What a medical student learned from using a fitness band

It was 11:47 p.m. That meant that I had 13 minutes to reach my pre-set goal of  “activity” that the fitness tracker on my wrist had been registering throughout the day. If I met the goal, I would get a “trophy” on the accompanying app. I probably looked pretty funny bouncing around my living room doing a squat here and a sit-up there, punching a pretend opponent, and running in place. But I made it minutes before midnight. If I hadn’t — well, then I would have just blamed the piece of technology on my arm for not working.

The tracker was a gift from my cousin Steve. Steve is impressively fit; he runs marathons, tackles obstacle courses, and races road bikes. A few years back at Christmas dinner, Steve challenged me to a pull-up contest – I was super hyped and ready for it until, well, I lost. Every holiday season since then, I’ve spent the weeks prior to heading home logging extra push-ups, pull-ups, and bicep curls just in case a re-match comes up. Without knowing it, Steve inspired me to get active. Now, with blinking lights and status reminders, the fitness tracker he gave me does so more frequently, more annoyingly, but in a way, more enjoyably and effectively.

The fitness band on my wrist doesn’t tell me to go to the gym or go for a run. The periodic updates on how far I am from my pre-set goal, however, “nudge” me to get up during a commercial and do a set of push-ups, to get out for a walk, or to take the stairs. I’ve even turned to running in place or a set of body squats whenever I find myself yawning to make sure I get enough points.

In the past, I’ve been good about working out, even doing stretches of two-a-day gym trips. But this doesn’t last very long as I use the busy medical school schedule as an excuse. After getting the fitness tracker, it’s been a string of random, spontaneous, and unstructured workouts throughout the day. While I may not have achieved Mr. America status, I’ve felt good about meeting my daily goal and racking up trophies. It’s even become a bit of a game to see how high I can actually make my numbers go. I’m competing against myself. This may sound weird, but at least I know my opponent and understand what I’m up against, right?

Wearing the fitness band reminded me of the concept of nudges. Nudges, as discussed by Richard Thaler, PhD, and Cass Sunstein, JD, describe how a person can be steered toward making a particular decision without hard instruction. An individual encounters small pushes towards doing something that is desired of them, unaware that they’re being led in that direction. Commercial companies have mastered this in the form of advertising, making us feel as if we “need” their product. This fitness band has me thinking that I’m playing a game; the soreness in my legs and looser fitting clothes would indicate that I’m working out.

My experience with the fitness tracker has reminded me of the importance in framing conversations with patients. We often resort to telling patients, “You should work out and eat healthy – if you don’t you’ll get this or that disease.” It’s easy to frame things in the negative and use scare tactics. But rather than give constant reminder of what they aren’t doing, conversations with patients should contain nudges of encouragement. Nudges such as aligning goals with patient priorities, setting check-in time-points, and incorporating social networks for accountability. If we could do for chronic-disease management what the fitness band tries to do for working out, our patients might have an easier time.

Moises Gallegos is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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