Wearable activity trackers have the potential to move the needle on health behavior change and personalized counseling, but misalignment of market penetration and societal need can disenfranchise those who may otherwise see the largest benefit in use.
Misalignment between the focus of the wearable activity tracker market and the needs of society leads to missed opportunities in addressing a large burden of chronic disease, as well as other health risks associated with extended periods of inactivity and sedentary lifestyles.
The paradox of wearable activity trackers is that the people most likely to buy the products may be the ones with the least medical need and lowest medical risk, while the people with the highest need and greatest risk may tend not to be customers. The vendors are highly attuned and aggressive marketers, so why this misalignment between buying behavior and need?
Vendors tend to market to younger, more active populations who may see marginal benefits from being able to track their fitness with greater precision and move themselves from fit to fitter.
A Better Target
However, from a societal and public health perspective, vendors should also be targeting population groups whose sedentary lifestyles, body mass, or chronic conditions place them at elevated risk of a number of circulatory and metabolic illnesses with very high healthcare costs and long-term morbidity and mortality burdens.
These populations include the elderly and less-active individuals who may be managing chronic illness, as well as those at risk for developing type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions related to obesity. While these individuals could potentially benefit the most from consistent use of wearable activity trackers, they may be the least likely to purchase one.
For example, take the legendary “couch potato,” who tends to be overweight, sedentary, and unfit, but isn’t going to buy a tracker in a hurry. They may not see the advertisements by wearable vendors, and if they do see an ad, it may not resonate. To them, the message is clearly for “other people,” whose level of fitness and lifestyles may seem far outside the realm of possibility or desire.
Those at risk due to lifestyles in which sitting stationary for extended periods of time would benefit from nudges to move and the ability to track movement. A nudge to move every hour may reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), pressure ulcers, and stroke, especially in the elderly. However, the elderly may not buy the tracker because it’s expensive, complicated, and isn’t marketed to them.
Aside from the opportunity for tracker developers and manufacturers to refocus their marketing efforts, another way to reach these individuals could be through the clinical setting.
For example, physicians could prescribe trackers as part of a comprehensive care plan, work with their patients to develop goals for movement, diet, and sleep, and then provide tailored nudges on activity, all while helping foster behavior change. Using physicians as a conduit to reaching vulnerable groups helps reduce the need to rely on simple market forces to align need and supply.
Now, if only wearable activity trackers could be funded by health insurance or handed out by providers to the patients who will benefit most.