Fit bit reveals by David Pogue


Exclusive: Fitbit’s 150 billion hours of heart data reveal secrets about health

For something as important as heart health, it’s amazing how little you probably know about yours.

Most people probably get their heart rates measured only at doctor visits. Or maybe they participate in a limited study.

But modern smartwatches and fitness bands can track your pulse continuously, day and night, for months. Imagine what you could learn if you collected all that data from tens of millions of people!

That’s exactly what Fitbit (FIT) has done. It has now logged 150 billion hours’ worth of heart-rate data. From tens of millions of people, all over the world. The result: the biggest set of heart-rate data ever collected.

Fitbit also knows these people’s ages, sexes, locations, heights, weights, activity levels, and sleep patterns. In combination with the heart data, the result is a gold mine of revelations about human health.

Back in January, Fitbit gave me an exclusive deep dive into its 6 billion nights’ worth of sleep data. All kinds of cool takeaways resulted. So I couldn’t help asking: Would they be willing to offer me a similar tour through this mountain of heart data?

They said OK. They also made a peculiar request: Would I be willing to submit a journal of the major events of my life over the last couple of years? And would my wife Nicki be willing to do the same?

We said OK.

Oh boy.

About resting heart rate

Before you freak out: Fitbit’s data is anonymized. Your name is stripped off, and your data is thrown into a huge pool with everybody else’s. (Note, too, that this data comes only from people who own Fitbits — who are affluent enough, and health-conscious enough, to make that purchase. It’s not the whole world.)

Most of what you’re about to read involves resting heart rate. That’s your heart rate when you’re still and calm. It’s an incredibly important measurement. It’s like a letter grade for your overall health.

“The cool thing about resting heart rate is that it’s a really informative metric in terms of lifestyle, health, and fitness as a whole,” says Scott McLean, Fitbit’s principal R&D scientist.

For one thing — sorry, but we have to go here — the data suggests that a high resting heart rate (RHR) is a strong predictor of early death. According to the Copenhagen Heart Study, for example, you’re twice as likely to die from heart problems if your RHR is 80, compared with someone whose RHR is below 50. And threetimes as likely to die if your RHR is over 90.

Studies have found a link between RHR and diabetes, too. “In China, 100,000 individuals were followed for four years,” says Hulya Emir-Farinas, Fitbit’s director of data science. “For every 10 beats per minute increase in resting heart rate, the risk of developing diabetes later in life was 23 percent higher.”

So what’s a good RHR? “The lower the better. It really is that simple,” she says.

Your RHR is probably between 60 and 100 beats a minute. If it’s outside of that range, you should see a doctor. There could be something wrong.

(The exception: If you’re a trained athlete, a normal RHR can be around 40 beats a minute. If you’re Usain Bolt, it’s 33.)

Regular exercise is good for your heart, of course. But all kinds of other factors affect it, too, including your age, sex, emotional state, stress level, diet, hydration level, and body size. Medicines, especially blood-pressure and heart meds, can affect it, too. All of this explains why RHR a good measure of your overall health.

Fitbit’s data confirms a lot of what cardiologists already know. But because the Fitbit data set is ridiculously huge, it unearthed some surprises, too.

“I was a researcher in my past life,” says McLean. “You would conduct an experiment for 20 minutes, then you’d make these huge hypotheses and conclusions about what this means for the general population. We don’t have to do that. We have a large enough data set where we can confidently make some really insightful conclusions.”

Women vs. men, young vs. old

The first observation from Fitbit’s data: Women tend to have higher resting heart rates than men.

Your heart speeds up until middle age — and then, weirdly, slows down.
Your heart speeds up until middle age — and then, weirdly, slows down.

“Because women tend to be smaller,” says Emir-Farinas, “their heart is smaller, and the heart needs to work harder to make sure that blood is circulating and it’s being provided to all vital organs.”

What’s weird, though, is that your RHR goes up as you approach middle age, and then goes down again later — and that’s something scientists hadn’t witnessed with such specificity before the Fitbit study. “This has never been reported before in the medical literature with such confidence,” says McLean.

So what’s going on? Why does your heart rate increase as you approach your late 40s?

Well, one big reason might be having kids. You get busy. You eat junkier food. You exercise less. You’re more stressed out.

