Explorer tried to motivate me in that direction, apparently missing the significance of my usually being so knackered that I could barely stand after work. She required that exercise be specifically framed as active self-improvement, an undertaking which transmitted a message reading look at me engaged in the effort of making myself a better person whilst asking why not be more like me? She was not naturally disposed towards the expenditure of energy so far as I could see and her enthusiasm felt like overcompensation, attempted self-hypnosis, and some showboating - forever banging on about going out for a walk, getting some fresh air, getting out of the house and so on. I guess she liked how these proclamations sounded, because it was difficult to square them with the reality of her daily routine. She was seldom out of bed before eleven in the morning, and was never ready to leave the house earlier than four in the afternoon. We would go out for a walk, and she'd spend some of the time telling me I needed to make the effort to eat healthier, to take more exercise, and was I drinking enough water? We would walk up to the shop at the end of the road, a distance of about a hundred yards, and then we would walk back, myself carrying a bag of cat litter or tins of cat food because they were too heavy.
She acquired a pedometer, an unconvincing plastic dingus containing a ball bearing which rattled around and in doing so measured how far you had walked in a day and how many steps you had taken. It clipped onto a sock, shoe, or the hem of a trouser, and Dora the Explorer spent an evening walking up and down the front room, acclimating the thing to her gait. She took to reporting the statistics of how much walking she had done, generally prefacing a sneering dismissal of my own inferior efforts, which were inferior principally because they were mine and I had no understanding of self-improvement. Her routine had not changed. She was still rising at eleven and leaving the house only on alternate days or when I had failed to anticipate what she needed from the shop, but now her infrequent and unhurried movements were measured by the pedometer and redefined as exercise.
I bought one too from the sports place in Peckham, mainly because I wanted to find out just how far I was walking each day. Unfortunately the thing didn't seem to work all of the time, and each morning would end with a completely different reading.
These days, I am no longer a postman. Nor do I have a pedometer, although I have acquired what is called a Fitbit. No longer being a postman I cycle fifteen miles each day in the hope of staying relatively fit, although of course it isn't simply a matter of exercise. My diet is different, I no longer smoke, and I have succumbed to the inevitability of middle-aged spread.
'Cor!' my friend and former fellow postman Terry Wooster exclaimed with characteristic directness when I last saw him, 'you ain't half got fucking fat!'
My wife was a dedicated runner for much of her life, prior to the birth of her son - my stepson - at which point life became generally more complicated and she found it difficult to keep the running going. She bought a Fitbit, a sort of charm bracelet which tracks how much you have walked each day, how many steps, distance covered, calories burned and so on. The Fitbit seems a little more reliable than the thing with the ball bearing I once bought from a shop in Peckham. It has internet presence so at the end of the day you can go to a website and see how well you've done, and how much better you've done than your friends, the lazy fuckers. It seems to work for Bess in that it at least provides an incentive to engage in a certain amount of exercise each day - which can be difficult when working in an office; and because it's Bess, her motives are honest and refer to no weird social agenda.
She liked the Fitbit so much that she bought a new improved model and gave the old one to the boy, presently twelve, and seemingly inclined to stationary activities in which he shouts to himself whilst tapping the screen of his iPad with a finger, often for hours at a time. Sometimes I like to tell myself that he is playing a game called Outside World™ which involves liberating virtual kids from within a pixellated house, bringing them outside to climb CGI trees and do all the stuff I instinctively feel Junior should be doing. Happily he really took to the Fitbit, contrary to my generally pessimistic expectations. His behaviour at home doesn't seem significantly changed, but I guess the Fitbit appeals to his inherent love of boasting.
'How many steps did you do today?' we ask.
He will tell us, then ask how many steps my wife has done.
If he has done more, he will point out that he has done more just in case we hadn't realised. If he has done less, he'll take the stepmill to his room and just keep going until he's the bestest.
My wife was going to give him a new Fitbit at Christmas, the latest model which is worn like a wristwatch, but he lost the old one, and said he was unable to find it. We decided he would get the new one when he had found the old one on the grounds that his method of looking for things leaves room for improvement.
'Look for it,' one of us will suggest, and so he'll check to see if the mislaid object is directly within his field of vision at that moment. It usually isn't so he goes back to his game of Outside World™, possibly calling out 'I still can't find it,' as the game switches up to the level where you have the kid ride a bike up and down the road.
Nevertheless he eventually found the Fitbit and so now has the new one; and I got the old one because it seemed a shame that it should not enjoy continued use. I wear it around my neck like a pendant.
The first day it recorded that I had walked a little over five-thousand steps. I have recently discovered this to be an average number of steps for someone just doing housework and moving around their own home during the course of a day, so I'm not impressed. I'm even less impressed that my little electronic friend is disinclined to recognise the fifteen mile daily cycle as exercise or even travel. Well done, it tells me, you have walked a mile and a half today. It seems almost like sarcasm, but it's still significantly less annoying than look at me engaged in the effort of making myself a better person and all that went with it, so I shut up and get on with it.