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July 8, 2020

Podcast No. 81: What WHOOP Can Tell You About COVID-19

VP of Data Science and Research Emily Capodilupo joins the WHOOP Podcast to discuss our respiratory rate findings, along with a separate study that showed WHOOP members have seen improvements in sleep and cardiovascular health during the physical distancing period.

By Will Ahmed

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We have always believed that there are secrets that your body is trying to tell you, and that has never seemed more relevant than during this global pandemic.

Our research team has been working around the clock to uncover insights about COVID-19, and a few weeks ago we announced a major finding that showed tracking respiratory rate with WHOOP can help detect coronavirus before you feel any symptoms.

VP of Data Science and Research Emily Capodilupo joins the WHOOP Podcast to discuss our respiratory rate findings, along with a separate study that showed WHOOP members have seen improvements in sleep and cardiovascular health during the physical distancing period.

Stay healthy, stay in the green, and keep your respiratory rate flat!

COVID-19 Studies Podcast Show Notes:

3:51 – Discovering the Importance of Respiratory Rate. “In the beginning of March we had a WHOOP user who, unfortunately, became sick with COVID-19. We noticed in his data that his respiratory rate spiked really high and this spike actually started to climb up before the day that he said he started to feel sick. That turned us on to this idea that potentially during the incubation phase of COVID-19, which is known to be anywhere from 2-14 days, that there might be detectable signs within the WHOOP data that we could use to potentially alert a user that something was going on.”

5:03 – Tracking COVID-19 With the WHOOP Journal. Emily details how WHOOP began following positive coronavirus cases via the WHOOP Journal. “In just a couple of weeks we had almost 300 WHOOP users report to us positive COVID-19 tests and we noticed there was this pattern of elevated respiratory rate in many cases prior to the onset of symptoms that we just weren’t seeing in other situations.”

5:59 – The COVID-19 Detection Study. Emily details how WHOOP has developed an algorithm capable of identifying 80% of symptomatic COVID-19 cases simply from examining changes in respiratory rate from each member’s personal baseline. WHOOP can also identify 20% of asymptomatic cases.

6:57 – Core Philosophy. “So much of our DNA revolves around this idea of doing research and being a thought leader in research and physiology. I think a lot of our DNA revolves around moving at an uncomfortably fast pace. That combination, turns out, lends itself really well to fighting and beating COVID-19 because this is a time where everyone needs to be doing research and doing it at a breakneck pace.”

8:25 – Early Warning. “If you look at the data on when people who have COVID-19 tend to get tested, it’s usually closer to a week to 10 days in, so [WHOOP] can be an earlier indicator before you might be able to go get tested.”

11:57 – Unlocking Your Body’s Secrets. “There are secrets that your body is trying to tell you that you can’t feel. If you could measure those secrets you would have a huge lens into your body. That’s a founding principle for WHOOP. What better example than this moment of time with COVID-19? You could literally be sick with COVID-19 and yet not feel it, not feel any symptoms. And the next thing you know is you accidentally spread it to someone else and that person becomes deathly ill because of it. That’s what’s so powerful about COVID-19.”

14:35 – A Valuable Tool. “Anything that’s going to give you any amount of a hint before symptom onset is going to be a value add. We’re not a medical device, we don’t believe that this is a replacement for a PCR test … but I do think that there’s a lot of room for wearables and for these other types of approaches to try and catch some of the cases that the infrastructure doesn’t exist for the gold standard to be used in every single person every day.”

16:35 – HRV and Resting Heart Rate During Coronavirus. Emily notes WHOOP has detected many instances where people with COVID-19 have seen their heart rate variability go down and their resting heart rate rise, but those symptoms are non-specific and could be caused by a variety of factors, including alcohol consumption or other illnesses. “What we see about respiratory rate that’s really interesting is it actually tends to be really consistent from night to night. … It’s a more specific indicator that COVID-19 or a lower respiratory tract disease is going on.”

18:55 – Exercise Intolerance. Emily says WHOOP data reveals that being unable to complete your intended workout can also be an indicator of COVID-19.

21:04 – Altitude’s Effect on Respiratory Rate. “If you go from sea level to a meaningful altitude, a couple thousand feet, you’re definitely going to see your respiratory rate go up because the air is thinner. Your respiratory rate is going to respond to two things–the environment and the health of your lungs.”

22:42 – How Much of an Increase in Respiratory Rate is Concerning? “It’s much less about the total amount of how many more breaths per minute that your respiratory rate went up. It’s less about that and it’s more about the pattern at which it rose.”

23:53 – Becoming More Resilient. “Until there’s a vaccine, which is still estimated to be as much as a year, if not two years away, there’s going to be some amount of risk. So that’s plenty of time to make meaningful changes to your endurance capacity. I do think there’s some really interesting research to be done. Can we train right now with COVID resilience in mind instead of with my 5K time or my marathon time in mind?” Emily cites the COVID Resilience Project, which WHOOP is working on with world-renowned sleep researcher Dr. Chuck Czeisler.

25:38 – Smoking and COVID-19. Emily cites a research paper out of France that found that patients in the ICU with coronavirus were disproportionately non-smokers, leading them to speculate that smoking may somehow be protective against COVID-19. “It’s a very counterintuitive result. I definitely do not recommend smoking to protect yourself from COVID-19,” Emily says. “If there is some way that smoking is making these people’s lungs less susceptible to contracting COVID that might be something that we can exploit without smoking and take advantage of whatever the actual protective element is and turn that into a potential treatment. We’ve seen things like that in the past. There’s lots more work to be done there, but it’s some interesting data.”

30:31 – The COVID-19 Behavior Change Study. Emily details a study of 50,000 WHOOP members that shows people experienced sleep and cardiovascular improvements during the social distancing period of COVID-19. The study found that WHOOP members were sleeping more, had better sleep consistency, and saw their HRV rise and their resting heart rate fall after social distancing mandates went into effect.

33:56 – An Unprecedented Opportunity. “COVID-19 created these natural experimental conditions because it got 50,000 people to all of a sudden shift their behaviors. We were able to see not just cohort 1 vs cohort 2, but when people go from being in one cohort to being in the other cohort, so they’re their own controls, that makes it statistically a better study.”

34:32 – Small Changes, Big Results. “We were able to show that these relatively small changes in sleep patterns can have meaningful effects in cardiovascular health metrics. … This is the first paper ever to demonstrate the cardiovascular improvements associated with such small behavior changes.”

37:37 – What’s Next? “All of this research is the first batch of data that’s come in. I think it’s going to be interesting as we get more data to explore with a larger dataset what some of the nuances are. Why are we missing some of those cases? Can we catch more cases potentially before symptom onset? What does that look like? … I think the reality is that whether or not we get sick, we’re all impacted from having lived through this. So understanding that impact and understanding what we’re going to need to do differently and how our physiology has responded to this multi-month stressful event is going to be really important to the societal recovery, not just the individual recovering from the illness.”

40:30 – WHOOP is Growing! If you’re a WHOOP wearer and are interested in joining our team, we’re hiring talented people for our Membership Services organization. WHOOP is growing fast and we are hiring for a variety of roles, which are remote across the United States. We’re looking for Membership Services Representatives to coach members through onboarding, as well as answer questions and provide assistance with all things WHOOP, from the comfort of your own home. We offer excellent pay, a variety of shifts, and full benefits from day one. If you are interested, please apply at WHOOP.com/careers.

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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