In 2012, I attended a TEDMED conference where I met my first The FitBit Story It’s is a digital, computerized pedometer, but as it turns out, these gadgets are SO MUCH MORE. They come with a program and once you tell it how tall you are, how old, and pick a clever user name, then you’re ready to go. You wear the thing; and it records physical activity (like how many steps you take and how many flights of stairs you climb) but also how active you are and how you sleep. The program also allows you to key how much water you drink and the foods you’re eating. When the device syncs with your computer or mobile device, it calculates your body’s energy balance. The coolest part for me is that all this data about food choices, physical activity and sleep pattern…this is really me. It’s my life, and over time it is making an accurate picture of the stuff doctors tell me are important for my health. It will answer the question: do I eat healthy foods, stay active and get enough rest? In order to be truly healthy, all these things must be balanced.
The first time I saw patients in the office wearing a FitBit, I was both delighted and surprised. I had largely viewed my FitBit as a tool, but here was something novel. My sense was that for the siblings who were first among the FitBit kids I noticed, they had embraced the device as a really cool toy (An Aaha Moment for this pediatrician to be sure.) Who says fitness can’t be fun? Kids know and love it when fitness is a competition, a game to be enjoyed. “Gamify health” is a hot topic these days in discussions of ePatients and mHealth. In fact, the world wide FitBit community is evolving around just that idea. There are FitBit groups that connect online in the virtual world to encourage and inspire one another to better health. You can configure the FitBit to send reminders, and my Fitbit takes the liberty to send much appreciated words of encouragement! I’ve earned the “Hot Air Balloon” badge for climbing 2000 flights of steps and the “10KBest In A Day” badge for walking in a fundraiser that supported the Pregnancy Resource Center.
No product is without its tradeoffs however. The FitBit company, founded in 2007, has one many awards for its innovative devices, but it also has had to decide what to do about criticism for privacy issues. I set my account (and my child’s) so that no one can see our data, but in the past, the default setting was configured so that our Step Count was publically visible unless we set it otherwise. There have been some recent troubles with rashes related to a wrist version of the device that the company has addressed. In a new wave of controversy, FitBit is hoping to make money by marketing their devices to companies. The plan is that larger groups of people will become more aware of their physical health balance, and healthier employees mean healthier companies. With employee permission, FitBit will share aggregated and individual info about employee wellness, and everybody is hoping to profit. Healthier employees, lower corporate insurance premiums and profit for the FitBit folks seems to be the ideal outcome.
I have no illusions about health privacy, and my own is certainly something I think about when my FitBit data-device is syncing. But as with everything, there are trade-offs. I can and do benefit from a device that helps me become more aware of my progress and commitment to staying healthy. If my data, de-indentified and aggregated with lots of other FitBit wearers, will help scientists see trends and patterns in the big picture that will help all of us be healthier, well…so much the better. Count me in. There will always be the ‘bad guy’ hackers and those who exploit for profit. I can’t let the possibility that they will see my Snicker’s Bar habit keep me from earning the 100KLifetime Distance badge.
Stay tuned for more on the FitBit. I and my staff at Partners In Pediatrics are fiercly committed to the children and to the families we serve. We will be brainstorming ideas for new ways to use the FitBit, and we hope they will inspire and motivate your family.
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD