My FitBit Conversion: Taking the Right Steps in Health–and in Business

A year ago, I attended an investor conference sponsored by Maveron, the venture capital firm for which I serve as an adviser. A remarkable man spoke: Lee Hood, one of only 15 individuals elected to all three National Academies—in science, medicine and engineering. His topic: his newest company, Arivale, which focuses on wellness as the next big advance in health. I was excited by his talk.

So I volunteered to be an Arivale guinea pig in the rollout of its innovative wellness program. This meant DNA tests, blood tests, hormone tests, and an evaluation of my gut’s microbiota, as well as ongoing monitoring. Lucky for me, my coaching comes from a woman with the world’s best accent and attitude. She monitors my performance remotely via my Fitbit. Yes, I’ve subjected myself to the tyranny of Fitbit! And I love how it motivates me to keep my numbers up so I don’t let my coach down.

When I first signed up online with Fitbit, I ignored its sleek black band on my wrist for a week. But one day I got an alert that I’d been awarded a virtual “sneaker.” A few days later, I was congratulated on only needing another 2,500 steps before I met “my goal”—the Fitbit gods had apparently set it for me. Before long, I was hooked and I no longer felt my day complete until I’d put in my requisite 10,000 steps. I’ve even gone out at 11 p.m. with a flashlight to complete my 10,000.

For the last four months, I’ve been averaging 12,000 steps per day (about six miles, or about the distance around Manhattan’s Central Park). It doesn’t happen unless I work at it consistently—which of course is the point. For me, this is both a monumental and radical accomplishment; although I’m active, I haven’t really “exercised” in 20 years. For my efforts, I’ve gotten results: My blood pressure is lower. I’ve lost some weight. My blood markers have improved. I’m eating better, too. My bet is that, if I keep this up, I’ll both extend my life and boost its quality.

As with all good things, there’s a cost. I’ve lost the freedom to eat whatever I want whenever I want—goodbye, soft drinks and Chips Ahoy—and I have to carve out time for my daily Fitbit regimen. But my own cost-benefit evaluation wasn’t even close when I finally came to grips with the notion that without good health nothing is possible.

My new cycle of feedback and motivation got me thinking about the parallels for running a business. What I’ve learned over a lifetime of executive leadership ought to be helping me modify my behavior when it comes to wellness. The principles seem the same: Set a goal, understand causality, harness information, and make an agreement with others on objectives and interim measures. Many companies have achieved turnarounds —Ford and IBM and Starbucks and Marvel Comics come to mind—because they recognized the variables they could change and then did so. Business outcomes surely can be modified with this regimen, so why not one’s health?

Before my Fitbit conversion, I behaved as if I believed you’re well until you’re not—and then you see a doctor who “repairs” you, much like you see a mechanic who replaces your brake pads and sends you on your way. Engine valve, heart valve—what’s the difference?

My experience as a wellness guinea pig has changed my thinking. I now see that starting with a baseline, measuring results, modifying behavior, and getting external feedback can work in managing my health much the way that setting objectives, developing a strategy, and building budgets, deliverables and metrics are tools for running a business.

Focusing on wellness is clearly a better way to manage my health. As in business, it’s easier to change when you aren’t forced to. The key in business is to gather the correct feedback—it has to be the indicators you can affect and the indicators that have the most effect. I’m not yet sure if this can be a formula for such a complex system as human health, but I’m intrigued. I wouldn’t mind living to 100 and being productive each day along the way. So far, 10,000 steps have been something that I can affect, and something that’s had more powerful results than I could have guessed. What is there in your business—or your life—that could have the same impact?

By Joel Peterson