Why wearables are no gimmick in the quest for wellness
11 Apr 2018 - Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
It is well understood that increased physical activity levels are linked with a reduced risk of certain illnesses, leading to improved healthy life expectancy. Wearable devices have also been championed as a way to not only help people track physical activity, but with the right incentives, increase overall activity levels in the short term.
The question many sceptics have been asking is whether wearables are just a gimmick or have a meaningful impact on physical activity levels which can be sustained over the longer term. However, new research published in PLOS Medicine shows that it is possible to effectively combine wearables with various interventions to drive a sustained increase in physical activity levels, not just over a few months, but over 3 or 4 years.
The story of wearables and insurance so far
Within the Life and Health insurance sectors we have seen a number of providers experiment with emerging wearable technology. Some offer discounts on new devices to customers who opt to track and share their data. Others have created whole wellness programmes designed to incentivise gradual improvements in activity. The more successful have used a combination of short term goals combined with regular, tangible rewards to motivate changes or nudges in behaviour.
Designing effective interventions
New research, based on a 12-week pedometer-based walking intervention programme for adults recruited through primary care, and delivered either by post with minimal support or through nurse-supported consultations, highlights some of the key ingredients for success.
Key features common in each variation of the trials were:
- Provision of a pedometer
- Step-count diary to regularly track progress
- Personalised activity goals which gradually increase over the 12 week programme
- Early follow-up on progress while participants are still motivated
- Focus on intensity of activity, not just step count. Using simple messages such as “3,000-steps-in 30-minutes” were considered an effective way of reinforcing the need to focus not just on steps in order to drive tangible health benefits.
Variants of the trials used either postal communications in isolation, or included a number of nurse consultations in addition to these. Surprisingly, the use of nurse consultations only had a modest improvement in engagement levels, and suggests that shorter, simpler interventions can be equally effective, particularly taking into account the higher cost of rolling out nurse consultations.
Health benefits are sustainable
Perhaps the most interesting outcome from these trials are the fact the improvements in activity seem to be sustained long after the initial 12-week trials finished, suggesting that lasting new habits had been formed during the initial trial. Compared to control groups, the programme participants showed significant increases in moderate to vigorous physical activity levels at 3 or 4 years, approximately an extra 30 minutes weekly. It also highlighted a significant increase in step counts of approximately 650 steps/day compared with the control groups.
But what does this all mean in terms of health benefits? The research estimates that these improvements in moderate to vigorous physical activity should reduce coronary heart disease risk by approximately 4%, while the increase in daily steps should lead to a decrease in all-cause mortality of approximately 4%.
This improvement to health life expectancy is not only great for individuals, but highlights the benefits of wearables for insurers, who can expect to see this translate into lower claim costs. For employers too, wearables can also be a useful tool in encouraging a healthier workforce, which can lead to improved productivity.
What does the future hold for wearables and wellness programmes?
Given the potential benefits of wearables, we can expect more insurers and employers to roll out wellness programmes that utilise them in the future. From the emerging body of research on wearables though, it suggests the more successful use cases of wearables will be through those wellness programmes that have the following features:
- Personalised targets, that are relevant and achievable
- Regular short-term targets to incentivise activity, establish new habits and measure progress
- Focus on quality not just quantity of physical activity
Medical Intelligence Newsflash, April 2018
Harris T et al (2018) Physical activity levels in adults and older adults 3±4 years after pedometer-based walking interventions: Long-term follow-up of participants from two randomised controlled trials in UK primary care PLoS Med 15 (3): e1002526.