woman checking wearableDespite the plethora of wearables, more information doesn’tnecessarily change behavior. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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If there’s a clear winner in the battle the wellness industry iswaging against the ills that trouble employees, it’s the wellnessindustry itself.

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In many cases, employees aren’t healthier, nor are employersreaping the benefits they expected from all the money they’respending on such programs. That’s according to a report in Scientific American.

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Researchers created a wellness program at the University ofIlinois at Urbana-Champaign and employees were randomly put ineither the iThrive wellness program or a control group. “One yearlater,” they write, “when we compared the control group tothe iThrive group, we found that the program didn’t lead tohealthier employees or reduce health care costs.”

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In fact, earlier studies that found wellnessprograms delivered a plethora of beneficial results wereaffected by “selection bias” — that wellness programs might simplybe attracting employees who are already more health- andwellness-oriented, rather than the couch potatoes who might reallyneed diet and fitness help.

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The study of the iThrive group revealed that theemployees who were engaged “were already quite healthy”and had “already incurred $1,373 less in medical expenses over theprevious year compared to employees not interested in the program.Participants were also less likely to have extremely high medicalexpenses and were higher-earners, on average.”

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Because higher-earning, healthier employees were more likely toparticipate, they were also more likely to benefit from anyemployer incentives to participate—and lower-earning, less-healthyemployees were more likely to suffer higher premiums for theirhealth care coverage although they needed the coverage more thantheir healthier colleagues.

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Additionally, an opinion piece on NBC’s Think siteby Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy TimothyCaulfield questions whether the wellness industry’spreoccupation with scientific gadgetry designed to measure steps,heart rates, calories, sleep quality, genetics and who knows whatelse could actually be detrimental thanks to TMI—too muchinformation.

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He points to a widely cited study in the Journal of the American MedicalAssociation that found that participants wearing fitness trackers“lost significantly less weight than the research participants whoweren’t. And the wearable wearers also weren’t any fitter.”

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More information doesn’t necessarily change behavior, he argues.Fitness trackers don’t transform couch potatoes into marathonrunners; instead, they actually demoralize some groups. He citesa study of adolescents that found fitnesstrackers or wearables increased peer pressure as groupscompeted to see who could outperform whom; some adolescents endedup less motivated to exercise than they were before theystarted.

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Putting aside the question as to whether wellnessprograms should include fitness trackers or wearables, the jury isstill out on the longer term effects of wellness programparticipation. However, “given the large amount of investment inworkplace wellness programs, it’s worth establishing a rigorousunderstanding of the real impacts of these programs,” theUniversity of Illinois researchers conclude.

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READ MORE:

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Workers with both health and financial wellnessbenefits healthier

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How to secure a wellness program thatworks

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Another nail in the wellness ROIcoffin?

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.

BenefitsPRO editors