Workplace efforts count most in promoting wellness

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

Do you wear a fitness tracker? You know, one of those devices worn around your wrist or clipped on your clothing that counts your steps or calories burned? I wore a tracker religiously for two years. It became a bit of an obsession, in fact. Much to my husband’s amusement, on the days I didn’t reach my goal by bedtime, I’d run in place next to the bed just to see the number tick up from 9,500 to 10,000 steps.

Then one day last August, the strap on my tracker broke. I never put it back on. I meant to buy a replacement. But after a few short days, I made some interesting observations. Since I no longer cared whether or not my tracker-adorned arm could swing back and forth to register every single step, I found myself holding my husband’s hand again on our weekly hikes. I stopped pushing the grocery cart one-handed, which enabled me to exchange more smiles with fellow shoppers because I no longer had to look down to avoid running into people with my poor steering. I started enjoying my workouts more as I reconnected with how my body felt rather than focusing on the number on my device. I had one less thing to charge up at night. It felt like freedom.

It turns out, I’m not alone. The results of two recent studies have shown half of all fitness tracker users abandon their devices within six months.

According to the most comprehensive study to date, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who used fitness trackers halfway through a weight loss program actually lost significantly fewer pounds than those who didn’t use trackers at all.

How could this be? One reason might be the halo effect of such seemingly healthy choices as wearing a fitness tracker. People might believe that by merely wearing trackers, they’re working harder than they really are and unconsciously compensate by overeating or skipping more strenuous workouts. Another reason could be trackers aren’t nearly as effective at influencing long-term behavior as other less techy tools — namely your circle of family, friends and co-workers.

Research confirms fitness levels and weight gain or loss is essentially contagious in social circles. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, if your friend gains weight, you’re 57 percent more likely to gain weight yourself. The good news is, the reverse is true, too. If your friend adopts an exercise routine and improves his or her fitness level, you’re more likely to as well. In fact, behavioral contagion can occur even when a friend of a friend gets in shape.

This doesn’t mean you should abandon your couch potato friends. But it does mean spending a little more time with your fit friends — or those working toward that goal — is more likely than your fitness tracker to inspire you to exercise more and stay fit over the long term. It also implies you have a distinct opportunity to influence those around you for the better, especially in such close social settings as the workplace.

Think about it. If you work full time, you likely spend more time with co-workers than anyone else, including family and friends. If fitness is contagious, co-workers likely influence each other for better or worse every time they walk through the office doors. Business leaders in particular have an opportunity to be intentional about the type of influence they exert on their team’s health rather than leaving it up to chance.

You can start the ball rolling by making healthy choices  a priority for yourself. You can then speed up the process by promoting and recognizing others’ healthy behaviors and encouraging them to proactively lead walking or biking groups, schedule after work hikes and share their fitness journeys during company lunch-and-learn sessions. You can also establish a structured wellness program that serves as the foundation of a company culture that values health and well-being.

As people embrace the fitness tracker fad, it might be tempting to splurge on devices for everyone or buying online programs that integrate with trackers as a way to please employees and check the “yes, we have a wellness program” box.

The more difficult — but ultimately more effective  —path is the one in which you make healthy changes in your own life and build a holistic employee wellness program that leverages personal connections over technology, social support over step counting and supportive workplace cultures that encourage people to prioritize their health.