Everyone Cheats On Fitness Trackers. But Who's Really Being Cheated?

Pets, dryers and kids are popular options professionals have used to add extra steps onto trackers like Fitbits.  (Photo: HuffPost Illustration/Getty Images)

When a reader named Rachel and her husband needed to rack up a set number of steps to get a discount on his employee health insurance, they turned to their pet hedgehog Ellie for help.

“We taped the pedometer to our hedgehog’s exercise wheel and ‘my husband’ would walk miles every night,” Rachel said. When Rachel’s husband tracked a certain level of activity, his company would pay a larger portion of the monthly premium.

More and more companies are encouraging employees to see activity trackers as moneymakers in this way, often offering cash or prizes as incentives to opt into voluntary corporate wellness programs. Five percent of small firms and 21% of large firms collect information from workers’ mobile apps or wearable devices, such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch, as part of a wellness program, according to a 2018 survey of 2,160 employers.

This is seen as a win-win for insurers who want you to live longer, so you earn them more money. Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act and HIPAA nondiscrimination provisions, employers can provide discounts and rewards for those who participate in wellness initiatives, as long as these health-contingent incentives are no more than 30% of the total health plan premium, or 50% for smokers.

The problem for employers? Making health a game of points means employees game the system right back, though they don’t all have hedgehogs.

As Ellie the hedgehog exercised, she logged steps on her owner's pedometer. (Photo: Courtesy of Rachel )

People also add fake steps by giving trackers to kids and putting them in clothes dryers

Many people in my own HuffPost newsroom participate in the Virgin Pulse well-being program, offered by our parent company Verizon Media. It pays individual employees up to $500 a year for hitting certain points goals. Taking 7,000 steps per day for 20 days earns 1,800 points, for example, which equates to a minimum of $15 cash back per quarter.

One colleague said he would give his tracker to his kids on the playground if he was short on steps, or jiggle the tracker back and forth while he watched TV.

Another sticks the tracker in a dryer. “My favorite trick is to throw it in the dryer, since it seems to think each rotation is like 2-3 steps,” one editor told me. “I put the tracker in the toe of a sock, tie the sock so it doesn’t fall out, and toss it in with my clothes on medium or low heat. A permanent press cycle is about 10,000 steps.”

These are just starting examples of inventive hacks. If you want to see the wide spectrum of ways to trick an activity tracker, do an internet search. On eBay, sellers offer cradles that rock phones back and forth to mimic steps.

Devices to trick step counters are widely available for purchase on eBay. (Photo: eBay)

On YouTube, I have been introduced to myriad ways to add steps I did not walk. I watched a person attach a Fitbit to a windshield wiper. I watched a man use his dryer by cocooning his tracker in bubble wrap and a sock before setting the machine for 12 minutes. A man named Dan Adams attaches his Fitbit to an electric saw so he can win his “workweek hustle” challenge.

In a video for “Unfit Bits,” a satirical project created by artists Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, a worker types with one hand while a cordless drill spins her activity tracker and we watch her savings climb up. “Maybe you just want to keep your personal data private without having to pay higher premiums for the privilege,” the narrator states as other people attach their trackers to metronomes, dogs and even taxicab tires to spoof fitness data and avoid tracking their real activity. “Our team of researchers have devised a simple range of techniques that will allow you to free your fitness data from yourself.”

In forums and underneath the YouTube videos, there are sometimes comments dismissing these people as lazy or as cheaters. “I was losing by so much,” explains Adams, the man who uses an electric saw to notch steps, in his YouTube video. One Redditor, referring to workplace fitness prizes, noted that “cheaters never win, but they do get an iPad and 55” flat panel.”

But are these people cheating themselves, or are just cheating a system that is flawed to begin with?

Workplace wellness programs are not guaranteed to work, anyway 

It is a flawed system. Fifty million Americans participate in workplace wellness programs designed to improve their health and lower health care costs. But a 2018 study of a two-year workplace wellness program found that these corporate programs don’t do their job well. After a year of participation, there was no effect on medical spending, health behaviors, or employee productivity.

Steps are also an unreliable measure of health, though the typical corporate wellness program rewards participants for steps in increasing increments. Fitbit sets the default goal for its users at 10,000 steps, which follows the number popularized in a 1960s Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer. Researchers behind a study published in May 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found “this [10,000] number has limited scientific basis.”

Plus, workplace fitness challenges are not just about money you could win and your employer could save. There’s a risk that marketers and employers can use the information they collect against you. A 2015 report from the American Bar Association warned, “Wearable data could determine if a user was habitually late for work, largely immobile when at the office, or spent little time with his or her colleagues.”

Privacy advocates have cautioned that these “pervasive lifestyle management incentives” like health monitors can stigmatize employees who refuse to disclose, because there is an assumption they must be withholding negative information.

As Scott Peppet, a law professor and privacy specialist at the University of Colorado, told Backchannel in 2014, “If you start to see the rise of corporate cultures in which everyone has a comprehensive health tracker, and the boss is regularly saying how much money the company is saving because we have got such great participation, but we have a corporate participation goal of 95 percent and we’re not quite there … there’s going to be a negative consequence for not participating.”

Cheating on your fitness data is a creative response to a quantified world

Brain, the co-creator of “Unfit Bits,” is an assistant professor of integrated digital media at New York University. She said she saw the project as a deliberate invitation for workers to creatively hack their hardware and question the status quo of insurers collecting health data.

“The ‘Unfit Bits’ project isn’t a solution for this situation we’re in,” Brain said. “But it’s telling a story of some of the complexities and some of the issues, and also trying to empower people to investigate these systems, and push back on them, and ask questions around how data is being used.”

Brain called altering your data and obfuscating what information is being collected on you a “legitimate activist strategy to this quantified world we are living in.”

And as long as this valuable dataset is available to employers, employees will find new ways to get their money’s worth out of the exchange. As for Rachel, she said her husband has a different job now. When asked if they would ever use Ellie the hedgehog again as a step counter, Rachel said that, “If we weren’t being active enough, we would definitely find a way to get the discount.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.