If it’s less metabolically costly, it’s probably a business opportunity…is that a problem?

Posted on June 1, 2015


(Last Updated On: May 20, 2017)

This is Part One of a three part series on technology and health, with a focus on fitness. Part One will look at a general effect of technological progress on the body. Part Two will look more at the value and costs when technology is implemented into health / fitness. Part Three will be the most specific, dealing with social media. Each part is its own post. The “series” is more because I’m going to post them one after the other.

For this, the word technology is primarily referring to electronics, digital tools, or fairly highly complex solutions. That’s not technically the definition of technology, but it’s contemporarily what most people are referring to when using the word. Something I think is unfortunate.

Business after business is built on this principle. I’m not sure it’s realized, but this is what it boils down to.

If it’s less metabolically costly for someone else, you can probably make money off it.

Humans have an extraordinary ability to analyze metabolic cost, and limit metabolic expenditure. We don’t like to burn calories, and we’re very good at knowing what burns calories. It’s part of our ability to survive, which, so far, we’re doing a damn good job of. I’m not sure there’s another species worried about overpopulating not a particular region, but the entire earth?

Let’s start with some obvious applications of this principle:

  • Grocery store vs farming your own food
  • Restaurants -someone else cooks and brings your food
  • Drive through -screw having to get out of the car
  • Chairs and other furniture vs standing
  • Riding a horse vs walking
  • Boats
  • Trains
  • Riding a bike vs walking
  • Riding in a car vs riding a horse
  • Five hour plane ride cross country versus 40+ hour drive (vs horse ride vs walking)
  • Escalator
  • Anything where you hire someone rather than do it yourself

These are somewhat “duh” categories. Ride a car 30 miles vs walk? Clearly. And while no, you can’t do everything yourself, many things people hire someone else for, they could do themselves. Carpet cleaning, oil change, personal chef, pool cleaner, maid, landscaper. It’s an extensive list.

I want to show some maybe not so obvious applications, as well as how extreme this is becoming.

  • More on cars
    • Automatic vs manual transmission
    • Cruise control
    • Self parking
    • Automatic break system
    • Avoids collisions? Yep. (You don’t have to move your foot to hit the brake.) 
    • Tells you if you’re drifting lanes? Yep. (Tesla.)
    • Full on self driving cars are on their way as well
  • A bridge- Don’t have to walk around
  • Using a cell phone compared to the effort of talking to someone in person. (Often involves traveling to see the person.)
    • For most communication, a text message takes less time than calling someone
  • Wheels on a suitcase instead of carrying the bag
  • Machine manufacturing vs manual [1]
  • Autocorrect- Or why I can definately not judge people by their grammar like I used to
  • Amazon’s one click checkout- They know for every extra click, you’re less likely to buy

-> I’m going to say it’s like a quarter of a calorie to click a mouse button. We’re talking about the body’s ability to differentiate between I don’t know, a quarter of a calorie versus a whole calorie? That matters!

  • Power tools vs non
  • Keurig coffee maker- Less involved than using grinds or beans

