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We have written before about wearables from a number of different angles, including Gary’s perspective as an owner in August 2015. Time for an update.

It’s now almost eighteen months since I bought the Fitbit HR. Let’s start with some of my numbers:

  • Steps taken: ranged from a daily low of 5,500 to a highest of 35,000 in a day (which included a gym visit and a full-on day of sightseeing in New York). 36 holes of golf in a day results in around 28,000. Average daily steps around 15,000.
  • Miles walked: lowest day 5.3 miles, highest day 24.5 miles; average of around 7.5 miles.
  • Activity levels, measured in minutes per day are:
    • Sedentary – up to 700 minutes per day
    • Lightly active – between 50 and 430 minutes per day
    • Fairly active – between 50 and 260 minutes per day
    • Very active – between 0 and 150 minutes per day
  • Calories burned: lowest 2,900, highest 5,800 in a day; average 4,400
  • Flights of stairs climbed: lowest 12, highest 68 in a day; average of 29.

In 2016 I walked 4,280,522 steps, or 2,110 miles.

Last time I posed the question whether or not ownership has changed my behaviour. I think it did in the first few months and, more recently, I have moved on again. I set myself a goal of 10,000 steps a day for a whole week and, having completed that, extended it to two weeks. Not content with that achievement, I pushed the target up again and… I have now completed 100 days in a row 10,000 steps per day. (Now, do I rest on my laurels and lapse into relative inactivity? If I do I am back down to zero…) For me it has not been hard work; it has needed just a bit of awareness and the ability to take 20 or 30 minutes out of my day to go walking. If I am in London and am not pressed for time I will often get off the Underground one stop early to up my walking distance.

You should be aware that I am now on my fourth Fitbit in 18 months (so I am not a great fan of the device’s reliability), and also I have found issues with accuracy. I can add steps by activities such as beating an egg or painting a fence. However, as I have said before, I think the data, when looked at over a period of time, is still useful. As one of several reinsurer studies showed last year, the trends and long term statistics are more valuable than figures in isolation.

I believe that this sort of data, especially over a period of 18 months, could be used in risk selection or pricing. An increasing number of insurers around the world agree and we write about some of those propositions elsewhere.

So, owning a wearable continues to be an interesting exercise (excuse the pun). Will I still be wearing it at the end of 2017? I reckon I will. Maybe a more interesting question is how long can I keep up the 10,000 steps per day stretch. Feel free to ask me how it’s going if you see me.

Last time I reported that I had stopped short of walking around the block after dinner to achieve the magic 10,000 steps. I confess that since then I have done so, although rarely because I am now much more aware of my step count at various points during the day. Interestingly I managed to hit the target on Christmas day and I hardly left the house. Cooking Christmas dinner clearly is not a sedentary activity…

You will notice that this article talks mainly about steps, the metric that everyone talks about. I still suspect that there are better indicators of risk but currently it is unclear what that is.

In my view wearables and the data they offer insurers is not a passing fad but an area in which further research needs to be undertaken.

Wearable technology: an alternative perspective

Look, Gary’s enthusiasm for wearables needs to be countered with a healthy dose of cynicism. Are outputs from these devices suitable for risk pricing? And is the scope for new proposition development that great?

There has to be a big question mark over reliability – of the devices themselves and of the outputs. Gary admits he is on his fourth Fitbit. Maybe he’s been unlucky, and maybe rival brands are better. Or are they all much the same?

You don’t have to walk steps to rack up your step count, and the ‘sleep sensor’ is far from sensitive. Basically these things are movement detectors and they can make wrong conclusions about the movements they detect. Are they really good enough for insurers to make assumptions to use in risk pricing? Are relatively cheap consumer devices suitable as a basis for a consumer proposition from a life insurer? Robustness, reliability and quality are surely essential for an insurance brand.

If one is serious about monitoring health status, wouldn’t it be better to use ‘traditional’ metrics such as BMI and blood pressure? And physical activity is hardly the missing piece that completes the jigsaw of an accurate picture of cardiovascular risk. Frequent exercise might just be part of a stressful lifestyle unhealthily crammed with activities, commitments and appointments. What about diet? What a fitness fanatic considers healthy may be lacking the ‘five a day’ fresh fruit and vegetables – as well as the nuts and grains – that we are told we all need. Good health is about more than regular cardiovascular activity.

Encouraging insurance customers to look after their health can only be a good thing, and there is a lot to be said for a sort of partnership between insurer and in insured – after all, there is a mutual interest in maintaining health and extending lifespan. But how powerful is the draw for consumers, who increasingly tend to live for now rather than for the future? Sales of life and health insurances are down. Consumer credit is up and saving down. A few dollars/pounds/euros/rupees/RMB/etc off the cost of a life policy is hardly a big incentive. That said, Vitality’s retail discount schemes might well be attractive enough to some.

How big is the market for meaningful propositions based on wearable devices? It is said that sales of these gadgets are strong but many purchasers stop wearing them after a few weeks. Do the ‘stayers’ represent a worthwhile market? Are they sufficiently interested?

Oh, and finally there’s the matter of the scope for faking activity…

Conceptually it’s all very nice but the products have to improve and the outputs need to become more meaningful in order to encourage use. And there would still be the faking issue.

Wearables: sorry, the jury’s still out.