Why Wearables and Workplace Wellness Haven’t Worked

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this guest post by Vik Khanna.

Do you have a big brother? I don’t, and I don’t want one. And, I’m not talking about a sibling. I am talking about an organization, such as the government or a corporation, that, under the guise of knowing what’s best for me, wants to constantly observe my behavior.

Observation is just the beginning; observed behaviors that do not meet some vague, fickle standard will, of course, require re-education, manipulation … correction … or, at worst, coercion. If this all sounds quite Orwellian … well, of course, it is.

Don’t look now, but that time is right around the corner. As some readers of this post may know, over the past several years, I have spent a lot of time taking down the workplace wellness industry, which rivals the conventional fitness industry for the title of the largest confederacy of dunces in the American economy.

Unfortunately, like many dying entities that just don’t know when to throw in the towel, workplace wellness aficionados are turning their attention away from the workplace. Because their schemes proved to be an abject failure there, they want to intrude into your personal space for the purpose of making you healthy.

Just recently, a workplace wellness advocate emailed me, writing that the time had come for employers to shift their focus from fat shaming overweight employees in the workplace to doing it more subtly at home. His vision includes a wearable for the employee and at-home counseling; in his words, this will enable in-private “human and technological facilitation” of behavior change. Certainly this would not be fat shaming; it would just be helping to “move people through the stages of change” so that they could stop being overweight or obese. Is there anyone else who is sick to death of hearing about Prochaska and DiClemente’s stages of change?

Here’s the only stage of change that matters: the moment you realize a behavior that’s consuming you from the inside out has nearly broken you, and you’ve got to try to fix it. That’s an epiphany, and I bet it is the cause of many a CrossFit client walking into a box with an “I’m fed up…with myself” look on his or her face. Everything else is just noise.

So, in this man’s vision, the employer as the provider of health insurance benefits (an historical fluke and deep flaw of our approach to health insurance that the Affordable Care Act did not remedy) becomes not just a medical care payer, but also your hall monitor. Whatcha got in the fridge, Midge? Got some soda in there? How about potatoes? Eggs? Doncha know eggs are bad for ya? They have cholesterol, ya know. Don’t eat too much meat. Meat’s bad for you, too. It’s got kidney-killing protein. You can trust me … I am a health advisor sent by your boss, and I’m here to help.

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Sure you use a standing desk, but why aren’t you using a treadmill desk? Source

Never mind that new research from Pitt shows that wearables don’t produce weight loss in greater magnitude than traditional approaches, such as the tried and true “eat less, move more.” Or, that what matters most for reducing the risk of premature mortality is not simply moving, as UnitedHealth and its vendors want you to believe, but actually building fitness.

A small study published just last week in JAMA Cardiology shows that wrist-strap heart rate monitors work worse when you are exercising than when you are at rest. Even more on point is a new study–widely ignored in the media–in which Singaporean and Duke researchers did something no American wellness vendor has ever done … a randomized controlled trial. Using wearable baubles and the lure of both cash incentives and charitable donations, they proved that this rubbish amounts to exactly nothing.

While the cash and charitable donations briefly stemmed the tide against a reduction in “physical activity,” they did absolutely nothing to improve health. That’s because if you are worried about “physical activity,” such as the government’s get-your-10,000 steps-daily nonsense, you really aren’t serious about fitness or health. Like a little kid craving a participation trophy, you’re willing to accept a trinket as a proxy for actual results. That’s how you get to employers thinking about inserting themselves into your health life.

The employers who will want to insert themselves into your home will mostly know little about health. Instead, they’ll rely on quasi-scientific dreck like this analysis from Springbuk and United, which purports to show that people using wearables cost less money than those who don’t. Can you say “selection bias”? Participants will ALWAYS outperform non-participants in these kinds of analyses, because: a) participants are motivated, and b) people who least need this kind of “help” (such as me and a lot of others reading this piece) know easy money when we see it.

We don’t even need to get into regression to the mean, the natural flow of people from one risk category to another, or the fact that virtually all of the chronic diseases this strategy supposedly prevents won’t happen for decades. The methodological wizards behind this “study” tracked people for a year; you need to track people for years, decades even, to prove the value of this kind of strategy.

Big brother doesn’t care about facts because big brother is selling a narrative … that the feel-good word “wellness” actually has meaning. Unfortunately, the majority’s embrace of an idea makes it neither a truth nor a fact. Remember that we are less than 200 years removed from the narrative that women and people of color were not fully human and endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator. Those narratives held sway until people who valued the dignity of the individual pursued fundamental truths that unraveled the narratives.

