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by Alex Palmer | March 26, 2015
Mike Tinney (pictured), CEO of Fitness Interactive eXperience, has applied his two decades of experience in the gaming world to developing exciting health and wellness apps for the workplace

- Photograph by Joseph Wong
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Dr. Keith Kantor, CEO of nutrition consultancy Service Foods, had an enviable problem: his workers were too healthy. The 100-or-so employees of the Norcross, GA-based company were a wellness-minded bunch to begin with, and the programs Kantor put in place -- "lunch and learn" sessions about eating healthy and Biggest Loser-style contests -- pulled in as much as 70 percent of the staff. Most employers would consider this a success, and Kantor figured he had hit the ceiling of wellness engagement among his workforce.

Then the zombies arrived.

Mike Tinney, CEO of Fitness Interactive eXperience (FIX), a gaming and fitness company, approached Kantor about beta testing a new program developed by his company. It took a typical pedometer challenge, gave it a team-based, social media-oriented twist, and added in a pack of hungry zombies to gamify the whole thing, letting it unfold in "chapters" that made participants more likely to check back in -- and exercise more.

The program, called "A Step Ahead: Zombies," lasted five weeks, allowing workers to sync into the game using the wearable fitness device of their choice -- Fitbit, Garmin Vivofit, or a number of others. It seemed like a fun idea, so Kantor gave it a shot, expecting the usual 70-percent-or-so level of participation. But for the first time, he saw interest jump even higher.

"It increased engagement by 25 percent," says Kantor. "I thought I was doing pretty well, getting 70-odd percent engagement, but it turns out even more people are interested in running away from a zombie than listening to a dietician explain the dangers of celiac disease."

Fear of becoming a zombie by slacking on their steps -- and the razzing they would get from their teammates -- proved to be a powerful motivator for workers (not to mention the $250 in gift cards and merchandise the company awards monthly to the healthiest performers). While Service Foods had been enjoying a 4:1 return on its investment, the introduction of "A Step Ahead" jumped this to 6:1 for value redeemed on every dollar spent, Kantor says. This January, the company earned second place at Atlanta's Healthiest Employers awards.

The success of this program points to the ongoing innovations happening in the workplace wellness arena, particularly the incorporation of wearable devices and the apps associated with them. But it also shows how, as these programs and technology evolve, they are attracting participants who may have previously kept their distance from the company's health program. Whether it's the allure of a cool new Fitbit device or fear of a zombie, wellness technology is making exercise more attractive than ever.


Meeting People Where They're At
Consumer interest in wearable fitness trackers continues to climb. According to the digital agency Acquity Group, 22 percent of consumers currently own or expect to purchase an activity monitor, and this is poised to double by 2019. A recent report from Cornerstone OnDemand paints an even rosier picture. Its survey of 2,000 workers found that eight out of 10 full-time employees say they would be motivated to use company-provided wearable wellness devices, while 72 percent expect that wearable tech will eventually become a standard workplace offering.

Helping drive this demand is that the last year has seen a number of new activity monitors coming on the market or enhancements to existing ones. Since late last year, new versions of Fitbit, Jawbone, Basis Peak, and other trackers were released, offering integration with newly enhanced mobile apps. In January, the PPAI Expo and Consumer Electronics Show were both abuzz with talk of new wearable models and capabilities.

And of course, this April, Apple Watch will be appearing on wrists everywhere, promising wearers a complete view of their physical activity throughout each day. It will follow day-to-day activity as well as offer a separate workout app for more strenuous cardio routines.

"There's this explosion of not only fitness devices but fitness apps," says Jennifer Patel, Hallmark Business Connection's (HBC) wellness engagement segment director. "It's eliminated some of the barriers for customers who don't have a lot to invest in the beginning -- there's a lot more choice, a lot more features and functionality, and the price point has come down."

This has made it easier to get workers on board with a corporate wellness program, since many own a device already, or can find a device that works for them among the growing options available. But for incentive companies like HBC, it has also meant moving quickly to integrate these expanding options. The company's Wellness Connection platform currently integrates data from two activity-monitor vendors, Fitbit and FitLinxx. By the second half of 2015, this will have increased to 13 vendors, allowing managers to incorporate data from 130 different devices into their wellness programs.

Patel emphasizes that companies are likely to enjoy more success by figuring out what their workers are already using and designing a program that can accommodate them -- rather than a more top-down approach.

"We've tried it with really basic pedometers -- you could call them toss-away devices. But if people already have Fitbit and FuelBand, now you are asking them to wear a company-branded piece that may not be as accurate, and it takes the fizz out of the program," she says. "When it comes to wellness engagement, it's about meeting people where they're at."

That has also been the goal of the CaféWell Health Optimization Platform, which offers "agnostic integration."

"It is designed to support everything from an old-school pedometer to a Fitbit or Jawbone," explains Michael Dermer, wellness program expert and chief incentive officer for Welltok, the technology company that developed CaféWell.