And, of course, everybody’s metabolism naturally slows down — that’s why so many people gain weight around middle age. “Also, the heart itself is changing,” says McLean. “The muscle becomes weaker. Each time we contract, less blood goes into the heart.”

All of that means that that your heart has to work harder — and your RHR goes up.

OK, fine. But then why does your heart rate drop after middle age?

“We think some of the decline is attributed to the use of beta blockers and calcium channel blockers” — blood-pressure and heart-attack medicines — “because 30% of adults in the U.S. have hypertension,” says Emir-Farinas.

Otherwise, the Fitbit scientists aren’t sure what causes this effect; after all, they’ve just discovered the phenomenon. “This opens up all new possibilities to try and understand in more detail, with maybe more controlled experiments, why these things happen,” says McLean.

RHR Variation

The new data doesn’t just show our average RHR; it also shows how much our RHRs vary.

“Younger women, on average, experience a higher variation,” says Emir-Farinas. “Some of that could be explained by hormonal changes during menstruation.”

You know who else turns out to have wide swings in heart rate? Men over 50.

“It’s manopause, as my wife calls it in me,” McLean cracks. “But no, we don’t know the reason, because nobody’s really observed this before.”


Your body-mass index, or BMI, represents your height and weight. It’s your obesity level.

“As your weight increases, so does your resting heart rate — which makes sense, of course, because there’s more tissue to support, and the heart needs to work harder,” notes Emir-Farinas.

It’s healthiest not to be overweight — but underweight might not be healthy, either.

But the Fitbit data also shows an association between high RHR and low body weight.

“Yeah, there’s an optimal BMI, where the body is able to work efficiently. Either side of that, the body isn’t at an optimal state of general maintenance and efficiency. It’s having to work harder to provide the basic provisions.”

Physical Activity: Quantity

It’s not news that getting exercise is good for your heart. (The American Heart Association recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous active minutes a week.)

What is surprising, though, is that the benefit tapers off after a couple hundred minutes of exercise.

Regular activity does wonders for your heart — up to a point.

“That’s good news — you don’t have to work out every minute of every day to continue to get more benefit,” says McLean. “After 200 to 300 minutes per week, you don’t see much of a change in resting heart rate or a benefit. I don’t have to do 500 minutes, I can do half that. That’s achievable.”

Physical activity: Consistency

Fitbit’s data makes it clear that it’s not just about getting a lot of exercise — it’s getting it consistently. The more consistent you are, the lower your resting heart rate.

Sitting all week and then blowing yourself out on the weekend is not a great approach. “You can’t gain cardiovascular health from a once-a-week exercise bash. Running in the morning and then sitting all day — that’s not a great approach, either,” Emir-Farinas says.

This, of course, is why smartwatches and fitness bands today all pop up reminders once an hour to get up and walk around.

RHR and age

The next chart emphasizes that it’s possible to lower your heart rate at any age.

You can lower your heart rate no matter how old you are, but it’s easier if you’re younger.

“As you can see, younger individuals can achieve a larger decline than older individuals,” says Emir-Farinas. “But it is possible for older people to reduce their resting heart rate, too, with sustained physical activity.”


Sleeping is good for you — but only to a point. Too much sleep might actually be bad for you.

“There is a sweet spot,” says Emir-Farinas. “It’s very clear from this plot that you have this window of optimal sleep, and it really does have an impact on your resting heart rate.”

In general, sleep is good for your heart — but there might be such a thing as too much.

That sweet spot is not 8 hours of sleep a night — it’s 7.25 hours. In terms of heart health, that’s the number you should be going for. “Which is good news for busy people,” says McLean.

Country vs. Country

“These are my favorite charts,” says Emir-Farinas. She plotted age-adjusted data from the 55 countries with the most Fitbit wearers.

It graphs the citizens’ activity levels (horizontal axis) against their average resting heart rate (vertical).

Amazingly, people in different countries have different heart rates, even if their age, sex, and exercise levels are the same.

The variation in heart rates is, to me, just crazy. Among people who get about 55 minutes of activity a day, the RHR is about 62 beats a minute in Costa Rica, but almost 70 in India! What could that mean?