No matter whether it’s Big Brother Sugar, Big Brother Government, or Big Brother Corporation, controlling the narrative is the essential prelude to controlling behavior. When you control behavior, you can control not only the means of production, as Marx theorized, but also the means of consumption. The government has openly and fecklessly lied to Americans about nutrition and exercise for over 30 years. This has made us both the fattest and laziest society in the history of Western civilization and a population locked in an inexorable death spiral with a greedy and entitled healthcare industry that, itself, grows more gluttonous by the day.

What workplace wellness advocates want more than anything else is to turn the American workforce in a bunch of dependent saps who think their employer is the source of all that is good and necessary. Google-style opulent corporate campuses, with every creature comfort imaginable, are just another step in the direction of corporate control of what people think, believe, and rely upon. In the early 20th century in the U.S., and now in China, employers became all things to their employees, supplying not just work but places to live; with economic evolution came worker displacement and degradation, because workers trained to depend on their employers for everything lacked both transportable skills and resiliency.

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Lloyd’s of London’s office. Source.

To paraphrase the late President Gerald R. Ford, when Big Brother is big enough to give you everything you need, he’ll also be big enough to take away everything you have. And, because most people will not want to forsake the things that give them comfort and a patina of security, they’ll comply. At that moment, personal freedom and dignity are lost. The canard promoted by workplace wellness vendors is that information from wearables contributes to the big data that will motivate people and help them make better choices. Big data is a first-place sham. It is the aggregation of massive amounts of information, for no particular useful end. The best choice might be to work for people who respect you for the job you do and otherwise leave you alone.

One of the most important benefits of the rise of CrossFit is its stand as a renegade outfit in an industry of nitwit lemmings, a place where people can choose freely from multiple training options that are intentionally designed to help the individual create personal vitality for themselves that is sustainable, compelling and transportable according to their needs and goals. Name a circumstance in life in which being stronger and more alert is not beneficial.

No two workouts need to be the same because no two people are the same. There is no perfect way to train, there is no perfect way to eat. There are broad, general frameworks that provide functional and theoretical parameters for each endeavor, but, in reality, there are millions of different ways to eat and train that can all deliver beneficial results. The only perfect ways to train and eat are the ones that give you satisfaction and take you where you want to go.

So, when a client shows up in your box with his or her employer’s fitness tracker, take it and clip it to the handle of a kettlebell for a few hours. Let ‘em chew on that big data.

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Vik Khanna is a healthcare entrepreneur, writer and exercise coach in St. Louis, MO. He has an undergraduate degree in exercise science and physical education, is a physician assistant with experience in internal medicine and rehabilitation, and he holds a Master’s degree from The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. A lifelong advocate for strength training, he hopes to soon test for his black belt at the Missouri Karate Association in Chesterfield, MO, where he is the conditioning coach and has created the dojo’s first ever kettlebell-centered conditioning program.

4 comments

  1. As a physician with over 40 years of helping people improve their health, I have never been much of a fan of using technology in this process much beyond say a motorized treadmill. Recently a friend showed me that I already had an app on my iPhone that tracks my steps per day and I quickly deleted it. I only like to look at information if it’s useful. I ask patients about what, when and how much they eat and whether or not they do aerobic and strength training on a regular basis. I never ask them how many steps they take in a day.

    By the way, current research suggests that calories consumed and the amount of aerobic exercise you do have little impact on your level of fatness (obesity) but the solution to that problem is beyond the scope of this post.

    When it comes to technology and health I always look to my good friend and Cardiologist Michael Arsenian for guidance. We both happen to work together in Gloucester, MA. He is a typical New Englander and never has much to say but when he does talk you better listen. Years ago I noticed that Mike doesn’t have a smart phone but instead prefers a flip phone. When I asked him why he doesn’t use a smart phone he answered “I would probably drop it in the toilet”. I know the real reason—he views a phone for making phone calls and nothing more. I would catch him dead before I caught him staring at a smart phone while he was with a patients yet for many younger physicians this is common practice.

    A few weeks ago I noticed that Mike was wearing something odd on his wrist. I know that he runs 4 miles at least 5 times a week and he is also a commercial lobsterman who pulls traps by hand every day in the icy waters off the coast of Massachusetts so I know he gets plenty of exercise. I boldly asked him “Mike, is that a Fitbit on your wrist?” He sheepishly answered in the affirmative. I asked him how he liked using it. He stated that he really didn’t know how it worked. I then asked him if it was a gift from his wife and he answered “Yes.” I suspect that he isn’t the only one who is wearing expensive plastic jewelry.

  2. Pingback: Fitness trackers belong in the ‘junk drawer’: CrossFit CEO – Power Supply Kettlebell Training

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