Forget 10,000 steps: Google is trying out a new goal that won't intimidate you 

  • Google Fit is looking beyond 10,000 steps to promote exercise to people who find goals like that intimidating.
  • That's a step in the right direction, cardiologists say.
  • But there's still more that Google could do to have a public health impact.
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10,000 steps might not seem like a lot of activity. But for millions of people, it's such an intimidating goal that they give up after a few days.

At least, that's what Google's product folks discovered when they started doing research into how users felt about its Google Fit app, its equivalent of Apple's health software.

"We noticed that some of our users were intermittent, meaning they'd open up the app at New Years' but their activity levels weren't sustained," said Margaret Hollendoner, Google Fit's head of product in an interview with CNBC. "We wanted to support the users that were struggling to stay motivated."

Rather than focus on step goals, the company is shifting focus to give more credit to users for exercising in achievable ways, hoping that they'll reach 150 minutes of moderate activity and 75 minutes of vigorous activity. It worked alongside the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization to ensure that its health goals were in line withdoctors' recommendations.

Some of the changes include:

  • "Heart Points" and "move minutes" that give credit for activities, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Similarly to Apple Watch, Google is also playing with the idea of "rings" that offer achievable goals beyond 10,000 steps
  • Integration with third-party apps and Android Wear devices to display things like heart rate and other health measurements

What's Google doing right?

A lot of wearable products have gone after the fitness-obsessed, the so-called "worried well," while ignoring those who deeply struggle with nutrition and exercise. Those folks are most at risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease or diabetes, which represent the biggest cost to the system.

Google is trying to target those users with this launch, getting them to do at least some exercise.

Google's Hollendoner said the team thought a lot about "small habit changes" that are realistic for people, rather than trying to get those who have historically resisted exercise to get into a serious fitness regimen. And that's certainly better than nothing.

"Other than the cost associated with buying a wearable, there's not a lot of harm in encouraging people to exercise," said Jeffrey Wessler, a New York-based cardiologist and the founder of a heart health start-up called Heartbeat. "Overall, you're bound to do more good than harm."

Google has a unique opportunity to reach a diverse population, as the Android ecosystem is much more popular than Apple's iOS globally and it offers plenty of affordable options.

Taking it a 'step' further

Some cardiologists say that Google could do a lot more to help those at high risk of developing a serious health problem, and that would involve tackling both the mainstream market and smaller, more targeted groups.

Wessler sees an opportunity for Google and other wearable makers to design true "game changer" products for his patients.

"Imagine if you could give people at high risk for coronary artery disease a Google Fit and provide specific, safe targets that could reduce their rate of heart attacks." Other examples include targeting groups that are involved with cardiac rehab after a heart attack, surgery, or heart failure.

"What these companies are offering is fun, but it won't have a serious public health effect unless they target populations, disease processes and people with an elevated level of risk," he explained.