The Rising Popularity of Electronic Leashes

First it was employers. Now universities are joining the trend. Folks who want to enforce physical activity goals are increasingly looking to Fitbit and other activity trackers to serve as electronic leashes. Oral Roberts University now requires all freshmen to wear a Fitbit to prove they are meeting the school’s requirements for 10,000 daily steps and 150 active minutes per week. The university reports that it has already racked up sales of more than $80,000 for Fitbit.

Lest you worry, the university says is is not using the trackers to enforce the school’s strict sexual conduct code. Not yet.

Increasingly, employers are using these electronic leashes in their wellness programs to dole out rewards and penalties. Take enough steps and you get $50 in your paycheck that sloths don’t get. It’s not a penalty. It’s an incentive.

People with a physical disability can work out alternative arrangements in most cases.

Spoilsports are complaining that the goals required by such programs are both arbitrary and not measured by these consumer devices with sufficient accuracy. Says Ray Browning of Colorado State University:

There are some pretty significant limitations. Cycling, not great. Elliptical training, not great. Yoga, terrible.

And the folks who make these devices are quick to say that they are not genuine medical devices with any degree of guaranteed accuracy. Fitbit says “our trackers are some of the most accurate wireless tracking devices.” Not sure what that really means.

Others raise the concern that such programs marginalize people with physical limitations.

In the end, Fitbits aren’t bad for motivating people to be aware of their activity levels. But there’s no real data to show good long-term effects on outcomes for physical activity, let alone health measures.

We’re fans of encouragement more than coercion.

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Leash, photograph © Dominic Bartolini / flickr

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February 7, 2016