Big Brother is Watching You Exercise

Morgan O'Rourke


March 1, 2016

fitness trackers insurance

These days, it seems like everyone has a fitness tracker of some kind. Recently, even my wife, who has always been more of a casual exerciser than a workout fanatic, started wearing a Fitbit to give her a little more incentive to stay active. From what I can tell, it’s been an effective motivator. She’s always excited when the band vibrates in acknowledgment that she reached her daily step goal or when she wins the online competition with her Fitbit-wearing friends for walking the most steps that week. Sometimes this means dragging me around the block with her for a few extra laps before bedtime because evidently her fitness goals are my fitness goals, but I suppose there are worse ways to spend my time.

Organizations are also getting in on the trend, incorporating fitness trackers into their wellness initiatives. Some companies have even been able to lower their health insurance costs as a result. For example, cloud computing startup Appirio saw a 5% overall reduction in its insurance premium after employees signed up to wear Fitbits, while BP America offers its employees lower health insurance premiums and other incentives if they sign up for their Fitbit program. Independent of any corporate program, life insurer John Hancock offers its own discount of up to 15% to customers that use a Fitbit to track certain fitness milestones. Fitbit CEO James Park has even highlighted the potential for fitness trackers to provide better data to insurers in order to allow them to provide better group rates, calling this the “Holy Grail” of the tracker segment.

Using fitness trackers for wellness incentives makes a lot of sense, but some have begun to take it a step further. Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma recently revealed that, as part of its fitness course requirement, it now mandates that incoming students purchase a Fitbit to track their exercise habits. The big difference here is that it isn’t a voluntary incentive program, but rather an academic requirement. Students need to log 10,000 steps a day in order to reach their prescribed target, which accounts for 20% of their grade for the course.

This example raises some concerns for me. While Oral Roberts doesn’t seem to have sinister motives, the use of fitness trackers as a required monitoring tool rather than as part of a voluntary incentive program, could be a slippery slope if applied in corporate settings.

It is not hard to envision a Big Brother scenario in which a company, recognizing the financial benefits of healthy employees, requires its staff to wear fitness trackers and meet certain goals in order to keep their jobs. All of a sudden, activity out of the office becomes part of an employee’s performance evaluation. This could give rise to discrimination charges if employees do not meet company standards and Americans with Disabilities Act violations from those who may be unable to comply. Privacy and data security would become an even greater issue if a data breach exposes personal health information that is protected under HIPAA.

In addition, by tying job requirements to fitness tracking, companies would invite more fraud as people try to game the system. The internet is already full of advice on how to fool a fitness tracker. The tongue-in-cheek site Unfit Bits suggests attaching your tracker to pets, drills, bicycle tires, metronomes and pendulums to “help produce personal data to qualify you for insurance rewards even if you can’t afford a high exercise lifestyle.” If the stakes were any higher, fitness fraud could become its own cottage industry.

For now, though, the positives of fitness trackers outweigh the negatives. After all, any device that helps people achieve a healthier lifestyle can’t be all bad, no matter who is watching.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)

Related Articles

The Other 2017s

December 1, 2017

In Defense of Spelling

October 2, 2017

Winter Is Coming

September 1, 2017