The Fitbit Generation
In September 2013, Conde Nast proclaimed the Fitbit to be the “… device you didn’t know you needed but will not be able to live without.” This bit of prognostication seems to have resonated with many people as Fitbits, Fuel Bands, Polar Bands and Jawbones became hot items over this past holiday season. With a simple set of LED lights and vibrating alerts, these devices provide positive feedback over the course of your day as you pass pre-programmed activity (and sleep) milestones. Through a Bluetooth link, the tracker will sync with your computer, cell phone or tablet and transmit the activity data to a proprietary website or app.
It is through the app and website that these devices offer the user the ability to join online fitness communities or create a group of their own and compete to become “most active”. And for those like me that have not completely embraced the idea of sharing on social media, the sites will provide the usual panoply of badges, awards and milestone achievements that will be familiar to anyone used to playing online games.
So is there value in this for our patients? For me as a self-motivated exerciser, a heart rate monitor is probably a better investment. But this is not a device for the “exerciser”. This is a motivational and educational device for patients that have never learned how to exercise. For the truly sedentary patient, an activity tracker can be both a motivator and educator. Most patients who I see in the office do not have any concept of how inactive they are during a typical day, week or month. Just like many patients have never learned the specifics of a healthy diet and require nutritional counseling, so too do they need activity counseling. Activity counseling provides the “language” of a healthy, active lifestyle to patients. You can’t tell a patient to be active if they don’t understand the “what” and “why” of activity. You have to learn to walk before you run, but you also need to learn how and why to get out of your chair before walking. But how do we begin that conversation?
The true value in an activity tracker is that it is the conversation starter. This simple form of patient engagement can be incredibly powerful as it becomes a “source of truth” about the habits of our patients. It is in its ability to level set our patients’ perception of their daily activities against the reality of their daily activities that it can be a truly useful tool. Just as many patients lack the knowledge of how to grocery shop, they also lack the knowledge of how important activity is to their health. While 10,000 steps a day won’t help me perform better in my next event, it may just help someone with a real deficit in fitness knowledge begin the journey to a healthier lifestyle. Cost of the high-tech devices ($60-$140), however, will limit their accessibility to certain patients.