Huntley firefighters use Fitbit fitness monitors to track activity

McHenry County health professionals say fitness trackers, apps can help if users stay motivated

Huntley Fire Chief Ken Caudle always is looking for ways to motivate his firefighters to stay in shape – after all, heart attacks are the No. 1 cause of death in the profession. 

In September, the department launched its latest initiative: Fitbit activity trackers. After Caudle procured funding to subsidize the devices, 65 of Huntley’s 85 firefighters began wearing them day and night to track their steps, heart rate and sleep quality.

“I thought it was something different,” Caudle said, “and sometimes when it’s different and it’s techno-gadgety, it’s more fun, and I can get close to 100 percent buy-in.”

It took less than two weeks for Caudle to see a spike in workout room attendance, and the firefighters immediately began challenging each other to see who could accumulate more steps.

The chief is happy to see the increased exercise, but he also was looking forward to seeing the heart rate and sleep-tracking data from the devices.

The department wants to look into how firefighters’ bodies are affected by alarms that come in the middle of the night. When a call comes in, those at all four firehouses are woken up, whether they need to respond or not.

“We might look into station tones that might keep other stations from getting that zero to 60 wake-up for something that doesn’t affect them,” Caudle said. “It’s less stress on the heart, less stress on the nervous system. It’s one area we’ll be able to adjust.”

Huntley firefighters aren’t alone in using fitness devices. A 2014 report from the PwC Health Research Institute indicated about 21 percent of Americans own a wearable fitness device.

The market is led in sales by Fitbit but includes brands like Samsung, Nike, Jawbone, Garmin and Apple, and those devices also feed into apps that help users track activity and nutrition.

Lindsay Boeke, the site director of Huntley’s Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center, said she’s in favor of using the devices because they help integrate fitness into people’s daily lives.

“People that may not be accountable or may not have been as mindful – whether it’s about their steps or what they’re eating or calories, or that they’ve been sitting at their desk for the last three hours – are now just a little more mindful and accountable to those things,” Boeke said.

There’s no doubt the technology is popular, but its effectiveness is undetermined. An August statement from the American Health Association said available data was not strong enough to prove the devices help improve physical activity.

And, as Sage YMCA Fitness and Wellness Director Jill Ernst pointed out, results can vary wildly based on commitment.

“For some people, they’re great, and they help keep you accountable,” Ernst said. “For others, they end up never getting charged and sitting in the back of your car for months until you use it again for your New Year’s resolution.”

Both Boeke and Ernst said they wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the devices on a case-by-case basis, and both touted the social aspects of the technology as a potential motivator.

For those who can stay accountable, the devices are far cheaper than hiring a personal trainer or nutritionist, and different devices offer different information, so those at different fitness levels can tailor them to their training needs.

With more and more employers, subsidizing the devices for employees, the devices are likely to become even more widespread.

“I think it’s actually going to blow up even more,” Boeke said. “I think we’re not even skimming the surface right now.”

However, a 2013 study by Endeavour Partners concluded more than half of U.S. consumers who at one time owned an activity tracker no longer use it. The question, then, is whether the devices have sticking power.

“If people are finding success with it, “ Ernst said, “it won’t lose its novelty.”

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