“That means there’s other factors at play,” Emir-Farinas says. “It’s their nutrition, it’s their BMIs, it’s their practices, medication — and genetics, of course. That’s also a big part of it.”

In general, Europe beats the world here. “They have designed their cities so that there will be more physical activity. People have to walk more just do normal activities: going to the grocery store, going to work, they have to walk a little,” she says. (Check out Sweden, for example: almost 90 minutes of activity a day!)

They also drink a lot of wine in Europe. Just sayin’.

The scientists note that Qatar seems to be an outlier. Seventy percent of the Qatari population is obese — yet their RHR is an impressive 62. How could that be?

Emir-Farinas’s theory is that huge numbers of them are on blood-pressure and heart meds.

Congratulations to Italians, by the way, with an impressive 84 minutes a day of activity, and a nearly-dead 61 beats-a-minute RHR.

And as for Pakistan, with the worst activity level and a sky-high RHR — get with it, people!

Nicki and David

My wife Nicki has run 16 marathons. The last time she ingested fat or sugar, she was probably in kindergarten. She’s going to live to be 200.

So I wasn’t entirely looking forward to the slide that compares her health to mine. (I have run 0 marathons.)

Sure enough: There she is, in the ninth percentile of resting heart-rate. Meaning that 91% of women her age have a higher heart rate.

OK, my wife whomps me in the activity department — but I’m the king of sleep.

“Her resting heart rate is very low for her age and gender group. Daily active minutes — it’s amazing, 70 minutes per day,” says Emir-Farinas.

I was horrified to discover my Daily Active Minutes stat: I’m in the 12th percentile. (In my defense, these numbers don’t include all the sedentary people who don’t wear fitness bands.)

But Emir-Farinas cheered me up: “On the other hand, your sleep is amazing. You’re smashing it with your REM duration.”

The journal study

The wildest slides, for me, were the ones where they plotted our life events against our heart-rate data. Here’s mine:

This three-year vertical timeline plots my major life events against my resting heart rate.

Kind of wild to see how starting to use a treadmill — the first regular cardio workouts I’ve ever really gotten — visibly lowered my entire heart-rate range.

Also, it turns out that having kidney stones is bad for you. My heart rate went through the roof both times.

I was surprised and amused, though, to see the second most stressful events on my graph: holiday get-togethers.

“You see the heart rate go up before your family reunions, and then tend to really take a long time to come back after it,” notes McLean. In other words — who knew?? — holidays with the family are not a guarantee of peace, relaxation, and joy.

“You heard that first at Fitbit,” jokes Mclean.

The takeaways

Your resting heart rate boils a whole range of health-related stats — exercise, diet, age, sleep, where you live — down to a single, reliable statistic.

“Your resting heart rate is a very easily understood and digestible metric,” says McLean. “It’s something that lets you say, ‘Wow, I see my resting heart rate — I see it changing, that means something.’ It’s so motivational. I can go, ‘Wow, these are the things that obviously worked for me and these are the things that aren’t.”

He hopes to spread the word about the resting heart rate beyond the community of hard-core athletes.

“We view everyone as an athlete,” he says. “So you can be 20, you can be 30, you can be 40, you can be 70. You’re your own athlete, and you have an opportunity to improve your health.”





Health and Wellbeing ‘Its none of your business’?

…in fact it should be every part of your business as I attempt to reveal hidden benefits beyond the traditional arguments of “Return on investment” stats” and “sickness figures”…


In today’s world, the online universe provides a plethora of information, facts, studies and statistics that have built a business case that is hard to ignore around investing in the health and wellbeing (H&W) of your employees.

Well that is how it looks from “us lot” in the Public Health community anyway. But to resonate with business leaders and in particular the boardroom there needs to be other drivers for investment in health and wellbeing strategies and programming that goes beyond the ethical argument.

The trouble is, although the evidence is compelling, it is often produced and researched by academics, public health professionals and approached with arguments we think are relevant to business, without actually knowing what really is relevant to business.


For example reducing absenteeism rates is a definite business tangible, a long term one, and the term presenteeism (at work but less productive as a result of a health issue- think stress/personal/MSK etc) also a valid argument. But in the short term how is it measurable, or better put how does H&W contribute across the business to other business tangibles?