keurig coffee

  • Let’s go back to restaurants- the price of a restaurant often goes up with the service, which makes things easier on the eaters. Switching utensils for you, not having to ask for refills, pouring your wine refill, not having to answer who ordered what dish, etc.
  • iPhone’s fingerprint scanner versus having to type your passcode
  • iPhone- No longer need to have a MP3 player, camera, and phone. For some, they no longer need a desktop or laptop. Can hold it all in one palm now.
  • You know after you buy something online, how you’re automatically opted in for that company’s email list? (Does anyone else hate this shit?) The reason you’re already opted in is because you’re more likely to sign up. That having to perform an extra mouse movement and click to opt out, makes you less likely to do it.
    • Going with the above, why do you think it’s always so hard to find unsubscribe buttons from newsletters?
      • Continuing with the above, anybody notice certain things still require you to mail a letter to cancel the service? Like certain gyms? Or how impossible it is to get someone on the phone when you want to stop a service? Things are being reversed here: Extra metabolic cost to cancel = less likely to stop using the service. [2]
  • Facebook’s newsfeed- “Keep up” with everyone you know compared to the effort of actually keeping up with them.
  • Having to open the lid of an ice cream container makes people eat 30% less than if the lid is already open
  • Broom- Easier than being on your hands and knees
  • Pooper scooper- Why bend over to pick it up?
  • Microwave- Easier than cooking [3]
  • Motion sensor lights- You don’t have to flip the switch
  • You can take a picture of a check to deposit it now, rather than go to the bank. For the app I use, the app actually takes the photo for you now. All you have to do is align the check to the camera box.
  • The foot stool on a garbage can -> Again, why bend over at all?
  • Sidewalk- Even ground vs uneven ground
  • For a while, other than a bit of a cool factor, I couldn’t understand why people cared so much about how heavy a laptop was, or a phone. Like the MacBook air. OH MY GOD IT’S .03 OUNCES LIGHTER! Now I think I know. A lighter laptop is less calories to carry around.
    • Pause here. Think about how many of these things, when you initially came across them in life, you went “Oh, that’s so cool!” Does cool = less metabolically costly?
  • Netflix has a lot of examples:
    • DVD delivery
    • Send DVDs to your mailbox? That thing you have to walk to? Nah. Let’s go with streaming.
    • They automatically start the next episode of a show so you don’t have to click. That extra click? You’re less likely to keep watching.
    • They recommend shows for you so you don’t have to channel surf. How many times do you remember channel surfing only to find “nothing on?” The less you have to surf, the more likely you stay on the service.

-> To reiterate here, we are talking about moving a finger, what, half an inch??? That matters!

  • Electronic tooth brush- Why shake my hand if I don’t need to?
  • Fast Pass toll booths- Exchanging money with teller vs automatic signal transmission. Sure, it’s quicker. But that’s also less metabolic work.
  • The advent of Amazon’s grocery delivery
  • Bags
    • You might initially think we’ve gone to some items which are bigger, or enable us to carry around bigger things. But a bag really makes it easier to carry around stuff. You don’t have to make as many trips, for instance. Or a bigger cell phone is, for many, easier on their eyes. It requires less effort to read; less dexterity.
  • When you go to certain restaurants, this is common at Starbucks, you go to the bathroom and see the “IN USE” or “VACANT” door handle.

In use vacant door handle

 -> You may say, “Well, that’s merely convenient.” But why is it convenient? Because you don’t have to knock on the door; you don’t have to test the handle and see if it’s locked; the person inside doesn’t have to worry about being startled and prematurely ending their private moment? Whatever the convenience is, it’s less metabolically costly.

Conversely, some things that have had, or have, trouble catching on:

  • Dieting
    • Diet foods as well. Think chewing the same amount for a lesser amount of calories. Sometimes you chew more for less calories. Carrots vs Twinkies.
  • Exercise
  • Electric cars
  • Organ donations
    • Do you know how some have increased enrollment? They made the box checked “yes” automatically filled. Rather than have to opt-in, you have to opt-out.
  • “Environmentally friendly” products and approaches
  • Standing desks
    • Although, I’m feeling good about these. I’m getting more and more clients entertaining this.
  • Heavier laptops
    • Computers weren’t that popular until they were a size capable of being on everyone’s desk.
  • Self-ordering at a restaurant

With the above list, we could really just reverse the first list. For instance, buying a DVD vs streaming a movie. Or, look at failed, or failing, businesses. Blockbuster anyone?

For the second list, the common theme is they all, as of now, incur a greater metabolic cost. Dieting and exercise is obvious. But I’m not sure people realize how ingrained this is in human DNA. Moving more, until so recently, was considered risky. You didn’t move more for the sake of it; you only moved more for exchange of something. Often, that exchange was calories. (I suppose that exchange nowadays is better health.) Move more => Get more food. Notice the juice bars at gyms? For many, after they move more, it’s time to ingest a ton of calories. Often way more than they burned exercising. [4]

What’s the biggest complaint about electric cars? “I have to charge it too often.” In California, where I live, there is not a shortage of charging stations. There are services where people even sign up their house for you to use, if you drive electric. Charging stations are ubiquitous. This is only San Diego county:

But in a car whose range is only 100 miles, what happens? You have to charge it more often. It takes extra time -extra calories- compared to gas. The inconvenience –the extra calorie expenditure- takes precedent.

