Fitness Devices and Apps are Flexing their Muscles

Fitness devices and apps have blazed a hot trail across the wellness landscape. 2015 was truly “the year of the fitness tracker.” Are they a fad? Do they increase the cost of your program? Are they reliable?

All good questions. devices

They’re not a fad. Adoption has been building for years and continues to grow steadily. Every year they get smaller, less expensive (or more functionality for the same price) and more accurate. In one shape or another, they are here to stay.

That doesn't mean that we will all be wearing Fitbits in five years. If there’s anything we can expect from technology, it’s change. Many of the features of dedicated devices have already migrated to phones and watches, like accelerometers that can track steps or estimate distance. A nice selection of mobile apps allows us to tap into and use the information our phones gather. At some point, the sensors will be so small and cheap they may be in our shoes and rings. Until they get that small, however, dedicated devices like the Fitbit will have a role – after all, few people like to jog or swim with their phone.

As for cost, they don’t cost you anything if your approach is simply to let people use the devices and apps they already use. In this case you simply provide a wellness portal like beBetter that allows popular devices and apps to be connected.

On the other hand, many employers DO like to provide a discounted device to their population. Fitbit allows employers to buy devices at a discount as long as the employer is covering at least some of the cost when it provides them to the employee. In beBetter’s book of business, about 20% of our users have a registered device on our system. In organizations that subsidize the purchase of these devices, the rate is as high 80%.

Should your organization buy or subsidize tracking devices? That depends. If you have a budget for them that doesn’t take away resources from other program activities, then they are a great way to promote physical activity and help your employees meet the requirements of your program.

On the other hand, they are not a “silver bullet.” While these devices make it easier for an employee to capture reliable physical activity data, they are not perfect. We are truly in the beginning of the “quantified self” era and we have a way to go with accuracy and ease of integration. For now, today’s solutions are “good enough.” And like many technology items we purchase, our interest in them can wane over time.

Ultimately, encouraging participants to get or stay active depends less on how many of them use devices, and more on how the program is communicated. Important factors include communicating the program in a positive tone, visibly rewarding and recognizing the efforts of those who participate, and showing employees that you care about their well being.