A Cigarette in One Hand and a Fitbit on the Other

Neil Skolnik, MD, and Chris Notte, MD

February 11, 2020

A cardiologist friend of mine told me a story about one of his patients. The man had recently been in to see him for an office visit. He had quite a scare needing two stents after an episode of prolonged chest pain and, during the office visit, apparently had said that he had "found religion" and was going to change his ways. He showed off the Fitbit that he had gotten and shared his excitement about using a new app to track his diet on his smart phone. His blood pressure was a little elevated, so my friend added a third antihypertensive in an effort to get his blood pressure under control. He referred the patient back to his primary care physician to address his elevated hemoglobin A1c.

Dr Chris Notte (left) and Dr Neil Skolnik

My friend saw the patient again a couple of weeks later — this time at the mall. As he was driving through the parking lot, he noticed his patient sitting on a bench outside the entrance. He also noticed a cigarette in his patient's right hand and saw the Fitbit still on his wrist. Now, it's not that there is anything wrong with wearing a Fitbit, but …

My friend is an incredibly respectful person, and very nice. He decided not to say hello and risk embarrassing his patient, so he walked to a different door far from the bench and went inside. Nonetheless, the image bothered him. It bothered him enough to repeat the story to me 2 weeks later. It bothers me too.

The other day I was talking to a healthy young nurse with whom I work. She has been trying to get into shape, and her goal is to get to the gym 5 days a week after work. She read on a popular website that she should use a heart rate monitor to keep track of her training and that, if her heart rate is too slow, she should run faster and, if her heart rate is too fast, she should slow down. She was discouraged the other day, however, because her watch indicated that her pulse was going up to 170 while she was running hard, and she had heard that could be dangerous for her heart.

When she doesn't push hard, though, she told me that her heart rate often plateaus at about 110, sometimes 115. She has been finding it difficult to achieve her calculated target heart rate of 120-160 beats per minute. She is frustrated and was going to skip her workout that evening. I explained to her that she should stop checking her pulse and just run — if she felt she was running too slow she could run faster.

Source: Dreamstime

Technology holds great promise to help us improve our health, but an over-reliance on technology can get in our way. With everything that we have learned about science and technology, the reality is that we are still people, with all our weaknesses and strengths. We often set goals with ambivalence, then rush forward hoping that a technological solution will move us in the direction we think we want to move. Unfortunately, owning a Fitbit will not make us more fit, and checking our pulse every five minutes while working out will not lead to a better exercise session. With the availability of so much technology for tracking our daily exercise, vital signs, and various other measures of health, we need to be more careful than ever to determine specifically what it is that we are trying to accomplish with the use of our technology.

When it comes to good health, it is the fundamentals that matter, and achieving the fundamentals requires being mindful and making repeated efforts to master them. For almost all adults, the most important habits to develop are still related to diet and exercise. Consuming the right diet and exercising adequately requires that the correct choices be made each and every day, all day long. Technology can help but will not do it for us. We need to be thoughtful about how we use technology and explicit about how we expect it to help. After a reasonable amount of time, we should evaluate to see if it is working for us. If it is, then we should continue to use it. If it is not, then we should stop using it or make a different change, like performing a new type of exercise.

Our goal should be to have intelligent empathic integration of technological and behavioral techniques to achieve an optimal health outcome. Putting running shoes by the bed at night is a great thing to do to encourage us to run in the morning. Choosing motivational music can help us get the energy and enthusiasm to go for that run (our favorites include the Rocky theme song and "I Didn't Come this Far to Only Come this Far"). A visual reminder over the refrigerator can "nudge" us to make good choices as we open the door.

For those who want to learn more about how to integrate behavioral management into their advice for patients we highly recommend reading "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" by Chip Heath and "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" by Richard Thaler. We have always been, and remain, excited about the promise of technology to help us accomplish our goals. That said, we told the nurse to stop checking her pulse, to put on some music, and to appreciate the leaves on the trees this autumn while she was running. As for the gentleman outside the mall, well …

We are interested in your thoughts. Please email us at

Dr. Notte is a family physician and associate chief medical information officer for Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Follow him on Twitter @doctornotte. Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.

This article originally appeared on


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.