John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Catching the fitness bug

Following up on my previous post about PruHealth, my gym membership is now up and running. There's a bit of lag time involved, so it's best to plan ahead if you want to do this; here's the rough timeline:

Tuesday 26th February: Signed up with PruHealth in the evening.

Thursday 6th March: Received welcome pack from PruHealth in the morning.

Monday 10th March: Went along to Virgin Active in the evening, with my PruHealth membership card, and filled out a joining form for the gym. They gave me a reference number, which I entered into the PruHealth website when I got back home to activate the gym membership. Since this was in the first half of the month, I have to pay for the whole of March, and this (10th) was counted as the first day of my membership to calculate my average number of visits.

Friday 14th March: I received my Virgin Active membership card (from PruHealth) in the morning, and I had to take this along to the gym with their letter to finish the process.

So, that's about 2½ weeks, and I only "lost" 4 days (when it was impossible for me to go). It then took me another 2 weeks to actually go to the gym (for various reasons), so I went swimming again last Thursday (27th) and again yesterday (Tuesday 1st), and I'm planning to again tomorrow evening. I'll actually need to go about 3 times a week to make up for the time I lost at the start, but I should be able to raise my average enough by the end of May. One nice surprise is that I now get free towel rental; I used to pay an extra £6/month for that, and it makes my life easier if I don't have to carry a towel around in my rucksack (despite what HHGTG says).

Meanwhile, I think I've rejoined at quite a good time: it's late enough in the year that lots of people have given up on their January resolutions, but early (and cold) enough that people aren't stressing about beach bodies yet. It's quite handy when I have a lane to myself, although I think that the karmic balance was restored when I managed to poing myself in the eye with my goggles.

Meanwhile, I've been tracking my weight for the last year. I haven't got round to plotting the charts in The Hacker's Diet, but I think there's a gradual trend downwards. In particular, I recently dropped below 100kg (and stayed there for 9 out of the last 12 days), which I'm quite pleased about; it may be an arbitrary threshold, but it's my arbitrary threshold, and I haven't been this low since October.

On the other hand, I looked at myself in the mirror at the gym yesterday, while I was just wearing a swimsuit. I don't have any mirrors at home, so although I look at myself when I get dressed, it's from a slightly different angle; similarly, when I see myself in mirrors elsewhere (e.g. the toilets at work), I'm fully dressed. This time, I saw myself as others see me (to paraphrase the song), and I was quite ashamed at what I look like; it was a bit of a shock to see just how fat I've really got lately. So, it's definitely time I do something about it, and more exercise is an important part of that.

Aside from the gym, I recently bought a Fitbug (pedometer) through PruHealth. I got a big discount through them (it only cost £15 rather than the £100 RRP), and I earn "Vitality points" if I do enough steps in a day (which helps me to get a discount on my insurance premiums next year).

Looking at the bug itself, I'm pretty impressed. It's a bit smaller than the pager I used to have, so it fits neatly into the coin pocket of my trousers and I can just leave it there all day without having to think about it. In fact, I accidentally dropped it onto the floor of the gym (when I forgot that it was in my pocket), but it was tough enough to endure that. It seems to be pretty accurate at counting steps, without getting false positives when I shift in my chair; mind you, there is some scope for cheating, if you can persuade someone else to carry it for you! Looking at the Amazon reviews, the only negative comment was someone describing it as "a £20 Pedometer", so even on that basis I still got decent value for money.

The bug has a USB interface, so you connect it to your computer and upload your steps to their website at the end of the day. (It can hold data for several days if necessary.) The software only works with Windows, which would probably be a drawback for some people. On the other hand, it works fine with Vista (and the device was recognised), which is good for me; the only snag I found is that it doesn't handle hibernation very well, but as long as I shut down completely it's fine.

You can enter information into their website directly, but you only earn Vitality points for the steps that the bug measures. In particular, you can use the website to track what you eat, a bit like WeightWatchers. However, their database is pretty limited, and I can't be bothered to teach it about everything I eat, so I'm ignoring that.

