Canadians have never been unhealthier. The incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, to name a few, continue to rise. Statistics Canada found that, in the 10-year period from 1999 to 2009, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes among Canadians increased by 70%, which was largely attributable to expanding waistlines.

But there is a silver lining. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says 50% of the factors that determine our health are controllable behaviours. And the World Health Organization has stated that 80% of diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, as well as 40% of cancers, could be averted with lifestyle changes.

Ironically, the problem with this whole picture is that we’ve gotten better at treating these diseases—particularly with prescription medications. And who pays the lion’s share of prescription medications? Employers. The bottom line is that we’ve become lazy. We’re all looking for a quick fix. Your doctor recommends that you change your diet and exercise, and you ask if there’s a pill you can take instead; it’s less work, and your employer is going to pick up all or most of the prescription cost anyway. Improved prescription drugs have, in some instances, become enablers for continued poor lifestyle behaviours.

So what’s the solution? The first step is simply to get your employees moving again. Think of Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. Statistics Canada data show that about half of the population spends less than 30 minutes per day engaging in moderate physical activity during leisure time.

How you get your employees moving is where wearable fitness tracking devices come into play. If you’re not familiar with wearables, they’re electronic devices that you put on your wrist or clip to an article of clothing. There are dozens of these devices on the market, but the most popular are made by Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone. These gadgets are more than just a pedometer—they track sleep patterns, heart rates and calories burned while exercising. Some devices can even remind you to get out of your chair at programmed intervals of inactivity. And all of this data can be uploaded to a website and monitored on your mobile phone.

It was the electronic age and the advent of television and the remote control that created the couch potato and arguably contributed to more sedentary lifestyles, so maybe electronic devices will get us out of this mess.

Wearable devices give users that feeling of instant gratification and reward—similar to the feeling you get from your mobile phone and first recognized by B.F. Skinner’s renowned reward experiments with lab rats in the 1950s. While I’m not advocating addiction, if you’re going to get your employees hooked on something it might as well be their health.

I’ve witnessed the impact of wearable devices first hand. Two years ago, our company gave all of its employees Fitbit wearable devices and began running periodic fitness challenges. Now I don’t consider myself to be a competitive person but during a challenge I want to win and there is a noticeable change in my behaviour. In an effort to get more points, I’ll walk to the store or to a client meeting when I might otherwise drive. Even my dog is happier getting walked more in my effort to get more steps. And, when I’m moving more, my energy levels are generally higher, I sleep better, and that bag of potato chips becomes less attractive.

But don’t just take my word for it. Many organizations are integrating wearable devices into their wellness initiatives. BP Canada is a prime example of the power of wearable devices and related fitness challenges. Ninety percent of BP Canada employees participating in its wellness program use wearable devices, which uploads information to an online tracking system and awards them with points and financial incentives. While BP is in the process of measuring more quantifiable health-related results, employees are beginning to look healthier and fit, voluntary attrition is down significantly, and there has been a noticeable improvement in morale.

Many health and wellness tracking sites, such as Virgin Pulse and Welbe.com, allow employers to analyze aggregate data uploaded from employees’ wearable devices. To keep your employees motivated and moving, you can set up fitness and healthy eating challenges that offer employees rewards such as Starbucks or iTunes gift cards at a nominal cost to employers.

Just last month, Apple may have positioned itself to become the ultimate healthcare disruptor with the unveiling of its new Apple Watch. It remains to be seen how Apple may change the face of healthcare once it starts to amass aggregate health and fitness data from millions of users. However, with Apple entering the game, it looks like wearable devices are no passing fad.

The challenge for employers is to keep the momentum going. It’s easy to convince employees to get on the wearable bandwagon, but it’s harder to keep them there. While healthy competition and financial rewards will help keep employees motivated, the definitive driver may be the improvements your employees start seeing in their own health.

Kenneth MacDonald is a senior consultant with Morneau Shepell in Calgary. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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