Wearables and mobile apps are becoming increasingly popular in the employee wellness space.  This may be most evident by Target’s decision to purchase Fitbits for its 335,000 employees.  However, we must not mistake popularity with effectiveness so it is important to ask whether or not activity tracking will lead to individuals being more physically active.  There are lots of ways to track activity, but this post will focus on one of the most popular measure in employee wellness programs – steps.  Based on numerous testimonials on the internet, one would be led to think that pedometers are either incredibly powerful tools or a waste of electronic gadgetry.  Testimonials are great, but what does the research say?

A review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 26 studies involving more than 2,700 participants and found that “overall, pedometer users increased their physical activity by 26.9 percent over baseline.”  The study also concluded that pedometer users significantly reduced their body mass index as well as their blood pressure and showed that setting a goal was a strong predictor of increased physical activity.  Another study determined that “success” was dependent on the level of self-monitoring and engagement with the Fitbit website, which suggests that maybe people who are more likely to use a Fitbit in the first place are already more motivated to track their activity.

Another study of how technology can motivate people to increase fitness suggests that some features may be more motivating than others.  Reasonable goal-setting was critical to engagement, including allowing primary goals (such as steps per day) and secondary goals (steps per week).  Participants who received reminders to exercise reported being more likely to follow through, but the reminders had to be specific to the individual’s goals.  Receiving virtual rewards (such as ribbons and badges) was not motivating, and participants found them gimmicky.

So…does activity tracking lead to more activity?  The answer is muddied by the large number of users who quit using the devices.  The studies show that with the right set of features and adherence to the technologies, users are able to see success and become more physically active.  However, with the adherence rate on pedometers and other health and wellness technologies being so low, a limited group of people realize success.  This is similar to the challenge employee wellness programs across the country experience – limited engagement limits the efficacy a program can have.  In order to realize the positive impacts of these technologies, consumers and employers need to find ways to solve for the adherence program.  To answer this question, we will need a whole other post.

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