Recently, The New York Times featured new research questioning the effectiveness of activity trackers, pushing the science and debate forward. Thanks to Dr. John Jakicic and the other researchers for doing real research on the obesity epidemic.
But, there is much more research to do to keep one of the major buyers of wearable health-tracking devices, employers with wellness programs, from feeling perplexed.
The University of Pittsburgh Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center conducted a two-year study, focused on two groups of overweight and obese participants — the first wore fitness trackers, and the second group logged activity on a website. Essentially, those who wore the monitors “generally exercised less than those in other groups.” And lost less weight.
We know exercise makes people healthier. We also know (from decades of research into cognitive behavioral therapy) that mindfulness, self-tracking and clinical support can drive real change.
But these researchers did what all good scientists do – they don’t believe the hype. They set out to explore trackers specifically on overweight and obese people.
Also, let’s look at categories beyond weight loss. Did participants get stronger – which could explain fewer pounds lost? Did their overall well-being improve? Did they develop healthier eating habits?
In general, behavioral science tells us that mindfulness, intrinsic motivation, and a sense of competence and control are critical to lasting change. We also know that any well-being program that feels controlling will fail to drive lasting change — and it may lead people to intentionally undermine the results.
I’m curious if an upper arm band in this setting might act like the ankle bracelet ex-cons wear. Might participants see it as intrusive or controlling? Were they conversation pieces, or at least relatively comfortable to wear?
At the very least, armbands may lead to the passivity we see so often in clinical health care today: "I don't need to change because this armband/drug/surgery/treatment will fix everything."
Might the act of self-reporting in the non-device group create the opposite effect – a sense of responsibility for self-monitoring?
Trackers aren’t a magic bullet. People still need to do the work.
Wearable devices are just one tool that can give feedback, keep people accountable, fuel friendly competition and even add an element of fun.
But the jury is out for now whether, for most people, they are something fun and voluntary or mandatory and controlling. (Full disclosure, I was a FitBit early adopter, and have worn one nearly every day for years, and am not currently trying to lose weight).
But we know it’s not all about the technology. Tools and resources, like activity trackers and online wellness programs, are the second-most important way an organization can support employee well-being, but they’re only one part of the larger picture.
Other missing pieces include things like social support. We know that this type of support is vital for making real behavior change. In fact, 70 percent of respondents in the recent Well-Being & Engagement Report said they receive well-being support from their peers and teammates.
Did the study have peer and social support built in, or was the self-monitoring a solitary activity? Were the texts and communiques positive in tone, inspiring self-belief and confidence?
Simple advice for employers
As CEO of a corporate wellness technology company, I feel strongly that employers should design positive, non-punitive "whole person" well-being programs — not disease-management programs that can be perceived as “singling out the unhealthy and weak to monitor and improve them.” A program that showcases an overwhelming multitude of tools or programs won’t work either.
Instead, employers should design wellness programs that authentically support the well-being of their people.
This includes providing well-being tools and resources — like wearable trackers and online wellness programs — that fit within the organization’s unique culture and budget – but that are voluntary and accessible to all. The act of choosing is critically important.
According to the 2015 Workplace Well-Being report, when employees feel their employer cares about their well-being, they’re 38 percent more engaged. This is good news for both the employees and the business.
Wellness programs should include conscious and targeted strategies to provide organizational support that does the following:
Brings culture to life
Provides manager support
Incorporates social networks
Establishes supportive policies
Embraces teams and peers
Creates a supportive physical environment
Gives employees choice in program design and activities
Wearable devices play an important role in providing organizational support for employees. They connect people and provide positive watercooler discussions.
So read the JAMA report, assess its relevance to your company, and give employees a choice on what device or tool to use (if any at all).
Giving them the tools to control their own well-being is how you can show true commitment not just to their thinning waistlines but to their growing sense of competence. And your bottom line.