Will a Smart Home Make You Fat?

Why run for the phone when you can lie around in bed? (Photo: Bell Telephone Company ad).

In the post Is your kitchen design making you fat?, Dr. Brian Wansink discussed the benefits of having a separate dining room. It not only stopped excess grazing, but you had to walk from the kitchen to the dining room, and that’s actually exercise. It reminded me of something I read years ago, about what happened when the extension phone was sold to America, something that might happen again with all the new smart home tech that we will control on our smartphones.

Back in the '50s and '60s, the Bell Telephone Company not only provided service to your home, but it also owned the phones. People generally only had one in the front hall, and people did a lot of running around to answer it. So in the 1950s, Bell started seriously marketing extension phones as a luxury item. They brought them out in different colors and hired the great industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss to develop the smaller Princess phone for dainty night tables. But parents fought the trend. Writer Beverley Lucy describes her mother’s reaction when she asked for one:

Another phone? In your room? Who needs two phones in a five-room apartment? Lazy bones who can’t walk? People with secrets? An expense every month and nothing to show for it like the acrobat, toe-tap, and baton lessons we send you to. No! No phone. That’s final. Pink, Shmink. Black is fine for a phone. The line should be open in case Nana or Grampa needed something anyway. Homework wouldn’t be done. They would never see me. No. No pink princess phone. Think of something else.

But eventually the marketing won out, and the extension phone became common. A study that was done a few years after (which, alas, I cannot find) showed that there was significant weight gain among those who didn’t have to run for the phone anymore. Calories not burned add up over time.

view from the basement up the stairs, where the phone is

How much do they add up to? How many pounds? I did an experiment to find out. In my own home, I recently went through an extensive renovation and put my office in what used to be the basement. I forgot to add a phone outlet down there, but I didn’t worry about this too much. I do most of my talking over Skype or my cellphone and nobody calls me anyway, so I didn’t think it was worth tearing up drywall for.

But to my surprise, I actually do have to answer the phone about four times a day. Using a calorie calculator, I found that fast walking burns about 5 calories a minute and climbing stairs 9 calories a minute, and that each round trip to get the phone burns about 8 calories more than if I was just standing still, or about 32 calories a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s 11,680 calories per year, but at 3,500 calories per pound that’s 3.3 pounds per year I am not gaining by running for the phone.

Then I measured the distance to the dining room light switch and back, six seconds, which I used to turn on or off four times a day but now don’t have to get up because I control it from my phone. That’s only 2.5 calories per day, which still adds up to a quarter of a pound per year.

One of the main tenets of the smart home is that you can do so much from your phone or iPad. You don’t have to get up to change the thermostat or the lighting; with video monitoring and smart locks, you don’t even have to get up to answer the door. Nobody really walks to the mailbox anymore and everybody has a phone in their pocket. Perhaps it’s time to consider the longer-term implications of all this.

Two years ago, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg started the Center for Active Design in New York City, promoting “Active buildings: encouraging greater physical movement within buildings for users and visitors.” This is something we're going to have to think about for our homes, particularly with the advent of smart technology where you only lift a finger to operate an app that talks to your fridge and the robot cooking your food. We know what happened when the extension phone and the TV remote control came into our lives, but this is taking it to a whole new level.

It’s ironic that the two applications that smart technology is going after first are the smart home and the fitness wearable. It’s time we gave this some thought.