Wearable fitness devices may be gaining ground but at least one benefits professional expresses doubts about their viability in workplace wellness programs.

In 2014, approximately 42 million wearable wireless sports, fitness and wellness devices are expected to be shipped worldwide, according to data from technology market-intelligence company ABI Research. And the recent announcement that social media giant Facebook is set to purchase Moves, a motion tracking app for Android and iPhone, will likely fuel even further interest in digital health and activity monitoring applications.

Also See: Social media, new technology drive healthy behaviors

Yet wearable devices don’t come without a cost and some question whether they are a worthwhile investment for cash-strapped employer wellness programs.

“The biggest issue I see on the employer side is how to measure the effectiveness of the program,” Shana Sweeney a senior HR analyst and EBN contributing editor. “Wearable devices are not inexpensive purchases, and without an easy way to measure the health outcomes of the program, it is exceedingly difficult to know if it was worth the investment. Measuring participation is a commonly used metric; however it doesn't really tell you if the person is newly engaged in focusing on their health, if they always were focused on their health, or if, for the incentive, they gave their child the device or attached it to their pet, which are all stories I have heard.”

Still, new research indicates that when wearable technologies are incorporated as part of a broader structured wellness program, they can help change behavior. A three-year study conducted by Vitality shows smartphone and pedometer use skyrocketed during the study period, while heart rate monitors and gym memberships declined. Within the Vitality wellness program, a high proportion of those who use devices are overweight or obese – 67% of people who use a pedometer or activity tracker are overweight. Moreover, participants not previously engaged in fitness activities reduced their health risk factors by 13%, and members already active in fitness saw the greatest improvement, reducing their risk factors by 22%.

“One thing that you get in a workplace setting that you wouldn’t get on an individual user level of these devices is that you kind of have an instant community,” says Jonathan Dugas, PhD, director of clinical development for The Vitality Group, a wellness program vendor. “In your office, you kind of have that community already, and when you try to penetrate that community with that device, you sort of are already leveraging that fact that you have connections with people there.”

Sweeney says increased solidarity among co-workers from wearable devices is possible, but offers some disclaimers.

“I think that wearable tech can foster some camaraderie between co-workers, but similar to other wellness programs, sustained engagement and behavior change is always a somewhat elusive outcome,” she says. “It is important to note that many wearable tech devices are more often sold as a consumer facing product, incorporat[ing] some aspects of the company and its culture into the program.”

Also See: Benefits pros cautious about workplace implications of Google Glass

Vitality member data indicates that gender and weight differences were reported among wearable device-type. For instance, Fitbit, a device that monitors activity and sleep, recorded 29.5 billion steps in 2013 among Vitality program members. Also, while the largest group of users is middle-aged, more than 20% of the 23-34 year age group used some type of  device – predominantly smartphone applications.

Dugas explains that a common concern among employees who use activity trackers is one of  privacy.

“[Vitality does not] report on the individual level, people’s information is safe,” says Dugas. “I think that’s one of things you have to make sure that people don’t think you’re just trying to track your movement. It’s really more of we want to give you an easy way to help you be more active.”

In a separate five-year study, hospital costs went down 16% for Vitality members that were physically active throughout the study period. And for those who joined the cause during the course of the tracking period, their medical costs decreased by 6%.

 “If you can deploy them [devices] on a worksite level, either via subsidizing or giving it away for free, you can leverage off the community aspect, which is a great talking point for people and can keep people engaged,” Dugas explains. “If you get an increase in physical activity, there’s also a rather acute benefit there. People’s stress levels [decrease] and mental well-being increases [with] physical activity. And long term, as you continue to be active or increase your activity level, then you start to see a more profound health impact.”

Also See: Wellness ROI is much more than just health costs

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