This is one reason so many “environmentally friendly” things haven’t caught on. I once heard a gym manager be pitched environmentally friendly cleaning products.

“No, it’s more expensive and it doesn’t work as well.”

Salesperson “Don’t you care about the environment?”

“Not that much.”

You think people are going to scrub for a longer amount of time, and pay more, for an equal or lesser result? You’re insane. [5]

This is one reason people are so sensitive to monetary cost. For most, there is a direct relationship between how much they work and how much money they make. More work is often more calories. Ask someone to pay more and you’re asking them to expend more calories. Some will do this on purpose, as a status symbol. [6] But for the masses, and most purchases, it doesn’t happen. A hell of a lot more people shop at Wal-Mart than Gucci, Louis Vitton, or whatever luxury store.

Self-ordering, from a technological perspective, should be here. There is no reason to pay someone to take your order when you could do it yourself on a screen…except that requires the orderer to expend more calories than compared to the cashier typing it in. Self-checkout has been around a while. I use it multiple times per week, yet I still see many using the cashier. Someone else deals with the machine compared to you dealing with it.

Machine “Place item in bagging area.”

Customer [Places item in bagging area]

Machine “Unexpected item in bagging area.”

Customer “Uhh?”

I, and others, have thought this was because “people matter.” I don’t think that’s so much the case anymore. [7] Calories is what matters. When those self-ordering things are easier than a person, or the people get too expensive, it’ll happen. Like at Laguardia airport:

laguardia airport no cashiers

I’ve seen few solid arguments against raising minimum wage, but this is certainly one.

If you’re willing to do the metabolic cost someone else is not, there is likely a business opportunity there. Willing to clean someone’s house? Willing to write the code for a new app? Write someone’s exercise program? This may well be the single biggest driver of a market driven economy. The saying goes, “If someone else can do it better, for less, they win.” In other words, “If someone else can do it so the customer expends less calories, they win.” Again, sure, this isn’t EVERY business.

Personal training, what I do, being an example. The industry gets paid to expend calories. Although, I get many clients who are already exercising. They hire me to write the workouts for them, so they don’t have to (expend the calories). However, on balance, I’d say trainers are getting calories burned. Make life easier in certain ways -maybe program design; going to someone’s house- for the exchange of making it harder in others -sticking with a program; actually exercising. But let’s keep in mind, exercise is one of those things most have trouble latching on to long-term.

Before you get inspired

Maybe this is obvious to some. I feel rephrasing this as “making someone’s life easier,” a common piece of advice when starting a new business, to “less metabolic cost” gives a different perspective. It gives a greater appreciation for what you may be doing to someone’s body when you “make their life easier.”

Before you go off creating that next business where I can change the channel with a blink of an eye, literally by blinking my eyes, even though you can probably make good money doing it, maybe amazing money, think about the biggest health problems facing people. Then think about one of the biggest potential issues facing people. Vascular issues like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and then on a more broad scale, we’re constantly talking about threats from what we’re doing to the climate.

What are these things a result of? Less metabolic cost.

Chairs, cars, planes, trains, computers, mass agriculture, internet, phones, better software, these things all exacerbate the above calamities.

Another thing some think should be on the list of future concerns is artificial intelligence. Skynet may actually be a reasonable fear. What’s that a result of? Trying to make better and better software / hardware so people can do less and less, aka automation.

In the spooky movie Ex Machina, there is a line about the inevitability of artificial intelligence. “It’s not a decision; it’s an evolution.” Something others have echoed. I’ve caught myself wondering why is this? We have to make the thing, right? So why is that inevitable? Couldn’t we…not make the thing?

I think this whole decreasing metabolic cost principle is the reason. Should it be possible for people to do, then it will be done. Because up until the point these things potentially go rogue on us, they consistently make life less metabolically costly. The evolution in our DNA, the non-decision, is to continue doing this. It’s part of who we are. To such a degree, I don’t know if we can turn that off on a mass scale. Robots which manufacture things, drones as pilots, drones as delivery mechanisms, Siri sends a message rather than my fingers. This is the fear. You keep doing these things and eventually, you cross a line you didn’t want to cross. (See the movie!) [8]

The college degrees requiring the most time, the ones that are the hardest, the ones requiring the most metabolic cost, often end up with the highest earnings. Basically, mathematically oriented majors (computers / engineering) and medicine. The kids willing to put in the most metabolic energy come away with the most reward. People will gladly pay for the metabolic work you’ve done, or will do, so they don’t have to do it. They’ll gladly pay for services which lessen how many calories they have to expend. [9]

Looking at engineering, it’s such a cool endeavor. It’s given the world many things. It’s also caused many issues. You can’t only take the good away from what you do. I’ve heard it be said, “Engineers will save the world.” It can’t be ignored engineering created many of the problems it’s trying to solve. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are gods of the tech world for their innovations. Yet nobody mentions how much heart disease they’ve enabled.

