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Lisa Gualtieri

Founder and Director of RecycleHealth

I started RecycleHealth, a nonprofit that collects fitness trackers from individuals, organizations, and vendors, and provides them to underserved populations. Since 2015, we have collected more than 4,000 trackers, mostly Fitbits, and have donated them to different groups looking to improve people’s health and fitness.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Most people are more sedentary than they realize; being able to see the impact that small changes in their behavior can have on their daily step count motivates people to be more active. But for many people, digital health technology is too expensive, too hard to set up and use, or isn’t even marketed to the people who may benefit the most. I started RecycleHealth with the simple goal of collecting fitness trackers that people no longer use and providing them to underserved populations who may not be able to afford them but may benefit from their use.

The moment that sparked my passion for this

As a runner, I had a tracker that was given to me by one of my kids and it was motivating for me. Over time I upgraded and had a few trackers lying around. Then, while preparing for a lecture at Tufts University School of Medicine, where I am on the faculty, I read that the biggest purchasers of trackers are 18- to 34-year-olds, the healthiest segment of our adult population, and that one-third of people abandon their trackers within six months. I wondered if I could collect the trackers people are no longer using and give them to people who can’t afford them but might benefit from their use. When I mentioned the idea to some of my students, they were very enthusiastic and started helping. We set up a Facebook page and later a website and found that many people are happy to send in their old or unneeded trackers for a good cause and to reduce e-waste. Since then, trackers have been sent to us from every state in the U.S. and from many foreign countries. We also have received donations from vendors.

How my life has shaped this pursuit

I love teaching. I have a Ph.D. in computer science and teach courses at the intersection of technology and health. I serve as director of the certificate program in digital health communication at Tufts. All of the courses I teach are ones I developed myself. I like to come up with new ideas, try them out and figure out if they’re viable. It’s incredibly satisfying to have had the idea for RecycleHealth and have the level of success we’ve had on a shoestring budget.

Why my approach is unique

Nobody else is doing this. We are taking the fitness trackers people no longer use and getting them to people who wouldn’t otherwise know about them or be able to afford them. By donating fitness trackers to different organizations that contact us through our website or social media, we have helped many different populations including lower income older adults, homeless people, developmentally disabled adults and veterans with PTSD. We’re helping people add healthy years to their lives because the tracker is a visible reminder of their commitment to increase their physical activity. One of the most satisfying moments was when I walked into a senior center and a recipient of one of our trackers gave me a hug and showed me that she had 1,000 steps and it was only 9 a.m.

It’s really about re-use and taking objects that still have a life left in them and getting them into people’s hands. Besides bringing health and wellness to people who are underserved, RecycleHealth also helps the environment. When trackers are sent to us, we first clean and test them; if they’re broken beyond repair, we recycle them properly. We don’t want these electronic devices to end up in landfills.

What’s next for RecycleHealth

We’re exploring exciting new areas — we started a Tracker Lending Library where we send trackers to physicians who are working in lower income areas so they can prescribe them to their patients. We’ve been getting great feedback from the physicians; they’re finding that when patients come back to them after using a tracker, they’re able to give more personal counseling about increasing physical activity. 

Advice to those who want to make a difference

If you have an idea for how to help others, jump in and try it out. You can deal with problems as they arise. With the Internet and social media, it’s so much easier than ever before. There’s an element of serendipity to this: You never know who’s going to contact you or what they’re going to say. At one point, we got a call from a popular theme park — they had collected lots of Fitbits that fell out of people’s pockets or off their wrists and ended up under rollercoasters; after spending a month at the lost and found, they’d get thrown away. When the lost and found people heard about us, they started sending us these trackers.                                                                                     

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