Gandhi Never Wore a Fitbit

Why the wearables movement desperately needs to take 10,000 steps.

There are numbers that mean something to us viscerally. They elicit an image or a feeling without engaging our rational minds. 

20 cms of snow. 714 home runs. 92 goals. 12 parsecs. And 10,000 steps. 

Mahatma Gandhi did a lot of walking in his lifetime. He walked as a means of transportation, he walked for health, and he walked in protest. In 1930, to protest the British Salt Law, he walked ten miles a day for 24 days, the march spanning over 240 miles. He also claimed that he lived with great mental and physical health despite his often fasting and modest life style, thanks to his many long walks.

He never wore a Fitbit. I’m sure he never counted his steps. He was driven by something much greater. He changed the course of India’s history using Satyagraha, his method of non-violent protest, and he inspired some of the most impactful walks throughout the rest of the world.

How did he choose ten miles a day?  Probably some mix of considering the overall distance he had to cover, choosing a decent distance for a person to walk in a day, or, quite simply, it was a nice round number.

It turns out walking can save your life.

According to Dr David Hupin of the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sainte-Etienne in St-Etienne, France, as he published in May of last year in the European Heart Journal, adding walking in 15-minute increments per day should add an average of 5 years of life expectancy [1]. Unbelievable stuff! Forget all the diets and grueling HIIT routines; a short walk can actually add years to your life.

Simple. Powerful.

But you don’t need a Fitbit to walk for 15 minutes a day. My good friend Sebastian’s octogenarian father (who is also East Indian, perhaps not coincidentally) will tell you, if ever you are feeling slightly lesser than your best self: Go for a walk, eat a banana. No need to track anything, except for maybe the produce in the pantry.

Then what is it about the Fitbit?

The Fitbit is a pretty neat device. Amazingly, it doesn’t work very well. 

A Fitbit will not track a professional athlete during performance and it will not save your life. It is not a medical device after all, and it isn’t trying to be. In fact, the one feature that actually could save your life – the heart rate – is grossly inaccurate and no one seems to care.

When the lawsuits came out in 2016, I thought it would have a major impact on the company and on the entire field. Sales dipped, but now almost three years later, the company continues to grow and remain relevant, staying in the conversation alongside giants Apple and Xioami. Fitbit is still a major player in wearables with $1.5 billion in annual sales, an expanding product line, and quarterly revenue steadily climbing back to near 2016 peak levels. [2]

In a sense, as the transcendent Apple Watch is much more than a singular device, the Fitbit is and has been the flagship device of the wearables movement. Maybe that says more about the wearables movement than it does about the Fitbit.

The wearables movement faces significant challenges in technology, business, regulatory affairs, application design and more. (The same applies to the entire digital health movement, really.) I am lucky to see many of these challenges up close. Very few of them are covered adequately, much less with the comprehensiveness required for widespread adoption. Those few companies who do have a handle on all of these challenges find it painfully slow and troublesome to overcome them.

Behavioral change is among the most difficult things for us to achieve. A close-up picture of a larynx damaged by throat cancer is not enough to deter a smoker from lighting up. A near-death experience and subsequent cardiac surgery are not enough to change the eating and exercise habits of an overweight, middle-aged man. We know this. Alan Deutschman, in “Change or Die”, references Dr Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University. He estimates that 90% of heart disease sufferers who require bypass surgery to save their lives return completely to their unhealthy lifestyles within 2 years, knowing that it will lead them right back to the doctor eventually. [3]

Whether the real impact of the technology will happen in the consumer space, the medical device space, or both, the most important thing (besides the ever-elusive business model, of course) is that the solution must deliver actionable insight. It must be patently clear what the device tells you (or your doctor) and what you (or your doctor) should do about it.

And it has to be sticky.

So why 10,000 steps? How important is the actual number?

I loved the article entitled “10,000 Steps Is the Biggest Scam of Our Generation” that was published in early February of this year [4]. In it, Zoe Weiner states: “There is an undeniable sense of accomplishment when your FitBit or iPhone step tracker hits 10,000. Because: You did it! You’ve reached your activity goal, and can file the day away as a successfully active one. Except {…} it is actually kind of a scam.”

This surprised me. But it made sense, and it got me thinking about what eventually became this article. It is not the biggest scam of a generation. It’s simply brilliant marketing.

We’re all missing the point. Whether 10,000 steps is arbitrary or it isn’t…. it doesn’t matter.

These devices are not magical. Extracting real actionable insight that leads to a behavior change or health improvement is phenomenally difficult. No matter the nature of the tech or the problem that is being addressed, it is always necessary to provide a compelling story that inspires people. It does in fact go beyond marketing; it’s about connecting with a real use case and linking the technology to a real outcome. If you make the greatest, most accurate medical wearable but you don’t give people something they can understand or doctors something they will use, it’s basically a great website with no SEO. It’s a beautiful billboard in the desert. 

Fitbit has made it easy for you: Wear this and walk. How much? This much.  

Simple. Powerful. Actionable

So love or hate it, criticize or defend it, wear it or scrap it …. the Fitbit has done something no other company in this entire movement has done, and it’s working: they have made it simple to understand how to use the device and how it can improve your life, while providing a seamless way to use it and stick with it. 

They have made it simple to understand how to use the device and how it can improve your life

The number 714 meant nothing until Babe Ruth hit that many home runs, a record that would stand for almost 40 years and solidify the Great Bambino’s legacy as the greatest of all time. The number 39 meant nothing until a young Wayne Gretzky scored 50 goals in that number of games, shattering the previous record by 11 games. And 92 meant little until he scored that many in the following season.

12 parsecs was a random measure of distance until George Lucas got a hold of it. Now it defines one of Sci-fi’s greatest heroes and his determination to be the best pilot in the galaxy.

And 10,000 was just a nice round number until Fitbit made you want to take that many steps every day. Not bad. 

Especially since all you really need is an old pair of handmade sandals… and maybe a banana. 


[1] Hupin D, Edoaurd P, Gremeaux V, Garet M, Celle S, Pichot V, Maudoux D, Barthélémy JC, Roche F. Physical activity to reduce mortality risk. European Heart Journal, Volume 38, Issue 20, 21 May 2017, Pages 15341537

[2] Maslakovic, Marko. Fitbit device sales increase in Q4 for the first time since 2016. Gadgets and Wearables. February 29, 2019.

[3] Deuthschman, Alan. Change or Die; Could you change when change matters most? New York: Harper Collins. 2008.

[4] Weiner, Zoe. 10,000 steps is the biggest scam of our generation. Well and Good health blog. February 7, 2019.

Marc Saab

Marc is Founder and Managing Director of BML Technology. A biomedical engineer with 20 years’ experience in product development, commercialization and executive management in Medical Device, Digital Health and Consumer Wearable markets.