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Is a wearable health tracker worth the investment?

Wearable health trackers are the buzz in the new year. From the Biggest Loser giving contestants the Garmin VivoFit to FitBit’s response to the Apple watch, there’s plenty of options to choose from for your employees.

But is adding a wearable health tracker to your wellness plan a good idea?

Jen Arnold, MS, RD/LDN, shared her thoughts on not only using the device, but also the advantages and disadvantages for employers in the article, “13 Ways to Decide if Wearables are Worth the Investment.”

Below are the bullet points she makes in the article:

Advantages of an activity tracker:

The “Cool” Factor: Your employees will appreciate the gift even if you are just subsidizing the cost or if they are getting the cheapest version.

Automatic Feedback: Wearable devices have the ability to give employees real time feedback so they can do something about. You can look at your device, see if you are under performing on activity for the day and start moving.

Fun Challenges: The dashboard gives employees options to set up their own challenges or you can run a company wide one. This is a fun way to get a positive reaction and interest from employees.

Scalabilty: Many employers have employees scattered all over their state, the US or even globally. Having employees connected through their fitness tracker eliminates the need to be in person, which isn’t possible for many employers.

Revival of a Tired Wellness Program: Let’s face it, it’s easy to run out of fun ideas and your wellness program can get a bit boring. Adding free or subsidized activity trackers can liven up your program and get employees excited again.

Create a “fit” group identity for tracker wearers. Hey, you have a Fitbit just like me. That’s a great reason to strike up a conversation a fellow employee who you don’t know. Working on a similar goal gets people talking about their device and the many steps they are taking towards better health. It’s always wonderful to hear employees talking about their fitness in an excited way instead of the dreaded tone of guilt.

Despite these advantages, there are some drawbacks of purchasing activity trackers to consider:

Cost: Although fitness trackers are cheap when compared to the cost of health insurance for your employees, it can kill a wellness budget in a hot second. Fitbit in particular requires the employer to subsidize a percentage of the device and if you have a lot of employees, the cost may be difficult to justify to your CEO. Also, the dashboard is around $7,000 per year (or is at the time of this post) and you really need the dashboard to get employees involved.

Abandonment rate: A recent survey found that after about six months of use, one-third of U.S. consumers don’t use their wearable devices. That’s about how long I lasted with mine.

It’s not the magic bullet: Although an activity tracker may help your employees get up and moving more, it won’t magically make your employees healthy and lower health care costs. You still have to incorporate other resources into your wellness program.

Not everyone will want one: As cool as you think an activity tracker is, 100% of your employees will not want one. This could actually be an advantage if you are trying to watch your budget.

Privacy concerns: Some people are skeptics by nature and you’ll need to ensure employees who has access to their data and what you are doing with it.

Addiction: I’m using this heavy word a bit lightly here but if you’ve owned an activity tracker, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the reason why you walk circles around your house while the rest of the family is sleeping or you get pissed if you went on a run without your tracker. Tracking means competing with someone (even if it’s yourself) and that’s only sustainable for so long.

Motivation: You are going to reach the employees ready to make a change about their health while the ones that aren’t ready will pass on the opportunity. That’s fine not to dwell on those that aren’t motivated but chances are they would have joined you in a less expensive exercise challenge.

Here’s the million dollar question….does it increase exercise? Truth is, we don’t really know. There is minimal research around these devices but one small study in older women found that they may increase exercise more than a pedometer (at least during the 16 week study). We are working with an employer group that is starting a fitness tracker challenge now so I’ll let you know the results.

Bottom line: unless you have a well built wellness strategy that includes other resources for your employees, then fitness trackers are probably not worth the investment UNLESS you have extra money to spend and one or more of the advantages above applies to your worksite.