Wearable devices that track your activity levels are increasingly turning up in corporate wellness program, but will Americans stick with the new technology, or are these fitness trackers a fad?
That’s the big question raised by the rapid rise in the use of trackers, 17 million of which are expected to be sold this year, according to industry analyst Canalys.
A recent study found that one in 10 Americans over the age of 18 now owns a fitness tracker. By 2018, more than 13 million wearable activity-tracking devices will be integrated into employee wellness programs, based on estimates from ABI Research. That’s compared to fewer than 200,000 wearable devices used along with corporate wellness plans last year, principal analyst Jonathan Collins told Mobihealth News.
But with the new technology has come concerns about utilization, cost and privacy. It hasn’t helped that Fitbit Inc. was forced to recall one of its trackers after complaints that it caused rashes and blisters.
Still, these devices are popular, a trend driven by Americans’ obsession with analytics. Knowing that you worked out an hour yesterday isn’t enough. People want to know how many calories they burned, how high their heart rate rose, how many steps they took compared to last week’s workouts.
Fitness trackers can answer these questions and more, and with interactive apps they can present the data in an appealing and informative way. Social media lets tracker owners feed their competitive urge by comparing results, and, let’s be honest, taunting friends and family.
For employers, the emergence of the relatively inexpensive, lightweight devices gives them a tool to motivate employees enrolled in wellness programs. Employees now can compete over who takes the most steps, calories burned and so on, and different departments can gain bragging rights for their latest results.
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Amy McDonough, director of Fitbit Wellness, noted that many workers today have relatively sedentary office jobs. She said her company’s research shows that just wearing a fitness tracker motivates people to get up and move more. “By wearing an activity tracker, you’re likely to get about 40 percent more active just by putting one on,” she said.
The devices are sleek and colorful, and come with names such as the Polar Loop, the Garmin Vivofit, the Fitbit Flex, the Nike FuelBand and the Jawbone Up. Prices range from $50 to three times that. Although many take the form of wristbands, there are clip-on options, armbands, even trackers that masquerade as jewelry.
A tool for employee wellness
“There are a lot of different applications for the technology,” said Larry Chapman, president and CEO of the Chapman Institute. Chapman, who trains and certifies professionals in the worksite wellness field, sees the activity trackers as a promising development. “Anytime you’re using any kind of technology to measure fitness activity such as intensity, duration, those are useful tools.”
However, Chapman said, in order to be effective, fitness trackers need to be incorporated into a wider wellness effort that includes feedback, employee education and peer support.
Chapman lists privacy concerns and cost as among the potential downsides to fitness tracker use. That said, he notes that the biggest problem for the technology is that people may simply lose interest. “It’s a problem with virtually all new innovation,” Chapman said. “When you first introduce it, there’s a high novelty effect. The question is, what happens when this is no longer novel?”