Digital Health Trends: Is 2015's Biggest Loser Wellness?

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Wearables, hot. Pedometers? So yesterday. Google Glass, augmented reality and retail beacons are real things, not just wild ideas. But are these gee-whiz technologies actually helping your fitness business attract and retain clients and change lives for the better?

Before you spend another penny outfitting clients with the “WellTrakR Doohickey 2020 (TM),” it’s worth asking what customers and clients will get out of it. Is it just a gadget, or genuinely helpful? Is it useful for everyone, or just a few? How can you tell it’s not going to be the next Pet Rock?

Sometimes, wellness professionals grab the latest cool tools without considering whether these tools will actually help clients and members more successfully reach their wellness goals. Perhaps they’ve got “bright shiny object” syndrome, or hope the newest gadget will help them stand out in the crowd.

Either way, the mindless use of digital health technology undermines the real goal: helping clients and members enjoy all the things that lasting good health makes possible.

Ask yourself these questions before incorporating consumer health and fitness technology into your programs and services:

1. Does it do a job that needs doing?

Before the 1980s, nobody outside of hospitals had even heard of heart rate monitors. Yet athletes realized that optimizing their performance with intensity training required an accurate measure of cardiac exertion. Not long after, demand grew among athletically inclined amateurs. If performance hadn’t mattered, Garmin and Polar would probably not exist as brands.

The reason these mature brands have endured is that they do a necessary job remarkably well. In fact, they’ve spawned an entire sector within the fitness industry dedicated to heart-rate based training.

2. Is the information actionable?

Fitbit and Nike’s Fuelband track sleep quantity and quality, but changing sleep habits is up to your client. For some, simple awareness is all it takes, but for many, worrying about how well they’re sleeping is a problem they don’t know how to fix. If you’re not ready to advise them, what’s the point of capturing the data? Technology that tells you something you can’t act on isn’t much help.

On the other hand, if your corporate wellness client owns a fleet of delivery trucks and the data from employee Fitbits flags possible sleep issues among drivers, that’s genuinely useful — and usable — information. Biometric and HRA that helps measure success of a particular employee wellness internvention is equally useful.

3. Is it more effective than the “old way”?

We talked to a serious cyclist once who doesn’t obsess about cadence and watts. When we asked why, he said he’s ridden so long that he knows what the right cadence feels like.  He’s configured the display on his bike computer so that mileage is always displayed. All that extra power meter tech? Wasted on this guy.

And people often report than keeping a manual food log, rather than tracking food on a website, helps them think more mindfully and intentionally about what they’re eating and why.

Bottom line: if not, it’s not better than the old way, best case it’s a toy, worst case it’s an annoying distraction that makes healthy living a negative experience.

If you’re already doing a good job of collecting and using key data from your members and clients, view tools and technologies that promise to make it easier with skepticism. Overpromising and underdelivering is a very common problem in the technology world.

4. Does it require less thinking?

I’ve experimented with running apps on my phone. But my Garmin watch just has two buttons: Start and Lap. That’s much simpler than fishing out my phone, and messing with menus and settings in a running app. I’m not really interested in using software to compare runs with other people. We post our runs on Facebook (which Garmin supports). It’s simpler.

Similarly, unless  your client’s wellness manager is going crazy trying to track everything in a spreadsheet, think twice before you invest in reporting tools with a steep training curve.

5. Does it lead to deeper engagement, or do people “grow out of it”?

Ah, gamification. Make healthy living a game and people will keep at it, right? They go online or use a mobile app to enter points, win badges, update food and exercise diaries and so forth. But eventually the competition or challenge ends. Did the gamification technology really change their lives for the better? Not unless it sparked self-efficacy and facilitated internal motivation.

6. Is a general-purpose or special-purpose tool more appropriate?

In #2 above, we talked about sleep quality. The information you get from fitness trackers about sleep is, frankly, pretty lightweight from most devices. If you’re seriously interested in sleep quality, specialty apps and trackers do a better job and provide more information. For folks with fairly minor concerns about sleep, the Basis tracker is pretty useful. For folks with a deeper interest, the specialty tools are more useful.

7. Does it solve a problem that doesn’t exist?

I saw an ad recently for types of “smart goggles” for swimmers: first, these for scuba divers, then these for competitive swimmers.

No doubt using an online encyclopedia to identify fish underwater seemed like a good idea at the time. But most divers study the water they’re going to swim in; they would never rely on Wikipedia to identify a poisonous or aggressive species! On the other hand, the smart swimmer’s goggles display one thing: speed, and that’s something that competitive swimmers need to know. And it doesn’t require GPS, which means it works in indoor natatoriums.

The difference between these two types of technologies is that one has a lot of features that virtually no one would use, while the other does just a few things, extremely well.

8. Does it create a new need or change the way we do things?

Sometimes, we’re not aware that a need even exists.

Take the ICEDot for instance. It doesn’t do much, EXCEPT when you’re in a bike crash. Then it calls your emergency numbers, notifies folks you’ve had a wipe-out, and gives them your location. Up until now, locator beacons were kind of an exotic thing skiers and pilots relied on. But at the right price, with mobile connectivity, bike locators are something a lot of people suddenly feel they need.

Beacons? All the buzz lately in consumer businesses. Walk into a running shoe store that uses beacons, and a special offer or shoe selection tool will pop up on your phone. The offer can even be targeted based on what you’ve bought before, where, and when.  The issues? Apps and sites that already know too much about us; this among an audience often already suspicious of mobile marketing and invasive apps.

A paradigm-changer? Maybe. But if it doesn’t do anything besides make it easier to advertise directly, my guess is not.

9. Does it provide a breakthrough level of insight or information?

As fitness and wellness business owners and managers, we must constantly ask ourselves these questions about new wellness technologies:

  • Do they enable healthy behavior?
  • Do they encourage healthy behavior?
  • Do they measure healthy behavior in the simplest, most accurate way possible?
  • Are they easier and more rewarding than the alternative?
  • Most of all, do they tell us something we don’t already know?

If the technology your business chooses doesn’t do these things, you’d be better off buying a pinball machine. At least that would for sure increase engagement!

10. Does it replace valuable human interaction with less effective technology?

For clients working with a nutritionist, is it helpful to fill out food logs online? Sure, especially since online tools can quickly summarize data and highlight trends and out-of-range values.

Yet actual live conversation with the nutritionist–either in person or by phone–is usually much more effective at troubleshooting a particular issue that’s tripping up the client. Gathering the data online isn’t the solution–it just enables the real solution, which is collaborative and creative problem-solving between the client and her nutritionist.

It’s easy to get caught up in a technology tornado, overwhelmed as one vendor fights to distinguish itself from another with new features.

But that has more to do with selling wellness tech than it does with actually helping wellness businesses succeed by enabling their members and clients to live well and enjoy healthy lives.

Keep these guidelines handy to remind you why you’re here, what your clients and members actually need, and to test whether the technology you’re considering will truly make a difference.