Take chairs, cars, planes, trains, computers, and practically everything else invented the last 150 years, take it all away, and humans don’t go away. There are probably not as many of us, but we’re here. We were long fine without those things. Life wasn’t as easy in many ways…but that’s the point.

Henry Ford helped invent a whole new world. No longer was your life confined to a certain radius. He expanded it. He made it possible to travel to remote places you maybe never could, and in way less time. He made it affordable for nearly everyone to do this.

But how many people have died in a car accident? How many people have died fighting over oil? What is excessive oil consumption going to do to the planet, and subsequently us? How many people have heart disease because they move less, because they drive even the 10 minute walk to the grocery store? How many people have a bout of rage comparable to Zeus almightyism between the times of 3pm and 7pm while driving through Los Angeles?

Don’t blame this on people. “Well, that’s not his fault. People should get off their lazy ass and walk more.” You’re asking humans to go against a fundamental aspect of their DNA. It’s like saying “don’t have a vertebrate.” The reason we’re here is because of this instinct. You don’t magically turn off the thing that helped get you where you are. Most can’t do this in their own lifetime. Never mind who knows how many years of evolution.

I‘m a big fan of watches. I don’t own any, but I love looking at them in the mall. I found a new store recently with a great collection. I was talking to my girlfriend about how there really has to be a better way of doing a watch display. You always have to lean over and hold yourself. “Should I touch the glass, should I not? Can I lean on the glass? I don’t want to break things. Oh that one looks good over there. Let me walk around.” It’s really not a solid experience.

Watch display

Furthermore, as a taller guy, the watches which always catch my eye initially are the ones set vertically. Like when you walk by a store.

My girlfriend works with merchandising displays a fair amount. I asked her why not have something like a watch store be essentially a big wall, and keep all the watches right in front of customers? Why this whole experience of holding yourself leaned over? Instead of just one of these, make the whole store this:

Watch display vertical

Again, as a tall guy, I was thinking why not make the levels electronic, so I could push a button to raise the lower levels up to me. I have to get damn near on my hands and knees to look at those bottom rows.

Girlfriend “Sure…But that would make things easier.”

If you’re into merchandise display, knowing the current state of the average person’s health, should you do something like this? Whether it’s this change or something else, knowing a certain shopping experience will almost definitely be more enjoyable (less metabolically costly), would you make this change?

You might think some of these things are trivial, but they compound. Car here, trolley there, finger print scan, don’t bend over, robot makes dinner…We’re getting closer and closer to where you can make it through a day without doing much more than a few finger taps, which will likely be a few eye blinks soon enough, into a few thoughts after that.

I love driving, I love flying. I don’t plan on giving up my cell phone. I run an online business of all things. But as an engineer of whether it be mechanical devices, or a new business, it’s worth considering the unintended consequences of your venture. No, you can’t always know them. Orville Wright seemed pretty horrified in the ways the airplane contributed to World War I. But I bet way more often than not, you know if your venture is making things less metabolically costly. Does the person get to move or think less? There’s your answer. In fact, this may be the intended consequence of your venture.

I had a client who is a programmer ask me about creating a fitness app. The idea would be to help remind the person of what the exercise is, technique pointers, a timer, etc. I’ve given this serious thought. (Have a little programming background myself.) Here are the two main reasons I don’t do it:

1) I can’t imagine it’s a good idea to give people more time looking at a screen. A workout can be a nice reprieve from LED lights.

2) After the initial going over an exercise, I actually purposely don’t give in easily to reminding people how to do it, what it is, how many reps, etc. I do this a ton with my older clients, who may have some memory issues. It’s like teaching a kid. If you merely give them the answers, they never learn. They need to think for themselves some. Is it harder? Yes. Do they hate it sometimes? Yes. Is it better for them? Yes.

