Los Angeles County Fitbit Challenges: Friendly Competition in the Family

Dr. Henry getting his Fitbit!

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership is coordinating Fitbit Challenges for Los Angeles County community members, students, teachers, writers, parents, public agency staffers, business owners, leaders, policymakers and more. What is a Fitbit? It is a sophisticated pedometer that tracks your levels of activity and a great tool for raising one’s awareness daily behavior. We think insights into the built environment can be gleaned from actively engaging pedestrians in Los Angeles County. Also, it is really fun!

Dr. Randal Henry applied to join this program in February 2013, which requires all participants to share their experiences with the National Partnership team. Randal told us what it was like to use the Fitbit, incorporate the device into his current activities and track with precision his daily activity. Read Randal’s bio here.

This experience helped Randal become more aware of pedestrian issues. His vision for the future is to see Los Angeles County become more pedestrian friendly by shifting funding away from roads.

Randal was interested in the the various behavioral information that the Fitbit collects. He already considered himself an active person – an avid member of the LA Leggers and triathlete – and professionally works to increase physical activity. The size of the Fitbit made it easy carry anywhere so he could track his daily activity accurately. And as an added bonus, with no extra math needed, his stats appeared on a comprehensive personal online dashboard. When I mentioned available tracking on one’s smartphone apps, Randal laughed and said that phone apps were a less fashionable to track physical activity – he thinks strapping an iPhone to your arm is a monstrosity. It could explain why the prevalence of cell phones does not facilitate more people tracking and changing their daily steps.

Neighborhood Walk Train

Before we provided with Randal a Fitbit, his interest was already piqued, because his wife, Manal, uses a Fitbit and is continually excited daily with her numbers – steps, flights of stairs and calories burned. As expected, Randal received standard activity feedback from the Fitbit: tracked distances, estimated his average pace and time, mapped routes and allowed him to journal after each run. This information was helpful but didn’t change anything in his life. It was the unexpected metrics that modified his habits. Randal noticed after 8 days through Fitbit biofeedback metric that if he was engaged in reading and work before going to bed, he tossed and turned in his sleep. So for him a restful sleep required putting down work earlier in the evening. Also, the added friendly competition with his wife and other Fitbit participants (such as Jessica and Zaki) from this program provided extra motivation to take the long way home, walk up an extra flight of stairs and increase ambient walking.

On the way to school on the Los Angeles Metro

Carrying the Fitbit has informed Randal about his children’s walk to school – 2.4 miles round trip – and changed his perspectives on the trip. His neighborhood has good pedestrian infrastructure because it is an older neighborhood built around the Pacific Redline Trains. However, he sees pedestrians benefiting from potential infrastructure upgrades that increase visibility of pedestrians to cars, such as installing flashing beacons, extending time for crossing and moving parking lot entrances to avoid conflicts with pedestrians on the sidewalks. He also thinks that it would be nice to plant more trees and decrease street lanes for cars around his neighborhood.

Overall, the added information and motivation from the Fitbit helped him be healthier. Randal didn’t have a goal to lose weight so it was a nice added bonus when he did! The pertinent and timely information from the Fitbit informed his diet and exercise decisions. New technology and designs are able to foster pedestrian advocates through personal change and providing opportunities to observe the built environment. This experience helped Randal become more aware of pedestrian issues. His vision for the future is to see Los Angeles County become more pedestrian friendly by shifting funding away from roads. “Perhaps a dollar not spent on auto transportation will decrease more than dollar of environmental and health impacts on our communities.”

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