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Mash Up of Tech, Games and Rewards Turns Workplace Fitness Into Fun

Giving staffers fitness trackers (or getting them to use fitness tracking apps) is a great idea, as are the health-oriented prizes. But if a staffer is not the office top performer, or within competing distance of the top, would they be encouraged or discouraged to participate?
10/28/2015 04:52pm ET | Updated October 28, 2016
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Being fit and healthy does more that just boost someone's looks. Recent studies have shown that even moderate physical activity offers big benefits, including better immunity, healthier body weight, improved sleep and even a sharper mind.

In the workplace, this can really pay off -- for employees and employer alike. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Health Management Center, increasing physical activity lowered individual employees' annual health care costs by as much as 15 percent.

So what's it going to take to get employees moving? A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 36 percent of firms with more than 200 workers, and 18 percent of firms over all, use financial incentives to prompt health objectives like weight loss and smoking cessation.

In 2014, Delos Living initiated a fitness incentives program for their staff. Champions of the WELL Building Standard and Wellness Real Estate, Delos gave Fitbits to all employees and awarded prizes -- coupons to local healthy food shops, sporting good stores and fitness clubs -- to the top steppers at the end of each month.

Giving staffers fitness trackers (or getting them to use fitness tracking apps) is a great idea, as are the health-oriented prizes. But if a staffer is not the office top performer, or within competing distance of the top, would they be encouraged or discouraged to participate?

With fitness among the core features of their WELL Building Standard, Delos was on the look out for innovative strategies to encourage and measurably improve daily physical activity. So they teamed up with a new company, PIPs Rewards. PIPs' digital engagement platform also uses data intelligence, gathered via tracking apps and devices, and incentives like points and prizes. But in addition it applies principles of behavioral psychology to turn increased positive impact choices into fun, social and rewarding games or game-like experiences.

Studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains, so PIPs made "loss aversion" a central element of the Fitness Challenge they created for Delos. At the beginning of each week, players received an equal number of PIPs (a virtual currency which stands for "Positive Impact Points" and has an extrinsic value of about a penny a PIP) . But they risked losing their PIPs if they did not maintain certain weekly step minimums, including an improvement minimum.

Lost PIPs go into a pool for which the teams would then compete. The winning team divvies up the pool. Bonus/surprise PIPs were also awarded at intervals throughout the game for top performers, including for most improved, which meant others besides the most active might earn them too.

The results of the first PIPs Fitness Challenge are in and look very strong: Daily physical activity improved almost 10 percent among all participants; 33 percent among the least active quartile. Also survey responses back up the PIPs approach: combining smart tech, rewards and game features is not only innovative but effective at encouraging improved fitness activity.

A majority of players found being part of a team motivating -- they didn't want to let their team down. They were motivated by the minimums as well and liked that they could earn bonus PIPs for improving not just for being the best. Players also liked that PIPs could only be used in positive ways, i.e., donated to a cause or redeemed for discounts on beneficial products, services or experiences.

That PIPs delivers both intrinsic as well as extrinsic value not only makes it a unique rewards currency, it also help keep expenses in check. Costs to implement the challenge -- which for Delos were about $20 per player per month, including a platform fee -- can be adapted to any group size, timeframe and budget.

According to a report by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, medium-to-large employers spent an average of $521 per employee on wellness programs in 2013. To be sure, these are far more broad spectrum programs than what PIPs Rewards has created. But if the Michigan researchers are correct, impacting just the one behavior -- daily physical activity -- may more efficiently and effectively improve one's health status and in turn reduce health care costs.

"We don't profess to have the solution to the problems of our sedentary lifestyle," says Yaniv Eyny, co-founder and CTO of PIPs Rewards. "But if we can get someone's mind off the hard work of habit change and into a game that values improvement, that's something."