Just Watch Me

Fitness monitors and smartwatches have transformed the world of training, prompting a generation of active users of new technologies to get in shape. Is this type of device really suitable for a wheelchair user? Here is the opinion of our Ambassador Joël Dembe after two weeks of testing.

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. More importantly, as someone who uses a wheelchair, I wasn’t sure those features would even work for me.

I was wrong.

After two weeks of non-stop use, I can say without hesitation it’s a must-buy for all abilities.

Like 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 thought.

Essentially, I stopped moving. I lost my edge.

However, once I got my hands (or should I say wrist?) on a fitness tracker (mine more specifically is the Apple Watch) and activated “wheelchair mode” - everything changed. Here’s my two-week journey:

Day 1: I’m getting hourly reminders to move my wheelchair. “Time to roll!” displays 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 5-minute outdoor push. The watch tells me to wash my hands. That’s a good reminder! But I do it for precisely twenty-seconds until the automatic countdown timer chimes ‘complete’. I get another reward.

Day 6: I open the watch “workout” app and select “outdoor push, running pace.”  I listen to a workout playlist synced from the watch to my AirPods. I wheel around my neighborhood. 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. Now, I’m 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 a phone while pushing anymore. It’s seamless. So I keep going. But now, I feel like the wheelchair-version of Dick Tracy.

Day 9: I’m stressed. My smart watch already knows this. It notifies me that my resting heart rate is high and tells me to breathe. It 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 ninety-eight per cent. What about the remaining two-percent, I ask myself? My heart races again. I panic. Am I okay? I ask Siri. Siri says I’m fine. I should do that breathing exercise again, I tell myself. I hear a chime. I’m once again rewarded.

Day 11: It’s getting late. The watch vibrates, displaying “time for bed!” 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 have finished converting our garage into a gym. My handcycle is now mounted on an indoor trainer. In tandem with my smart watch, I’ve created an accessible version of the Peloton. I’m now tracking multiple workouts. I’m synced into the Nike Training Club. I’m now participating in online fitness classes. I’m completing challenges against other Apple Watch users - some of whom also use a wheelchair. I’m beyond motivated.

Day 14: I look at a summary of the data my fitness tracker has collected. It’s tracking everything from forced expiratory volume to the total movement distance of my wheelchair. I’m using my phone less. I’m relying on Siri more. This has me hooked. I’m obsessed with 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 then I hear a chime.

“It’s time to roll!”

Indeed it is.

About Joel Dembe


Joel Dembe enjoyed a successful career as a Paralympic tennis player. He is now a coach and works in the world of finance. He's also representing Motion Composites as a brand ambassador.