A Second Life for Fitness Trackers

by Marissa Donovan, RD

Lately it seems everyone is getting into wearable activity trackers, and though I thought being a Friedman student made my sample biased, the fact is 1 in 10 Americans owns a wearable tracker. Activity trackers are a great way to motivate you to move more, from group competitions to setting personal goals and even monitoring your heart rate. However, like most new toys, the novelty wears off—1/3 of people stop using them after just 6 months—and many times these trackers find a new home in a drawer or stashed away elsewhere. This is where RecycleHealth comes in.

“Many populations who stand to benefit most from wearables do not have access to them.” This sentiment shared by Lisa Gualtieri—RecycleHealth Founder and Program Director, as well as an assistant professor at Tufts—inspired her to launch RecycleHealth last year.

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Lisa Gualtieri, Founder and Program Director of Recycle Health, models a few of their most recent donations for a recent TuftsNow article. (Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Sandra Rosenbluth (a recent Friedman alum) serves as the Program Coordinator and Communications Specialist at RecycleHealth. As a former student of Lisa’s, Rosenbluth watched RecycleHealth transform from an idea to a (very successful) reality. She admits that she knew little of wearables before coming to Tufts, which encouraged her to join RecycleHealth, increasing access and awareness of this new technology. “Through this program we are able to help those who really need that extra push to be more active,” says Rosenbluth.

RecycleHealth collects used wearables and redistributes them to populations in need of these technologies. Currently, the team accepts all kinds of wearables and chargers, though the most popularly donated are Fitbits and Jawbones. “We actually got a rush of unopened boxes sent to us right after Christmas this year,” laughs Gualtieri, “though the bulk of what we get are used.”

Most are donated through mail—they offer postage-paid mailing labels online—and some are collected through strategically placed donation boxes. The team has also seen success tying RecycleHealth advertising and offering donation boxes at conferences, like the HIMSS conference in Las Vegas earlier this year.

“Right now the bulk of our efforts has been in collecting them, and we have over 200 to date,” explains Gualtieri. So after they have gathered, tested and cleaned all of these wearables, what’s the next step?

RecycleHealth Program Coordinator and Communications Specialist Sandra Rosenbluth poses with an influx of donations around Christmas time this year.

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RecycleHealth Program Coordinator and Communications Specialist Sandra Rosenbluth poses with a few donations. (Photo RecycleHealth Facebook)

Numerous organizations and researchers have approached RecycleHealth with an interest in distributing wearables to their community members and patients. Gualtieri explains, “Our target populations have always been those with low SES, minorities, seniors… and people who don’t own them, of course.” So when researchers studying these populations approached her, it was a perfect fit. But why donate them to research studies instead of just giving wearables to these populations?

“Part of this program is redistribution—from peoples’ drawers to those who want to (and will) use them,” says Gualtieri. “But we also see this as a research vehicle. We want to learn if knowing your baseline activity level or seeing the impact of small changes in daily activity helps people in increasing and sustaining fitness levels.” Rosenbluth echoes, explaining that using the collected devices through RecycleHealth will help to establish which wearables best support behavior change. “We are having research participants complete surveys for us to see if the wearables are having different effects in different groups, which will allow us to be more focused in larger, future research studies,” says Rosenbluth.

It’s possible down the line that RecycleHealth will offer wearables through public health programs, though Rosenbluth admits, “we need to first formalize how we decide who gets them.” Gualtieri adds that the research is a priority because they want to establish the best health efforts for their target populations. For example, wearables may add small increments to daily activity level in seniors, aiding in fall prevention and increasing overall health. There is a thought that seniors and technology don’t mix but many already track their health indicators on paper or in their heads, so giving them devices with training in how to use them may make this easier.

There is an ecological side to this too. Unwanted wearables are not meant to be thrown away and until now there has not been a formalized process to recycle them. Gualtieri says that many donors actually stumble upon RecycleHealth while searching terms like “recycle Fitbit” online.

Certain populations are not even aware of the benefits available with wearables and RecycleHealth is helping to increase knowledge of this public health tool. “We have a wonderful opportunity here to help people and, through our surveys, learn how to better help people,” Gualtieri says.

So what’s next for RecycleHealth? The team is working on targeting another underserved population: veterans. Because of struggles re-acclimating to civilian life and difficulty accessing resources, many veterans experience (sometimes undiagnosed) mental health issues. “We are just starting to get the ball rolling with potential efforts in this community,” explains Rosenbluth. “But we are very interested to see if RecycleHealth can assist veterans recovering from mental health and other concerns to use trackers as part of their therapy.”

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From left to right: Matthew Holt, Lisa Gualtieri, Sandra Rosenbluth, Karen Mcintosh at HxRefactored conference April 5-6 in Boston, MA. 

Though RecycleHealth is still in its infancy, the team is already making measurable impacts in the public health realm. This need-based non-profit fills a perfect niche, proving mutually beneficial for both the donors, recipients (and researchers) of wearables. To learn more about RecycleHealth (or if you have a wearable to donate!!) check out their website or Facebook page.

Marissa Donovan is a registered dietitian and second-year student in the MS Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change program with a focus in US Food and Nutrition Policy at Friedman. She loves hiking, traveling, finding new restaurants, and, of course, Netflix.

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