Don't look now, but those devices clipped onto waistbands, wrapped around wrists or dropped in a pocket may be coming to a body part on you. Motion-tracking devices are all the rage for analytical geeks who want to measure everything from overall exercise movement -- including how many calories they burn and if their heart rate rose -- to diet and sleep patterns.
These wearable gadgets - seen outside or inside a gym or anywhere people are coming and going -- work in concert with smartphone apps and websites to help wearers set goals and then provide the motivation to achieve them.Canalys, a market research firm, predicts smart bands will become an even popular consumer technology, reaching 8 million shipments this year alone. And that's just getting started. Canalys estimates that this number will grow to more than 23 million units by 2015, and more than 45 million by 2017.
But, besides fitness enthusiasts who have adopted an increased awareness about personal well-being, who is counting? The medical industry, software firms and sports apparel companies, and employers who integrate wellness programs into their healthcare benefits are -- that's who.
ABI Research predicts at least 13 million wearable devices will be incorporated into employee wellness programs by 2018. That's compared to fewer than 200,000 smart bands - the likes of Fitbit, Nike+, FuelBand, Jawbone UP -- used in conjunction with wellness programs last year.
Activity-tracking devices will be challenged to keep pace with the increasing popularity of employee wellness programs, which are intended to improve and promote health and fitness that's usually offered through the work place; although insurance plans can offer them directly to their enrolled participants.
"Innovative approaches to wellness that engage employees in not only their own health, but the company bottom line makes good business sense," said Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Corporate Health and Wellness Association.
"Creating an atmosphere in which employees are encouraged to pursue active lifestyles and improve their fitness levels is a strong step toward increasing workplace productivity while reducing the negative effects of employee absenteeism as a direct result of poor health."
Stephano encouraged employers, insurance executives and health and fitness interests to attend the 7th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, Sept. 20-24, 2014, in Washington, D.C., which has convened educational tracts specifically geared toward corporate wellness as well as an interactive exhibit where participants can experience the latest fitness tools and engage themselves in health-focused activities.
Nearly 80 percent of organizations with more than 1,000 employees and 44 percent of the firms with 50-999 employees offer wellness programs, according to a 2012 survey by Automatic Data Processing. These programs - from smoking cessation and weight-loss to diabetes management and preventative health screenings -- allow employers or plans to offer consumers premium discounts, cash rewards, gym memberships and other incentives to participate.
A majority of mid-sized and large companies, according to the ADP survey, say wellness programs have not only enabled them to get a grip on expanding employee waistlines, but spiraling healthcare costs as well. AETNA CEO Mark Bertolini credits the insurance company's wellness program with a 7.5 reduction in annual healthcare costs and an average increase of 69 minutes of work per participating employee.
Company wellness programs for employees that include complementary medicine features like yoga can benefit company profit margins. But, these programs alone, despite provisions in President Barack Obama's healthcare reform legislation intended to broaden access to such incentives, won't get employees healthier, critics contend. There's also privacy issues and cost that have raised red flags.
Jury Still Out
What role will fitness trackers play? For now, the jury is still out. One report by Endeavor Partners found that one in 10 Americans own a fitness tracker, but more than half of those consumers stopped using them. Another provider of wellness programs, Keas, reported that 76 percent of employees polled did not use fitness trackers and didn't plan to in the future.
British Petroleum, the gas and oil giant, partnered with StayWell Health Management to offer employees the use of a Fitbit tracker to monitor their activities, improve health and, at the same time, earn "wellness points." BP sees the benefits when employees tethered to the exercise-tracking devices walk corporate campuses, earning discounts off their health insurance premiums.
Wearable devices are a major development for corporate wellness plans, according to James Park, Fitbit CEO. The company's products are already sold in about 30,000 stores across the United States and account for 67 percent of units sold among activity trackers last year, according to the NDP Group. At Buffer, the social media startup that values smarter - not harder -- work, Jawbone UP wristbands were issued to employees to help them chart sleep patterns, daily steps, nutrition, and a lot more.
If wearable devices are to remain a good fit with the health promotion community, corporate America must be able to prove that the activity measures are real. One such device linked to the top of a shoelace, called the FitLinxx Pebble, is supposedly smart enough to know if the wearer is genuinely active.
In the end, the success of smart bands may very well depend on the human machines they monitor. But, employee benefits specialists may be content enough if fitness trackers can at least keep those who wear them on their toes long after the novelty of wellness programs run their course.