When you first get it, you have to do a bit of configuration, e.g. telling it the length of your stride, but that doesn't take long. In my case, I estimated my stride at 75cm (based on my height), so that means I'd need to walk 7.5km/day to do the recommended 10,000 steps. Bearing that in mind, I think this may displace my previous plan to start cycling instead of taking the bus to work. Looking at my steps from the last few weeks, I do about 3,500 if I go straight to work (using bus/train) and come straight home afterwards, but it's fairly easy to hit 5,000 if I take any detours (e.g. going over to the supermarket at lunchtime). By contrast, if I spend the day in my flat, I only do about 250 steps! I'm not sure how arbitrary the 10,000 goal is, but it's measureable, and it's objective rather than subjective, so these seem like good things to me. The website actually sets two targets each week: one for the total number of steps, and one for aerobic steps (which only start counting after the first 10 minutes of continuous walking), i.e. they recommend that you do some prolonged walking rather than several short walks.

What I have found is that the running total motivates me to do a bit more. For instance, last Thursday I got home and found that I had 9,000 steps (my highest so far), so I decided to take my recycling to the bins up the road. When I got back, I found that my total was now 12,000, so I'd hit the 10k target. However, there are two thresholds for Vitality points: 5 points for 10,000 steps and 10 points for 12,500 steps. Since I was now so close to the second threshold, I went for a quick walk around the block, and that took me up to 12,422. I then marched on the spot in my kitchen to get the final steps I needed! Also, I don't know whether this was due to endorphins from exercise, but I was feeling pretty darn cheerful on my way back from the recycling bins, and hummed to myself as I walked along. Since then, I've done similar things to hit my targets, e.g. going for a walk around the block while my dinner's cooking in the oven.

I mentioned Vitality Points, so is this thing actually going to pay for itself? Well, yes and no; in hindsight, I should have read through the documentation in a bit more detail before I bought it, but I still think that it's worthwhile. In my previous post, I was a bit suspicious about the discount scheme, since they say that it's based on this year's premiums, but it turns out that I was worried about nothing. Basically, I get a no claims bonus which is based on the full price of my premiums each year (rather than what I'm actually paying). There are four levels for this, linked to the number of points I get:

LevelPoints requiredDiscount

So, if I get up to Platinum level, does that mean that my insurance is free next year? Probably not; what it means is that I'd have to pay for any overall increase. At the moment, the full price is £48.52/month, so if they raised that to £50/month and I got a 100% discount then I'd just be paying £1.48/month. I don't know how much their prices are likely to increase, but it should still be a pretty significant saving.

This means that it's in my interests to accumulate as many points as possible. However, there are limits to the number of points you can earn in any particular category. In particular:

CategoryMaximum points per year
Not smoking200

Each gym visit gives me 10 points in the "Exercise" category, so if I go twice a week (to get cheap membership) then that's 1040/year. I can also get free health assessments every six months, which count for 300 points each, so that will take me up to the 1500 point maximum. That makes the Fitbug somewhat pointless (pun intended), but I figure that it doesn't hurt to have a bit of redundancy in my plan. Also, if the bug helps me to improve my general level of fitness then that's useful, and may pay off elsewhere.

For nutrition, I've registered my Nectar card and I get 1 point for every £2 that I spend on fresh fruit/veg at Sainsbury's (up to a max of £20/week, i.e. 520 points/year). I can also get points for BMI/body fat, as measured at the fitness assessments: 50 points if I stay in the same target band, or 100 points if I improve the target band. I was booked in for an assessment tomorrow, but they phoned to cancel so I'll have to reschedule. Anyway, this is where the bug may have an indirect benefit, although that does mean that I can never really say "I've now saved enough money to recoup the original cost".

For education, I got 100 points for filling in the health review (despite their dodgy BMI calculations), and I get another 10 points each time I read one of their self-help articles (up to 3 a month).

For not smoking, I got 150 points for signing their declaration that I've never smoked, but I can't get any more points than that, i.e. the maximum is a bit theoretical in my case.

Anyway, my basic plan is to get points as follows:

200Education (review + 10 articles)
150Nutrition (50 from buying food, 100 for going up a vitality level)
150Not smoking

That adds up to 2000, i.e. Platinum level.

So far, I have 345:

25Exercise (15 from Fitbug, 10 from gym)
120Education (review + 2 articles)
150Not smoking
50General (online activation)

Fitbug points get added the following day, but there's a bit more of a lag for gym points, so I have another 10 pending from yesterday. The "General" entry is a one-off, and I can't get points for that in future years. However, I do get to carry over 10% of my points next year, so that should more than make up for it.

All in all, I think everything's going according to plan, so I should be able to get fitter and save money.
Tags: insurance, pruhealth, swimming, walking

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