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Healthy Competition

Fitbits prompt friendly feuds

Andria
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Echeverris

Echeverri family members – (from left) Juan, Elsa, Daniela, Andrea, Valentina Dassey and Adam Dassey – compete daily for the prize of having walked the most steps. (Photo: Daniel Nguyen)

Sibling rivalry has reached a new level of crazy. And it’s escalated to include parents, extended family and friends.

That’s, in part at least, because activity trackers like Fitbits have turned friendly competition obsessive.

“It can become a very habit-forming, compulsive obsession,” says Harold Minkowitz, an anesthesiologist and former Fitbit junkie who competed with a nephew in Dallas, a cousin in San Diego and a friend in Bellaire for most steps taken in a day. “It was so bad that at night, if I hadn’t gotten my 10,000 steps in, I’d just walk around, up and down the stairs, get my number and go to sleep. It was crazy.”

The group – all men – linked to each other’s Fitbit tracking accounts, so that each could see how many steps the other had taken that day. “You get on your phone and you can see where your friends’ steps and scores are,” Harold says. “And you get an email to see how they are all doing. I hate being teased, so it was inspiring to me to get to the top.” Teased? “I can’t really talk about our teasing in a G-rated magazine,” he says.

Fitbits, Jawbones and other fitness trackers track steps, calories burned, even sleep. The devices sync with smartphones and computers, and friends can connect – and see each other’s progress – to compete and motivate each other. Cost ranges from $20 for very basic to $500-plus.

Harold used a Fitbit small enough to fit into his pocket. “I would take it with me everywhere. I’d be climbing stairs in the hospital trying to get my numbers up.”

While the small Fitbit was convenient, it also proved to be the demise of Harold’s daily competition. He lost two; after the second he gave up and doesn’t plan to get another. “Now I’m using the step counter on my iPhone. I can’t compete unfortunately. [Without the Fitbit, Harold’s stats are no longer linked to his friends’.] Maybe that’s why my steps are dropping. But I’ve restored my sanity.”

Others, like Elsa Echeverri, a pediatric dentist and mother of four, choose to wear the wristband Fitbit that doubles as a watch. Besides being “very beneficial – everybody is trying to do more steps than they have to daily,” Elsa says the watches have become a way for the family to stay in touch.

Aquiles, Elsa’s son who lives in Venezuela, got the family hooked. Now he, two daughters in Houston, and one daughter in St. Louis compete against Elsa and her husband Juan for the prize of taking the most steps in a day. It’s common for Elsa to get a call from one daughter saying, “Mom, I thought I was beating Dad, but I see he’s just walking and walking.” That would be because Juan noted his low step count and decided to walk to Walgreens for the sole purpose of racking up steps and staying in the competition.

“If my husband has not completed 10,000 steps, he will jog watching TV. One time my daughter pushed him down on the sofa so he wouldn’t be walking and getting his steps!”

Elsa says the most steps on record for the family was 44,000. “My daughter Andrea was helping with a convention at the George R. Brown. She had to walk in those hallways, so that’s the maximum anybody has gotten.

“There are no prizes so far, but it’s the daily call, ‘I’m winning, Mom!’ that does it.”

Elsa and Juan have quantified their dog walks to count each step in their daily totals. “It’s all down to a science,” she says. “We have a route. Walking the dogs 20 minutes will give us about 4,000 twice a day. So then we just have to get an extra 2,000.” Which sometimes leads to behavior that could be considered compulsive.

“When you see you’re missing 2,000 steps, you say, ‘I can complete this!’ So I’ll jog in my bathroom before I go to bed.

“I’ll watch my husband jogging around the house, and I’ll say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And he just says, ‘No, no, no. I need to complete my 10,000 steps!’”

The Echeverris’ youngest daughter Daniela has a bit of an edge in the battle. “As a college student [at St. Louis University], I walk everywhere,” she says. “As I am walking around campus all day, I was naturally defeating everyone in my family. In response, my dad sent a group email to my entire family, encouraging everyone to get more steps to ‘defeat the undergrad.’”

Competition has never been so healthy.

For more on fitness trackers, see Andria Frankfort’s January 2014 story High-Tech Fitness.

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