Study finds that the people most likely to benefit from fitness wearables aren't using them

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 27, 2013

From The News Desk

When you envision a stereotypical Fitbit or Jawbone UP user, the person who comes to mind probably looks like a model. Long, tan, and toned limbs, a serene look on their face as they jog through a green park at twilight. Perhaps they're wearing casual-yet-chic athletic clothes, barely sweating and with nary a stress wrinkle in sight to mar their youthful skin. That is, after all, the sort of folk who appear on the wearable devices' commercials.

But a recent study out by the Pew Research Center suggests that the people who might benefit the most from body-tracking wearable devices are those you'd least expect wearing them. The elderly, the infirm, and the chronic illness sufferers.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 3,000 individuals across the country, half of whom suffered from one or more chronic health conditions. It found that 70 to 80 percent of people with a chronic condition tracked symptoms like weight, diet, exercise, blood pressure, and sleep patterns, as opposed to 61 percent of those without chronic conditions. Furthermore, 72 percent of those with chronic conditions said that tracking their symptoms had a big impact on their healthcare behavior. Only 55 percent of adults without chronic conditions felt the same.

Duh. That makes perfect sense. When you have serious physical ailments -- and don't just need to shed ten pounds of vanity weight -- paying close attention to your physical symptoms can sometimes be the difference between life or death. You'd expect that this population would be the biggest users of wearable devices, which could track their sleep patterns, blood pressure, and physical activity accurately without manual input.

But startlingly, the Pew Center found that 84 percent of people with chronic conditions use a pen and paper or rely on their memory to track their physical condition. A mere 4 percent used applications or other tools on their smart phones. Thus, those with chronic health conditions are not avid wearable users.

Perhaps that statistic is not as startling as it first appears. Companies like Jawbone, Fitbit, and Nike have not gone out of their way to target the sick with their wearable product campaigns. My google searches turned up no evidence that any of these companies have tried to partner with healthcare organizations or insurance companies on initiatives related to elderly or chronic illness care (strangely enough, Jawbone did partner with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to promote children's health). Although the wearables' user demographic data isn't public, I would be surprised if most of the Fitbit, UP, and FuelBand users were over the age of 65. I reached out to the companies for confirmation on all of the above and will update this when I hear back.

Of course that's not totally the companies' fault. People with chronic conditions were 18 percent less likely to use the Internet than their healthy counterparts, according to the Pew Center. Many with chronic conditions are elderly, and a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Sydney found that older people didn't understand the range of benefits that wireless network sensors would give them.

But Jawbone and Fitbit should not pass up this substantial portion of the market just because this segment is not as open to wearables. Startups also shouldn't ignore this population because it's not as "sexy" as the fit, younger professional demographic.

Wearable companies should be advertising in the AARP and partnering with doctors, medical organizations, and insurance companies to get the devices in the hands of more people with chronic conditions. After all, this is the group that will benefit the most from reliably tracking their physical data. And if wearable devices become status quo for those suffering chronic conditions, money from helping such patients could flood the coffers of said companies.

[Image via Thinkstock]