Of course for some Organisations reducing absenteeism is enough of a catalyst to lever investment and, provide in response,  a suite of health and wellbeing initiatives, activities and resources to help combat some of the aforementioned workforce health issues of our time.

For others, excuse the phrase, it is like ‘a stab in the dark’ – feeling compelled to do something but not sure exactly what to do, or where it fits in the bigger picture. It is an increasingly more complex area of business. Furthermore how does health and wellbeing fit with the wider Business strategy and how can it transcend every business function?

As I am lucky enough to occupy a position purely managing a health and wellbeing strategy and programme in business and working with multiple businesses across the Sheffield City Region I have a unique insight into how a Health and Wellbeing Programme sells at board level and experience of a range of evidence based health initiatives eg inactivity in workforces.

I also come with over 15 years of public health experience for the NHS, VCS Sector and Housing Sector which enables me to pool the knowledge and expertise I have gained across Sectors. Often sectors that don’t deal with each other in day to day operations – which brings business benefits you may not think about when involved in H&W programmes.

So health statistics, evidence, and return on investment, infographics, and Chief Medical Officer Health guidelines aside – how can a health and wellbeing programme translate health benefits into overall business benefits that make a board tick?


Think of a constant source of human interest stories providing a rich source of content to feed social media channels, staff magazines and add value to the external brand. For example a b2b business brand may not reach local / regional communities but Health and Wellbeing activities can add value to brands by exposing your business to new markets and networks through community / employee involvement.

For example award winning health and wellbeing programmes, accreditations (such as Investors in people that include a H&W element) and the achievements of staff circulating their Healthy activities across personal social media networks provides invaluable reach to new audiences.

Ethical Investment

According to data on investor preferences, put together by London-based investment firm IW Capital, 24% of investors would refrain from pursuing an investment decision because of ethical concerns over the product or service.

And consider this, it goes on to state, ‘Of 2,004 respondents, almost a third said the ethical, social or environmental impact of the company they were investing in was just as important as the financial return’.


So an effective Health and wellbeing programme can contribute directly to investment opportunities, brand credibility and new growth markets. And this is true throughout my own observations in business. Contracts, tender and bid documents all require much more information than a quote purely based on the cheapest cost. Procurement Professionals want to know about your business, your employees, credibility and CSR etc.

Suddenly in ‘business speak’ H&W is picking up more momentum than just the ‘it’s the right thing to do’ argument, or an approach based purely on projecting savings through H&W investment. All arguments based on solid evidence may I add, but on their own may not be enough to convince some boardrooms.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

CSR is a little like H&W ‘a nice to do’ or an added extra section on a tender document as a tick box exercise with no real direction or thought going into it. Of course not true of a lot of Organisations who have some innovative H&W programmes.

Virgin Money Lounges are a beautifully crafted example of a CSR agenda tied into brand, reaching new audiences, supporting deprived communities and feeding back into increasing banking customers.




If your business has expertise staff skills be sure to share this across multiple systems (think educational business visits, university fairs, community health and wellbeing programmes etc). Your long term brand floods future recruitment channels – think Talent selection, recruitment and retention. It is a hotly contested job market out there. Potential recruits look for more than just the salary; pay and benefits, an advocate of the brand, health and wellbeing culture…the list goes on.

An example of this is Perkbox – a pay and benefits platform, that has a predominately young workforce and therefore positions its brand as the ‘hip’ ‘cool’ choice of Employer. If you’re one of the best tech graduates you are going to want to work with a brand known for its unique work environment – think a performance work ethic wrapped around fun, plank challenges, chill out areas, social space, bonuses, free fruit/food and games.

Pay and Benefits

REBA held their Health and Wellbeing congress in London a few weeks ago – with input from Debi O’Donovan. It was a mainly HR audience interested in the role of H&W in engagement, policy, recruitment and the ‘bigger picture. Amongst the many fantastic speakers there, one presentation talking about ethical investment was as solid business case for H&W as I have heard with fascinating insight.

Aviva also presented on the power of employee stories regarding mental health and their programme which includes support for employees, training and expert support. Read about the programme here: AVIVA HEALTH AND WELLBEING

If you work for a company you genuinely feel proud to work for, valued, part of the family / brand you are much more likely to perform better. Reciprocation. According to HR Technologist ‘Beyond the salary – A salary is the minimum a company must offer an employee to complete tasks. For work that is immune to quality problems, maybe a salary is enough.


