How health coaches are using Fitbits to improve veterans’ wellness

Veteran standing with son

Photo by U.S. Army Materiel Command/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The fitness and sleep trackers provide feedback for wholistic care.

When a veteran enters a wellness program at VetAdvisor, she may be given a Fitbit to help track and achieve her goals. VetAdvisor, an integrative care organization, uses the wearable health tracker to monitor veterans and provide personal coaching based on granular, real-time feedback from the Fitbit. 

Coaches assess each veteran’s needs and offer a Fitbit One to clients who want a comprehensive picture of their activities and goals. The device tracks daily activity and sleep patterns and automatically logs it in a database of patient information.

“For that person who is just trying to walk a mile or walk up the steps without feeling winded, our goals would be much different than the goals for individuals who want to run a marathon,” Whitney Veres, coaching supervisor and lead behavioral health and wellness coach at VetAdvisor, said in an interview. 

Clients first establish a baseline for one to two weeks of regular activity. Then they build goals centered around their desired wellness achievements. The Fitbit automatically logs the activity and sleep information in a SugarCRM backend, which monitors the milestone velocity, or the progression of people’s health. 

VetAdvisor tracks veterans’ milestones using color-coded progress bars: green is good, yellow means they might need a little attention, and red signals to the coach that the veteran needs help.

Sleep is a big component of what coaches measure in their clients. Sleep disorders affect many veterans, and gaining insight into an individual’s sleep habits through passive data collection is key to better understanding how to treat them. Last year, 1,262,393 veterans who were patients of the Veterans Health Administration had a sleep disorder diagnosis within two years. That accounts for more than 20 percent of patients.

“Here’s a big thing I’ve seen with the Fitbit—if I were to ask them, ‘What time did you go to bed or are you going to bed consistently?’ they might say [they are],” Veres said. “But by looking at the Fitbit, they can see very clearly: one night I go to bed at 1:30, and another night I go to bed at midnight and are able to pick out those patterns.” 

Previously, wellness coaches would ask veterans to log activity in a journal. The veteran would write down when they went to sleep or woke up throughout the night. But the Fitbit can collect this data for them automatically, and, Veres said, one of the crucial benefits is that the technology doesn’t modify the data. It just monitors and records it.

Coaches can also set up alerts to get email notifications when a patient’s patterns become unusual. If a veteran has not logged her data in three days, the software will alert Veres, who checks in with the patient to make sure everything is OK. 

“By looking at the Fitbit, they can see very clearly … and are able to pick out those patterns.

The wealth of data that fitness trackers collect about wellness and activity is a boon to researchers studying human behavior. Jawbone once analyzed how an earthquake impacted sleep in the Bay Area and used activity data to show which countries stayed up the latest during New Year’s. 

Scientists in Boston are using a wearable to test the stress levels of residents in the city, analyzing how things like commuting, high-stress jobs, and sleep can impact stress and anxiety. They are also looking for potential patterns in different neighborhoods.

Oral Roberts University requires all new students to wear Fitbits so administrators can ensure the students are meeting their fitness requirements.

The VetAdvisor program has approximately 200 Fitbits, according to Jennifer Roseman, the group’s executive vice president. On average, veterans achieve their goals after 11 to 12 weekly sessions. Veres said that while some clients are skeptical of the tech, and some drop out of the program, most of the veterans find it beneficial.

“Overwhelmingly I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the veterans,” Veres said. “They like it, it gives them an indication, like a lot of us, veterans included, I didn’t realize how lazy I was until I strapped that thing on. They couldn’t believe that just by making an effort by walking [during breaks], they could very easily meet their goal.”

Photo by U.S. Army Materiel Command/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Selena Larson

Selena Larson

Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.