Boding Well

Activity trackers have become an essential tool of corporate wellness programs.

With premiums nearing $3 million a year, Long Term Care Partners wanted to do something to curb the ever-increasing cost of health care. So, last year, the New Hampshire-based firm, which administers federal insurance programs, decided to step up its employee wellness program, starting by hosing an onsite biometrics day to get a baseline of workers’ health. Enticed by the promise of a free Fitbit wristband, more than half the firm’s 260 employees participated, getting their BMI, cholesterol and other stats measured. After receiving the fitness trackers, employees who walked an average of 10,000 steps a day each month were eligible for periodic gift card drawings.

“We saw an immediate impact on our workforce,” says Melissa McLaughlin, director of human resources. “We started seeing people speed walk down our corridors on their break and form lunchtime walking groups.

“Tracking steps, among the other functions the Fitbit offers, is something that most people can identify with and participate in.”

LTC Partners’ wellness strategy also includes an onsite gym, lunchtime Weight Watchers meetings, smoking cessation classes and several workstations outfitted with treadmills that employees can reserve for half-hour intervals. But by giving out free Fitbits, LTC Partners joins a growing trend in corporate health programs. By 2018, more than 13 million wearable devices with embedded wireless connectivity will be integrated into wellness plans offered by employers, according to a 2013 study from ABI Research, a New York market research firm.

Fitness trackers, which sell at retail starting around $99, are generally worn around the wrist and sometimes include a digital display, like a typical watch. Most track steps taken, use algorithms to calculate calories burned, and measure sleep quantity and quality. The bands sync up wirelessly, sharing collected data with smartphone apps and websites so wearers can keep track of their progress. Fitbit is one of the most well-known in this growing category of products, but other popular offerings include the Jawbone Up and the Nike FuelBand. GPS companies such as Garmin and Magellan have also broken into the sector with their own versions of the technology.

The accessories are generally credited with launching the surge of interest in wearable technology, and they are already taking hold in the general public. As of last September, one in 10 adult consumers owned a wearable activity tracker, according to a whitepaper released early this year by Endeavour Partners, a tech consulting firm based in Cambridge, MA.

Now, this first wave of popular wearable tech is starting to get a foothold in the promotional world. Nathaniel Quance, director of imprint sales at Power Sales and Advertising (asi/79083), says Fitbits have been “incredibly popular” since the Lenexa, KS, supplier started offering the product line last spring. “We had started to get a lot of requests from program partners for things like that,” he says. “The category is growing, and sales have steadily been really, really good the entire time we’ve had the category.” Geiger (asi/202900) promotional consultant Jacqui Snyder recently sourced an order of Fitbits to stock a trade show booth for one of her clients, SoftPro, a provider of real estate closing and title insurance software.

In addition to trade show giveaways and company wellness incentives, activity trackers are great prizes for fitness-based events and a useful tool for hospitals and outpatient centers, Quance says. His company has supplied Fitbits for heart surgery patients, who need to keep track of their daily activity levels during their recovery period.

As their popularity grows, however, fitness trackers have raised concerns, with some worried about what employers might do with data collected from company-issued devices. Will people who refuse to participate in tracking programs be penalized with higher health-care rates? What if an employee fails to meet his activity goals; will it reflect poorly on an annual review? LTC Partners does not collect its employees’ Fitbit data, though it started a private online community with “high score” leaderboards, and workers can opt in to compete with their co-workers on how many steps they’ve taken, McLaughlin says. She adds that the company preferred a system of rewards to encourage involvement and healthy behaviors, rather than punishment.

Another concern among tech experts is the lack of long-term engagement with the product, once the novelty of a new gadget wears off. “The thing about activity trackers today is they’re so primitive,” says Dan Ledger of Endeavour Partners. “All they can measure is movement. … The data isn’t terribly sensitive.” He adds that trackers work best as a “habit-change device” to encourage the sedentary into more active lifestyles. Users who are already athletic aren’t likely to get as much out of them. “It’s like you’re selling aspirin, and a lot of people who are buying it don’t have a headache,” he says. “People are having their first experience with wearables [through fitness trackers] and think they’re useless.”

According to Endeavour Partners, the “dirty little secret” of the wireless fitness tracker is that a third of the people who own one stop using the device within six months of receiving it. Ledger sees more potential in more versatile smart watches with a host of functions besides fitness monitoring, and next-generation tracking devices that will offer “a deeper glimpse into people’s physiology, crunch that data and turn it back into information and advice accessible to a lay person.” He expects the next iteration of trackers to include more sophisticated sensors to measure things like heart rate, perspiration and stress level, in addition to pedometer functions.

LTC Partners and other companies that have incorporated the fitness trackers currently on the market say they’ve been pleased with how employees have responded. Larry Garfield, president of Garfield Group, a Newtown, PA-based marketing firm, gave out Fitbits as the company’s holiday gift in December to supplement the company’s existing wellness program. Because his employees use data to shape and measure the success of clients’ programs, Garfield says, he “loved the idea of having everyone live more of a ‘data aware’ life.” Participation in the program continues to be strong, and more employees have taken advantage of company-subsidized gym memberships since receiving a Fitbit. “I was surprised by how much folks embraced the whole notion of measuring and monitoring their health,” Garfield adds.

LTC Partners recently held its second annual biometrics event and planned a different incentive to encourage participation, but employees were adamant that they wanted Fitbits, with new hires eager to join in the friendly competition and long-time employees excited to get a second tracker to give to their spouses, McLaughlin says. The company also received its annual renewal notice for health insurance premiums and was pleased to note the lowest increase to rates in several years. “I can’t say with 100% certainty that our wellness efforts are responsible,” she says, “but they certainly haven’t hurt.”