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Pros and cons of using fitness trackers for employee wellness

James A. Martin | March 25, 2014
In February, during one of New England's harshest winters in memory, some employees at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, began deliberately parking further away from their offices.

Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike Fitness Bands

The infographics firm rebooted its efforts in January 2014, this time using social media for sharing, accountability and increased engagement. (Killer Infographics has 20 employees. Its fitness program started with 16 participants but now has about half as many members.)

"Being heavy social media users, our team decided to build a program around the concept of sharing and tracking our fitness goals both internally and with followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google+," Holbert says. "Every day, participants would share their progress through these channels with pictures and/or videos of them working out. Not only did this build camaraderie, it also created a system of accountability on a whole new level."

The program's devotees also created KIG90X, "a pseudo reality show" on YouTube that follows a group of contestants vying to win various fitness challenges and "fighting their way toward the 'Ultimate Prize,'" according to Holbert. (He declined to specify what the prize will be.)

Holbert adds that because of the program, "office morale and overall productivity have gone up, and there are a lot less sick days being called in."

Gundersen Health System

Seven years ago, Gundersen Health System created an annual six-week fitness challenge, called "Minutes in Motion." The next challenge begins on March 24, according to Christopher Stauffer, senior consultant for corporate communications. Participants perform their desired physical activity for 30 minutes every day, for a total of 1,260 minutes during the challenge period. At the end, they can win prizes, including a $500 gift card.

Almost 20 percent of Gundersen Health System's 885 employees participated in the 2013 challenge, with an average of 1,653 minutes of exercise per person during the challenge period. The top three benefits cited by employees who participated were increased energy (57.6 percent) and endurance (49.3 percent) and improved mood (48.8 percent). Average weight loss during the challenge was 6.2 pounds, Stauffer says.

Concerns: Costs, ROI and Privacy

The participants and administrators of these tech-enabled employee wellness programs say the pros far outweigh the cons. Still, potential limitations and concerns exist.

For starters, despite the "cool" factor gadgets can give wellness programs, organizations shouldn't expect a majority of their employees to participate.

"Wellness programs attempt to make health fun for employees," says Daniel McCaffrey, a behavioral scientist and consultant for Endeavour Partners. "Research suggests that such programs can help convert the employees in the getting-ready stage of behavior change into the preparation stage, but they won't help those in the not-ready phase. In addition, such programs don't usually inspire participation among those who are already active and motivated to exercise regularly."

Another potential hurdle: the cost of wearable devices. Prices "will need to drop drastically before they become the norm in wellness programs," McCaffrey says. "This is in large part due to the lack of evidence of ROI for human resources and wellness departments."


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