Fitbit, Stanford Medicine team up to study COVID-19 spread among college athletes

The new research collaboration will zero in on athletes across Pac-12 universities.
By Emma Murphy
02:01 pm
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(Photo credit/ Fitbit) 

Student athletes will now be donning Fitbits in an effort to study the connection between illnesses and wearable device tracking. 

On April 1, the Pac-12 Conference announced a research collaboration with Fitbit and researchers at Stanford Medicine to study whether wearable devices can help detect and track infectious diseases like COVID-19. 

About 1,000 student athletes across all Pac-12 universities will receive Fitbit Sense smartwatches to participate in the study. Continuing through 2021, the study will focus on student athletes participating in spring athletic programs and those training for upcoming sports seasons, including basketball, football, soccer and volleyball.

Researchers will be looking to identify any correlation between the health data from the watches and results from COVID-19 testing and weekly surveys about potential exposure and symptoms. 

The high frequency with which the student athletes are tested for COVID-19 offers researchers the opportunity to collect a large data set to build upon previous research, the company said. For example, the NCAA, reported that 94% of Division 1 respondents reported being tested for the virus at some point.

Dr. John Moore, medical director of Fitbit Health Solutions at Google, called student athletes’ frequent COVID-19 tests “critical.” 

“We’ll have a lot greater precision to know when someone actually tested positive,” Moore told MobiHealthNews

The other key aspect of the study, according to Moore, is that researchers will be able to look at how COVID-19 symptoms present in athletes compared to other populations. 

WHY IT MATTERS

The study’s findings could help deepen the understanding of how wearables can be used to monitor the spread of illness. Fitbit’s previous COVID-19 study found that breathing rate, resting heart rate and heart rate variability can help identify the onset of illness.

According to Moore, past research has found that changes in those indicators appear before people start experiencing symptoms. This finding could help with containment. 

Between emerging COVID-19 variants, seasonal illnesses, like the flu, and other infectious diseases, Moore believes this research will remain valuable after the pandemic. 

“There is lots of ongoing opportunity to provide value to improve the response in future epidemics or pandemics,” Moore said. 

THE LARGER TREND

Fitbit’s study is the latest in a number of projects the company has undertaken to use its wearables to track illnesses like COVID-19 and other areas of health like heart health. In February, the company announced a deal with NASA to provide the agency's employees with Fitbit devices to help employees make informed decisions about working onsite during COVID-19.

Fitbit, which Google acquired in January, is not the only one looking to wearables as a means for studying health. Snyder’s Healthcare Innovation Lab at Stanford, Apple and the Scripps Research Translational Institute are among others that have also conducted studies comparing the data collected from wearables to health conditions among users. 

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