(Once I explain this to them, they’re usually ok with it. They turn on a dime from pissy to grateful.) [10]

If I do remind them of something, I’m often vague about it. Rather than tell them exactly how to move their elbow, I’ll say “Think about your elbow,” so they have to remember what about their elbow they should be thinking about.

We’re all a product of our time. Hundreds of years ago these things weren’t a problem. Now they are. In the States, this stuff is helping cripple our economy. Healthcare trending towards 20% of our GDP. Some sharp people think automation is going to replace 40% of jobs within the next two decades.

If you really want to get creative, figure out how you can make people increase their metabolic cost AND get 600mph through the air. Figure out how automation can enhance human labor. Not only replace it. Because these aspects seem to be consistent afterthoughts. Automation has happened to have a positive influence. (This of course depends on your perspective e.g. factory workers.)

My girlfriend’s parents recently went to a resort for vacation. One of the things there was a margarita station, with a blender connected to a bicycle. To blend things you had to get on a bike and pedal. In Russia, they’ve experimented with getting a free subway ticket by doing some squats in front of a X-Box Kinect like machine.

Notice the above article is from CBS News, a huge readership, yet how few comments and shares it received. I guess this isn't very cool.

Notice the above article is from CBS News, a huge readership, yet how few comments and shares it received. I guess this isn’t very cool.

Are these silly? Sure. (The humor probably makes people more likely to do it.) But this is at least the idea. Coursera, Stanford’s online learning website, actually uses the Netflix “Next video starting in [countdown].”

Coursera machine learning

While sitting in front of a computer isn’t exactly walking around, I think we can all agree it’s better to use this feature with education than entertainment. [11]

Let’s get a little more “out there.” Put stationary bikes instead of seats on a plane. Not the whole plane, but certain rows. Bikes which are hooked up to an electric motor. Can you power a whole plane doing this? No. Can you power the screen in front of the person, the one they’d be watching anyways, all while getting them to burn some calories, in an environment where people move so little some are at risk of blood clots? Yep. [12]

People came up with this type of equipment a century ago. Examples of contemporary ones:

Pedal a watt


Some people who do their laundry

You could even put these bikes all around the airport, for layovers. San Francisco has a Yoga studio. Why not have bikes? It could help power all the electronics in the outlets. Again, it’s something. Because right now I see few things of this nature. [13]

The idea is NOT to give moving walkways at the airport, to make exoskeletons so people have machines move their bodies for them even more. You’re not going to convince me the Segway was a good thing to invent.


(I gave them praise, now I’ll pick on them) or that Stanford University really needs to be spending much time getting robots to clean your house for you. OR FEED YOU! [14]

Robot feeding person

Furthermore, can you increase someone’s metabolic cost AND get paid as well for it? Or at least make a living from it? The surgeons and pill makers will probably always make more money than the dietitians. Subpar results don’t matter. [15] The promise of less calories does. Even if the dietitian or movement coach is better for the client, which they almost always are, the client’s DNA says “Go with what requires less calories. Go with what looks like a quicker fix.” As the “engineer,” you may have to go against your own DNA of making more money. While technological advancement for less metabolic expenditure seems inevitable, I don’t think technological advancement for metabolic expenditure is. You want an engineering challenge; a business challenge? We need to get to work.

[1] There is a manufacturing paradox when machines enter the equation. 1) People expend less energy 2) Machines expend more energy compared to if a person was still doing the work. This is a double whammy societally, as we yearn for 1) People to expend more energy 2) Machines to expend less energy. More here.

[2] I feel as if the ethics of this could really be questioned.

[3] Our next paradox: The less costly a meal is to prepare, the more you will probably eat. The more costly a meal is to prepare, the less you will probably eat. More here (link unfortunately broken, but you can look for the research from the University of Chicago.)

-> This paper actually shows some solid data on how our activity levels didn’t changed much between the 70s and 90s. Something I discuss here.

1) That’s only because we’ve offset lesser expenditure due to technology with more voluntary expenditure.

