Fitbit makes Virginia Heart employees happier, healthier

Staffers at Virginia Heart proves they are not just talking the talk. They are walking the walk with the practice\'s wellness program. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

February is American Heart Month.

WASHINGTON – They are the guardians of countless hearts, and now they are taking special care of their own.

The staff at Virginia Heart – the largest cardiovascular medical practice in the region – has transformed into a Fitbit community.

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The Fitbit is a device that tracks activity and calories burned. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

From the executive suite to the guys in the mailroom, employees at the nine Virginia Heart offices are keeping track of their daily activities and calories burned with the wireless device Fitbit.

And while they are moving more and improving their health, they also are sending a message to their patients.

“When we talk the talk to them and tell them they have to go out and lose a little weight and become more active, we are also walking the walk,” says Dr. Warren Levy, the president and chief medical officer of Virginia Heart.

In December, the practice offered Fitbits to its employees. Of the 240 or so staff members, 60 percent agreed to wear them and joined the “Virginia Heart Walk The Walk” community group online to compare results and cheer each other on.

“It has gone viral within the practice,” Levy says.

In just a short amount of time, Virginia Heart employees began to see a difference.

Tammy Snyder, who works in the billing department, has dropped weight and lowered her blood pressure and her cholesterol as a result of wearing a Fitbit and increasing her exercise.

“It has changed my habits, up to parking in the farthest parking spot in the parking lot,” she says.

Snyder is always checking her steps for the day on her tracking device.

“I will take a look at my Fitbit at the end of the day and say, ‘Oops, I am going to walk the dog because I need just 500 more steps,'” she says.

The Fitbit is now the No. 1 topic at the water cooler, and the conversations continue even during off-hours.

“People are texting me at home, ‘How many steps did you get?'” Snyder says.

That is exactly the kind of response Virginia Heart Human Resources Manager Anna Wahl hoped for when she put the Fitbit program together for the practice.

She says the employees with sedentary jobs are not only looking better with improved health stats, but their stress levels are down, too.

Wahl says she used to go into the lunchroom and see staff members just sitting there, looking stressed out.

“They are actually not there anymore,” she says. “They are out walking.”

Some employees have even become competitive with the new tool.

“There is a little competition out there, which is healthy,” says Levy.

He has noticed more people taking the long way from one office to another, or snubbing the elevator in favor of running the stairs.

“I have run into more employees in the stairwell in the last few weeks than I have in the last few years,” he says.

Levy, an accomplished runner and cyclist, says he was a skeptic in the beginning and was unsure that a Fitbit program would really work in his large practice.

When first shown the device, he thought it was “pretty kooky.” Then, he noticed that he was becoming more aware of each step he took and each stair he climbed.

“I realized if it is going to change my behavior, it could clearly change the behavior of not just our employees, but our patients,” he says.

Pop in on Levy when he is counseling one of those patients, and chances are you will see him pull a Fitbit out of his pocket.

“They are impressed that we are actually [doing] what I have been telling them to do for so long.”

Levy says he would like to see the Fitbit community at Virginia Heart become a model for other medical practices and businesses, noting that the program has created a “culture of wellness that has permeated the organization.”

He says other corporations have already shown the enormous benefits of instituting wellness programs, and those companies reduce health insurance costs and cultivate a healthier, more productive workforce.

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