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Workers' Wellness Goes Wireless With Activity Trackers

Unlike its predecessor the pedometer, which tracked only steps and whose data couldn't be uploaded or easily shared, the accelerometer monitors steps, distance and calories burned. It even tracks sleep.

January 15, 2013
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For many benefits managers, the challenge is not just how to educate employees about wellness but how to change behavior for the better and then make those changes permanent.

One strategy gaining popularity is to give workers personal devices that track their physical activity and help them meet their fitness goals. These devices, called accelerometers, or wireless activity trackers, also are increasingly tied to broader wellness campaigns and workplace fitness challenges.

Unlike its predecessor the pedometer, which tracked only steps and whose data couldn't be uploaded or easily shared, the accelerometer monitors steps, distance, calories burned and even sleep. Statistics are synched to computers and smartphones and often also have a social networking capacity.

"This is one of the most financially impactful of all the investments, even in the short term, that we've seen," says Renya Spak, principal of the total health management practice at consultancy Mercer, of the devices. "We've seen very compelling findings."

Fitness firms Fitbit, Jawbone and Fitlinxx and shoe giant Nike are among the leaders in this category. Fitness-tech firm Withings joined the competition this month by unveiling its own product, the Smart Activity Tracker.

"It's definitely a crowded and growing space," Spak says.

One happy client is Box, a cloud-based content sharing platform company. The Los Altos, California-based firm last fall purchased Fitbit Zips for all 700 employees. The Fitbit Zip retails for $59.95.

Box kicked off a 30-day challenge in mid-November, during which employees participated in groups to see who could average the most steps per person. The challenge required at least 75 percent participation in each group to qualify.

About half of the company participated in the contest. On average, there was a 42.2 percent increase in steps taken over the month. The winning group took close to 7,700 steps and had an 81 percent participation rate. The prize was a group dinner out on the town.

Evan Wittenberg, vice president of people operations at Box and a former Google employee, says he considers the results a success and that he plans to do more challenges using Fitbit devices.

"For knowledge workers, exercise and physical fitness are extremely, extremely important," Wittenberg says. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if everyone had a regular way to get feedback on how they are doing with their fitness.' "

He says Fitbit shares Box's values of just-in-time, access-anywhere information, making the partnership a "no-brainer."

Two computer engineers, Eric Friedman and James Park, founded Fitbit in 2007 as a way to use technology to help themselves and their colleagues get up from their desks during the workday.

Amy McDonough, director of business development at Fitbit, says the products are for everyday people and that Fitbit tries to make the experience "straightforward for employers."

"We take a consultative approach on what would work best for individual employers," McDonough says.

Fitbit also has partnerships with health plans and corporate wellness vendors such as Healthways and RedBrick Health to incorporate the devices into their wellness offerings, she says.

"We find the challenges are most successful when they are integrated into the workplace culture," she says.

Team challenges can keep employees from losing interest in the devices once the initial novelty has worn off, says Spak of Mercer.

"It's the social, team aspect of it that makes it stay fresh," she says.

Wittenberg of Box says the goal is to get employees to adopt healthier habits, and the wireless activity tracker is simply the catalyst to make change. He says research suggests it takes 30 to 40 repetitions to make a new activity become habit.

As for the winning team on Box's first Fitbit challenge, members haven't decided yet where to have their victory dinner.

"I'm hoping they don't choose beer and pizza because that would defeat the purpose," Wittenberg jokes. "But of course they can choose where they want to go."

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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