2) More expenditure in recreational time, like at the end of the day, has a tough time offsetting hours and hours of sitting beforehand. There is a difference between holding your breath for five seconds every hour, versus holding your breath for five minutes straight at the end of the day…There is a difference between intermittent movement throughout the day versus one longer bout at the end of the day.

3) This paper doesn’t look at things like whether you’re clicking a mouse or not. It’s more broad. Like were you watching TV or not. My point with a lot of this is the compounding of less caloric expenditure (and more caloric ingestion) in every little way. How were you watching TV? That said, if you go further back to the early 1900s, then we are much less active, like with our work lives. The overall trend is clear.

[4] I wonder if there is a genetic element to this too. It’s one reason exercise by itself fails weight-loss wise. After moving more people inevitably offset that with eating more. “I deserve it today.”

[5] To be clear, this is not “people are bad” or inconsiderate or cynical. A common misunderstanding. We all do this type of stuff in various ways. It’s a function of survival instinct. Without it, we wouldn’t be here. Tough to call that bad.

[6] You could make the argument paying for high-end items is actually metabolically friendly. If you’re someone with that type of money, a few hundred dollar item is nothing to you. (It’s minimal calories.) At the same time, say you’re a guy who bought a great looking watch, or something of that sort, which clearly shows you have some money. This can lessen the metabolic cost of trying to show off to a woman. If you pull up in a Ferrari, you probably can get away with not having to be as funny, witty, can be in worse shape physically -> You trade the cost of the product in exchange for not having to work out.

[7] Of course there are circumstances where I’m sure it is. Self-pouring is also on its way, but I’m not sure I envision bars with no bartenders. Going to a bar if often a way to not drink alone, because you at least know the bartender will be there.

[8] Ex Machina Trailer:


Engineering dominates the top paying bachelor degrees

-Medicine dominates the top paying professions

[10] And some I never see again! This is a tough aspect of being someone who is trying to increase someone else’s metabolic expenditure: You’re often not liked. It can be similar to a dentist. People like that you help them with their teeth, but they don’t like how it feels when you’re doing it.

[11] One aspect of entertainment different than many others is music. Television, movies, broadway shows, a lot of entertainment entails sitting and being passive. Music tends to get people active.

[12] “What about noise” or “what about smells?” Do you know what goes on in an airplane bathroom? Plenty of people sit right by those already. You could even put the bikes by the bathroom. Noise wise, everybody has headphones on, bicycles and electric motors are quiet, and I still seem to find one screaming baby every time I get on a plane.

[13] Some may wonder about using this type of equipment at home. I’m really, really, not a fan of the bike for exercise, when other things are available. Like walking or resistance training. This has to do with bone health. I discuss this more here. While I love the idea of using exercise to generate power, I fear it still gets people away from the most important thing: They need to be walking more.

The airplane thing is different. You’re going to be on the plane anyways, and we can’t get a treadmill on that thing. We’re making a shitty situation crappy. When we’re on land, we want to take a shitty situation (sitting on your ass) and make it great (walking).

[14] First, I’m actually taking their machine learning class. Second, inevitably, people want to say, “But this stuff is great for disabled people.” Inevitably, I point them to photos of Segway users.

Segway people

Most people who use this type of stuff are not disabled. “It’s great for people who have a hard time getting around.” To which I say, most people have a hard time getting around because they haven’t tried to get around on their own two legs in 30 years.

I could see the same type of logic thrown out when the remote control was invented. “It’s for those who have a hard time getting up and down.” The reality is something like the remote control exacerbates people’s degenerating ability to get up and down. These things, more often than not, feed movement issues.  A wheelchair doesn’t help someone walk again.

Specifically with things being done around the house: That’s often a source of accomplishment for people. It’s something to do. There is pride involved. It alleviates boredom. These things are more true when the person is retired or older. Doing stuff around the house is a common way the elderly get some exercise. Having to have someone else do these things for a person is often a sign of failure in the minds of the house owner. Or if we’re talking being fed, then it’s a sign of failure to the body owner. (Read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End for a great look at this.)

But I guarantee people will use something like this before these types of things are a concern. Before they’re retired for instance. “Today was a tough day and I just want to relax.” You’re right. After 15 hours of sitting today, the best thing is to go sit some more. Thanks robot.

[15] Covered in Part Two.

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