When insurance firms launched social media initiatives, the results were rewarding.
By Katherine Yung
Detroit Free Press
Mary Haefner never thought she would lose 15 pounds because she started wearing a pedometer.
But a little more than two months after the bank teller started using the device, weight loss hasn't been the only benefit. The Utica resident also sleeps and feels better.
"This is the inspiration for me to make my older years healthier," said the 55-year-old Huntington National Bank employee, who has walked more than a million steps, or 500 miles, since mid- August.
For a growing number of workers, the most transformational workplace gadget isn't the iPhone 5 or a mini tablet computer. It's something much more basic: a pedometer.
Eager to cut health care costs and improve productivity, large employers such as Huntington, Domino's Pizza and General Electric are embracing the devices for their work force, holding contests to see who can walk the most steps and offering rewards, such as T- shirts, cash and reduced health insurance premiums.
"It's become part of the fabric of our culture," said Patti Wilmot, Domino's executive vice president of PeopleFirst. "This is a fun thing to do. It creates a lot of camaraderie and a lot of teamwork."
Last year, the Ann Arbor-based pizza chain started offering pedometers to its 3,000 employees who are eligible for benefits. Today, nearly half of them are using the fitness trackers. Every step they take can help them earn up to $325 from the company.
Jennifer Balliett, Domino's benefits manager, said that 40% of inactive and low-active employees who started wearing pedometers have reached what is considered to be an active or highly-active fitness level.
"Healthy employees are happier, more productive employees," said Andrew Gutman, chief financial officer at the Farbman Group, a real estate services firm that is in the process of buying $25 pedometers for each of its 200 employees.
Domino's and Huntington offer employee pedometer programs created by Virgin HealthMiles, a Massachusetts-based provider of workplace wellness programs. Its pedometer programs are used by 150 large companies and organizations, including a half-dozen in Michigan.
The Virgin HealthMiles pedometer program sets high goals for participants, challenging them to reach 7,000 steps a day, the equivalent of 3.5 miles. It takes 2,000 steps to reach a mile.
"It's a core part of overall healthy behavior change," said Tom Abshire, Virgin HealthMiles' senior vice president of marketing. "Every day I know what my goal is."
For employers, the main drawback for pedometers is their cost. Though these devices can be found at nearly every price level, reliable and accurate ones that allow users to upload their walking activity to their computers usually cost about $25. Virgin HealthMiles created its own $26 pedometer.
Using a cheap pedometer can create problems. Health Alliance Plan, the Detroit-based health insurer, had been providing free pedometers to employers as part of its work site wellness programs. But it received many complaints about the $4 devices and is switching to smartphone applications that track people's walking activity because it cannot afford to purchase more expensive pedometers.
Terri Kachadurian, HAP's director of work site wellness and member engagement, said employers are interested in walking programs, and pedometers can be useful.
"The pedometer has been shown to help people increase the amount of physical activity they do" because it provides feedback, she said.
That's the case with Rick Van Dresser, a government banking relationship manager at Huntington. Wearing a pedometer motivated the lymphoma survivor to take 2-mile walks, five or six times a week with Parker, his yellow Labrador. Before the pedometer, these outings occurred one to three times a week.
Van Dresser, 55, now averages 12,000 steps a day. The walking has paid off, resulting in a few lost pounds, a better mood and improved performances on the racquetball court.
"Walking and exercise just makes you feel better," he said. "I enjoy life more."