Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Turn Your Fitness Tracker Into a Cash Cow

Sell your data, keep your kidneys

What if your Fitbit, or Apple Watch, or whatever other doodad you use to obsessively track how many steps you take each day didn’t just keep tabs on your body, but actually made you money in the process?

That’s the premise of a new paper out of the University of Illinois at Chicago (in collaboration with health technology company Lapetus Solutions), which for the first time has connected the dots between step-counting, mortality and making cold, hard cash out of your hot, sweaty bod.

For years, insurance companies have offered discounted premiums or perks like gift cards to customers who meet fitness goals tracked with a wearable monitor — like walking 5,000 or 10,000 steps in one day. But those are just arbitrary round numbers, chosen as ballpark figures to get people to get moving.

“We’ve taken the data that comes from the fitness tracker,” says S. Jay Olshansky, lead author on the paper and professor at the UIC School of Public Health, “and actually translated it into a measure of risk that can be used to assess survival and health prospects at the individual level.”

The system designed by Olshansky and his colleagues combines the time, speed and surface grade (i.e. whether you’re walking on a hill or not) data pumped out by the tracker, plus your height and weight, to come up with a more precise picture of your personal level of activity and calorie burn. Then they figure out how soon you’re likely to die.

Which is precisely where the big bucks come in. The authors of this paper are the first to come up with a formula to turn the dumb numbers of how many steps you take per day into a fuller portrait of your actual health, using research from past studies on aging and activity. And that’s valuable data for your insurance company, your health-care provider, health researchers and (of course) all the corporations that want to sell you shit.

Olshansky thinks that this kind of data manipulation, combined with the growing accuracy of fitness trackers, means that a thriving “health-data economy” is due to spring up soon. And crucially, unlike the personal data economy of social media and smartphones — in which the companies reap all the financial rewards — Olshansky believes that the health-data economy will give the power back to the people.

“When we talk about the rise of the health-data economy,” Olshansky says, “we’re talking about you as an individual monetizing your health data.”

He and his colleagues at Lapetus Solutions are in the process of developing a cloud-based database where people can upload their fitness info and then choose on a case-by-case basis who gets to see it. You could share it with your doctor for free, so they can augment the snapshot gleaned from a blood test with the long-term story of your health throughout the year. You could swap it for cheaper insurance premiums, or use it to get discounts on workout clothes.

“And it’s entirely possible that some companies may actually just send you a check,” Olshansky says, whether that’s because they want your personal info to know when to hit you with promotions, or because they want info on your demographic to work on some larger-scale research. And as the fitness tracking technology improves, that data will only become richer.

“Step counters are really a sledgehammer approach to health data,” Olshansky says. More sophisticated sensors might include clothes made of smart cloth that can measure temperature all over your body, or implants for monitoring anything from white blood cell count to brainwaves. As an example of the potential that lies ahead, he brought up a scene in the 2005 Michael Bay sci-fi clone escape film The Island in which Ewan McGregor utilizes a urinal that immediately senses his blood sugar levels, telomere shortening and various other body metrics.

And profitable pee (or maybe just walks around the block) might be the motivation we need to actually get in shape. A recent study conducted in Singapore found that paying people to use fitness trackers was the only way to reliably get people to use them, and that usage dropped off precipitously as soon as the money stopped.

“Most people who have these fitness trackers wear them for a little while and throw them in the drawer, because the only thing they get is a little emoji that says ‘congratulations,’” Olshansky adds. But if his vision of a cloud-based health data exchange comes to life, the motivating moolah never has to end.

Toward the goal of monetizing everything your body does, Olshansky and his co-authors also proposed a replacement for the FICO score, one that mashes up fine-grained information on your economic habits with all the newly collected information on your health. Called BLISS, for Better Life and Income Scoring System, the new number might help incentivize the calculated consumer to get built while they build good credit.

Olshansky genuinely does not think that this is nefarious. “It’s designed to provide information to people so they can plan for the future,” he says, and insists that the system would protect the privacy of its users.

Though Fitbit’s stock tanked this week after news of slow sales leading into the holidays, the health value of fitness trackers is becoming increasingly clear. Another new study got 4,000 middle-aged people to wear an activity tracker for a week, then followed along for a decade to see who died. At the end of the study, people who had “exercised moderately” for two and a half hours during that one week of fitness tracking (and presumably kept up the habit) were 35 percent less likely to kick the bucket.

It’s hard to argue with getting paid to live longer — as long as we get to decide the cost.