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Health Persuasion Gets Better

To motivate healthy behavior, device companies and employers embrace social tools and insights from behavioral science.
March 23, 2015

A 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that barely 20 percent of adult Americans get the recommended amount of exercise each week, which can be as little as three or four hours.

If we’re to overcome this inertia, exercise needs to become more psychologically inviting.

There’s nobody more invested in that insight than the makers of wearable fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone, and Microsoft wristbands. The consulting group Gartner estimates that 70 million of these devices were sold worldwide in 2014. Manufacturers dream of much bigger sales in years to come, and to get there, they acknowledge, it won’t be enough to pitch the wristbands as a way of tracking your pulse rate, steps taken, or the like. Wider adoption will happen only if people like what all that data can do for them.

Kelvin Kwong, manager of Jawbone’s SmartCoach initiative, says his company is looking to incorporate insights from behavioral science to motivate wearers. Data is just the beginning, he explains. Jawbone wants to send messages to users, probably via smartphones, about ways that they can change their sleep routines or other habits to improve their mood. How and when Jawbone does this won’t be haphazard. He says his company plans to “use our best understanding of how the brain works to get you to act on that.”

Plenty of companies are intrigued. Organizations such as Autodesk, BP, and Houston Methodist hospital have given Fitbits to employees or heavily subsidized the cost. Jonathan Collins, an analyst at ABI Research, estimates that corporate wellness programs currently account for just a few percentage points of overall wearable-device sales but that this figure could surge to more than 10 percent by 2018. Collins estimates that companies helped buy 426,000 wearable fitness monitors for their employees last year. By 2018, he thinks, such corporate purchases could leap to 6.5 million.

Exercise needs to become more psychologically inviting. There’s nobody more invested in that insight than the makers of wearable fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone, and Microsoft wristbands.

Chris Barbin, CEO of Appirio, a San Francisco business software company with 1,100 employees, has made fitness a key part of his company’s culture. An occasional marathon runner, he owns both a Jawbone and a Fitbit device; he says he checks whichever one he is wearing several times a day. But Barbin realizes that most of his employees aren’t nearly so gung-ho. So while Appirio has helped pay for about 400 Fitbit or Jawbone devices that employees use, it has focused even more intently on building up Internet-based chat groups and social tools to make even light exercise seem socially fulfilling.

Getting the right social spirit is “incredibly important,” Barbin says. Sometimes, that means the carrot of digitally delivered encouragement from employees’ friends, just when motivation is flagging. In other cases, it means the stick of online peer pressure. The net result: nearly half of Appirio’s employees participate in CloudFit, the company’s central online meeting place for fitness initiatives. That compares with a national average of just 24 percent employee participation at companies offering wellness programs, as calculated by Gallup.

Jeff Temple, who oversees Appirio’s staff training, says he tries to log 20,000 steps a days. He relies on his Fitbit to keep track of how he’s doing. Most of the time, he says, he’s lucky to get in 15,000 steps. Still, Temple says, diligent exercise is an important element of his effort to control his diabetes.

Dianne Shotton, an Appirio project manager who works from a one-person office in northern Kentucky, says that being connected online to peers across the U.S. has made a huge difference in her ability to stick with a fitness program.

In late 2014, Shotton signed up for a program aimed at helping employees avoid adding extra pounds during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. She took advantage of a company-funded initiative that used Google Hangouts to establish a digital connection with a personal trainer in Indianapolis. For workout routines, Shotton relied on Nike’s Training Club app, which she accessed via her iPad. And for peer reinforcement, she connected via Facebook, Salesforce Chatter, and e-mail with other Appirio employees who were enrolled in the same program. “You don’t feel that you’re alone,” Shotton says. “You’re connected with other people who are at a level you feel comfortable with.” The result: she stayed true to her light-eating resolve, making sure she had only one plate of food at holiday feasts. She arranged exercise routines that she could do at home, if harsh winter weather made it unappealing to drive to a gym for a workout. And when the program was over, she says, she had lost 3.5 pounds.

The payoff for Appirio: an 8 percent reduction in its health-insurance premiums in 2015, because the company generated smaller claims than expected last year. Appirio also received a $40,000 grant from its health insurer—double the previous year’s amount—to cover the costs of various new fitness initiatives.

Barbin contends that the twin forces of peer support and team competition do their work regardless of whether employees are fitness zealots or only casual exercisers. “I’m always chasing one of our senior vice presidents,” Barbin acknowledges. “He’s constantly hammering out 20,000-plus steps a day. I accuse him of strapping his Fitbit to his dog, but I know he’s always walking or pacing when he’s on a phone call. It’s motivating for me to see our internal leaderboards, and to get poked when you are falling behind.

“If the framework is there, and you see other folks participating and getting results,” Barbin adds, “then fitness becomes contagious.”

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