Innovators: From the White House to mobile apps, Ted Vickey’s career has been fitness


Illustration of Ted Vickey of the American Council on Exercise. (Lennart Andresen/For Capital Business)

Ted Vickey views exercise as the great equalizer. As executive director of the White House fitness center from 1994 to 2005, Vickey said it was not uncommon to find Tipper Gore on a StairMaster burning calories alongside the staff photographer and an Office of Management and Budget employee. When you step into your sneakers, everyone’s got the same goal. Vickey, now a senior consultant on innovation at the American Council on Exercise, thinks technology can motivate us even more.

What did you do as executive director of the White House fitness facility?

When I first started there, the White House had a fitness center for the staff of the Executive Office of the President. It was about 3,500 square feet. We wanted to be able to have anyone come to the facility. The New Executive Office Building is the most secure of the buildings that make up the White House complex, so we put it there. It had strength training, cardiovascular training, there were group classes. The focus was on how do we keep the president and his staff healthy and fit.

Did the president actually work out there?

President Clinton put in a running track on the South Lawn. Clinton was a big runner.

When President Bush came into office, there was a small fitness center that had been there since Nixon. It was in the Old Executive Office Building. It basically had equipment and a hot tub. When Bush came into office, he asked us to freshen it up to give it a new vibe.

We took out all the old equipment, and put in new equipment and brand new showers. The Secret Service wanted to make sure the soap dispenser had a lock on it ... They were thinking someone could come in and put something in the soap and one of the senior level folks would have a reaction to it. We had to think about things that other facilities didn’t have to think about.

When did you start applying technology to fitness?

I grew up in an environment with computers. I remember when my parents bought an IBM PS/2. I was always looking for a way even back in the late 1990s, early 2000s, to use technology to impact gym members while they were on the road. Typically, the best member that a fitness center has is someone who pays but never shows up. I wanted front desk check in to see who is coming in. We would send out messages to say, “Hey, I see you haven’t been at the facility for a week. Is there anything I can do?”

Why did you decide to pursue a doctorate in physical activity and social networking?

I wanted to study the connection between technology and physical activity. Can we find a way for people to use their cellphones to get more active? I used Twitter to find people sharing their workouts. Over the course of a year, I collected 17 million tweets of people using hashtags associated with five fitness mobile apps.

What technology does is it removes those physical walls. If you’re in D.C. and I’m in San Diego, you and I can still be work out buddies virtually. It also gives some credibility. One of the challenges with health care, you go in to see your doctor and your doctor says you need to lose weight, exercise more and stop smoking. Well you see your doctor a year later and you haven’t done anything.

That intervention is fueled through technology. Now the doctor can see if you are walking like you’re supposed to. One of the greatest exercises anyone can do is simply walk. You and I both know that people lie. If I have the information from your Fitbit and I can say, “No, you didn’t walk,” that’s accountability. That’s what these devices provide, accountability.

As a personal trainer yourself, why does accountability matter?

People hire personal trainers for accountability.

If you meet a trainer three times per week, how many waking hours are you not with a trainer? If I have a Fitbit, [the trainer] can see the number of steps you’re taking. A Withings.com scale you put in your bathroom can e-mail you what your weight is through the WiFi signal at home. Does that impact your behavior over the weekend? Technology is allowing us as trainers to be more in tune with our clients when we’re not with them physically. It gives us another tool as trainers where we can really make an impact.

What are the limitations of these fitness apps and wearable devices?

The challenge with the technology up until now was all of the data was in a data silo. You use Nike Training Club and all of that information is in a silo. You use MyFitnessPal to track your food. You’ve got another app that tracks your sleep.

All of that is in data silos and people aren’t sharing information. When that data is combined, you can see how it all comes together. For example, before we were guessing why you weren’t working out well on a Tuesday. Now we can say it’s because you’re too tired to work out on a Tuesday because of what you ate the day before.

Wearable devices that track biometric and fitness data are still pretty nascent. What will make them become mainstream?

If you were to ask me five years ago, I would say it’s kind of neat that we can track these things. But with companies investing in it, technology can make a difference in the health of others

You’ve got companies such as Under Armour and Intel putting hundreds of millions into these devices. When Apple comes out with that new rumored Apple watch and they’ve got a lot of fitness development in there, it’s going to be a game changer.

What will the net result be if these technologies become commonplace?

If we can adopt this, this is going to be, in my opinion, one of the things that will make not only Americans but people around the world healthier. People can blame technology for our physical inactivity, but if we use technology for fitness, we can really make strides toward people being more physically actively.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea or innovation worth sharing? Tell us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com.

THE BIG IDEA

The proliferation of fitness apps and
wearable devices makes accountability for health decisions easier than ever.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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