However, in roles where completion is not good enough – where engagement, productivity, and resourcefulness matter – incentives are indispensable. In challenging work, there is no reciprocity without incentives. H&W can be part of those incentives. A business investing in the health of ‘you’ gives a personalisation and caring feel very few benefits can achieve.

The ‘Golf Course Effect

I spoke about this in an article I wrote earlier in the year around health and wellbeing activities outside of work. I made the link between Health and wellbeing activities acting as a driver for increased communication and collaboration in business bringing colleagues from different departments together.

This argument comes back to the point I made about H&W transcending parts of the business other initiatives don’t. Especially true in bigger business, it can indeed act as an educational tool for people to learn about different parts of the business that may not come into contact with each other in normal day to day business operations.

Imagine the difference between a cold email from a colleague in some far distant department further in the supply chain, or an email / call from a colleague you have participated in an activity with and have a rapport with. I’d suggest you would fulfill that request / task to a better level and with a tailored more friendly approach. Great for business.

See more on this article dubbed ‘Employee Health and wellbeing programmes – on “COURSE” to take over “GOLF”!


Cross Sector brand credibility

I can say from experience – the range of health projects and initiatives across the UK at the moment opens up unparalleled opportunities to work with sectors you would have never worked with in daily business operations. But what does this mean? Let me provide an example.

B.Braun Medical Ltd has its Head Quarters in Sheffield and provides industry leading medical products and services across the UK Health sector.

Through a 10 year health and wellbeing programme operating under the brand B.Healthy B.Braun it has links with

B health image green smaller (2)

  1. The National Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine
  2. Royal Society for Public Health recognised H&W Scheme.
  3. Featured in active travel campaigns for South Yorkshire Transport Executive
  4. Features on the Yorkshire Physical Activity Knowledge Exchange platform
  5. Has regular content in the local and regional media
  6. Has input into the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce Health and Wellbeing group
  7. Facilitated a visit by John Lewis to help inform there H&W programme
  8. A case study for the Inmotion active travel campaign,
  9. Features in HR publications around Employee Health and Wellbeing programmes
  10. Featured in the Outdoor City run routes videos for the Sheffield City Region with employees.
  11. Part of the England Athletics LIRF Run England Programme.
  12. Has a large active employee group in short and long walk trips, running groups, onsite activities and colleagues presented at a recent health awards event.

This carousel of activity provides reams of content for marketing as well as positioning the Company as a role model for other business in leading the field of employee H&W locally.

The H&W landscape is vast and knowing where to go, access to resource, tapping into existing schemes can save both time and money going it alone with a H&W programme.

It is my specialist area and I have included a few examples of where you can access these resources from Public Health England for free (link below) and also my slideshare account that contains a selection of H&W reports, examples and presentations.

The synergy

Hopefully you have joined the dots between the six subtitles and made the discovery that H&W gels them altogether. It is hard to pick the most relevant benefit for business, as each Organisation has its own culture, board personalities and all the internal and external factors that influence the way it operates.

I could have filled this article up with fancy infographics, statistics, ROI calculations and the like that are readily available free – check the excellent Public Health England resource out here


It is information I use to inform and drive H&W programmes within business, it is a field I operate in and a landscape I know inside out. But I also have the advantage of working in business, with Boards of Directors on H&W to offer observations and insight into other drivers of H&W programmes that might get missed out by the Public Health sector but offer just as much, if not more power to persuade businesses to invest in employee H&W.


  1. Presentations on physical activity guidelines (2018 Nuffield report), REBA Employer Survey example report, NICE Workplace guidance and example slides of my own H&W initiatives programmes and behavioural change projects

Notable reports and sources of Health information – follow links;

Health Foundation 

Royal Society for Public Health 

Westfield Health

Sport England




Andrew Picken
Member of Royal Society for Public Health
Health and Wellbeing Consultant
National Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine (Sheffield)
B.Braun Medical Ltd (Sheffield)
Living Streets Associate (Leeds)
Twitter: @AJPConsultant
Facebook: manbeast28 / Healthinbusiness28

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