Fitness trackers help users understand how many calories they've burned and more. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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. 

See also: RIP wellness ROI?

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?”

It’s a question that some are seeing as the biggest challenge for the new industry. “There’s Probably a Fitness Tracker Abandoned in a Junk Drawer Near You,” read a recent headline in Slate. The article quoted a study by Endeavor Partners, the firm that found one in 10 Americans own a fitness tracker, which raised warning flags about the high numbers of people abandoning the technology.

Dan Ledger, principal at Endeavor Partners, said his group’s study found that more than half of the U.S. consumers who own an activity tracker have stopped using it. And a third of consumers who own one stopped using it within six months of receiving it.

Ledger said traditional product designers don’t necessarily know much about behavioral psychology and what motivates people to change habits. He said that for younger adults, trackers are as much s fashion device as a helpful tool, and the appeal can wear off.

But for older Americans who are concerned about their fitness and may need that extra motivation, the trackers can be useful. “For some, they help change habits in a positive way,” he said. “As you peel back the onion, you find that these products are designed for a smaller subset of the population than those going out and buying them. If you’re a serious runner, you’re probably going to get much less out of these devices than a 65-year-old who’s seeking a more active lifestyle.”

Even with the reality that some abandon the devices, Ledger said there is still a lot of potential for fitness trackers and wearable technology as a whole. “The industry is getting wiser on how to make these things more useful,” he said. “The companies that are doing well … are targeting people who really are trying to make the first steps in a healthier lifestyle.”

Equal opportunity fitness

Megan Spurling is the wellness program manager at Sharp HealthCare, a San Diego-based health system with 16,000 employees working at four hospitals and more than 20 clinical locations. She said the FitBit trackers have been a great success with the company’s approach to employee wellness, in part because they are so flexible.

“We have a 24-hour workforce, we’re very diverse, we have locations across San Diego, and we needed a way to engage people no matter how they like to pursue physical activity,” she said. “Rather than offer a gym membership, we think this technology is helpful in creating a way to get people engaged in their fitness wherever they are.”

Sharp HealthCare’s wellness program uses the trackers in employee challenges, which can be system-wide or limited to specific divisions or locations.

Spurling said that of the 9,000 employees who were given a FitBit tracker as a reward for completing a wellness assessment, more than 5,000 are currently using the devices — and the number is growing.

According to Spurling, employees are becoming more enthusiastic about using trackers over time, not less. She attributes the company’s commitment to ongoing wellness education as one reason for the program’s success.

Spurling said her company addresses privacy concerns by employing a system that tracks only step counts — not employee names — by division and location. Employees can use an online dashboard to access much more detailed analytics, but what they release through channels such as social media is up to them.

As far as the issue of cost, Spurling and McDonough agreed that employees respond well to programs that give the trackers as a reward for completing a wellness task such as a health assessment.  

McDonough said employers that have the most success with fitness trackers are those who are transparent with their approach and supportive of employees as they use the technology.

“A device needs to be integrated into the solutions the employer is providing, or on the consumer side, become part of a lifestyle,” she said. “The ecosystem is what’s really important.”