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Keeping Fit Could Earn You a Smartwatch

The technology may nudge you to get and stay healthier, insurers and employers increasingly believe

spinner image above view of a smartwatch on man's arm icons are visible on the screen
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It’s not exactly a revelation that people who wear fitness trackers and smartwatches exercise more frequently than those who don’t.

What may surprise you is that your health or life insurance provider, and perhaps the company you work for, may help you pay the cost of such wearables — if not buy the devices on your behalf outright. Their motivation: Keeping you fit could help lower the cost of health care.

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Employers, insurance companies and the government are “largely responsible for the costs associated with taking care of each other,” says Amy McDonough, managing director and general manager of Google-owned Fitbit Health Solutions. Fitbit partners with companies including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Government Employees Health Association, Humana, UnitedHealthcare and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “They know that proactive and preventative health is going to support better health care outcomes and reduce costs over time."

Wearing the device spurs changes in habits

Devoted Health's Medicare Advantage plans come with a Wellness Bucks benefit program that will cover up to $300 a year toward any wearable that tracks heart rate and number of steps, says Neil Wagle, M.D., chief medical officer at the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company.

“The key to getting chronic diseases under control quickly is reducing the time between a change in someone's health and the response. And nothing does that better than a connected device, like an Apple Watch , paired with responsive clinicians,” he says.

Devoted Health members receive the benefit without having to meet specific requirements tied to activity levels based on use of the wearables, unlike some programs at other insurance companies. A 2020 study from researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia found that interventions involving smartphone apps and activity trackers increased participants’ physical activity by an average of 2,000 steps a day.

“The key to getting chronic diseases under control quickly is reducing the time between a change in someone's health and the response [to get things back to normal]. And nothing does that better than a connected device, like an Apple Watch, paired with responsive clinicians.”

​— Neil Wagle, Devoted Health

“This level of increase has the potential to lower the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as improve quality of life and reduce the risk of premature death,” lead author Liliana Laranjo, M.D., of the university’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and Westmead Applied Research Centre, noted when the study was released.

Two years earlier, researchers at Rand Europe reached a similar conclusion. Their study with wellness company Vitality Group involving more than 400,000 people found an average 34 percent increase in activity levels among participants who wore an Apple Watch compared with those without one, which Vitality estimated would translate into two extra years of life.

As a starting point, ask your insurance company or Medicare Advantage provider if your plan helps defray the cost of wearables and if so under what conditions. While you’re at it, check with your employer to see if it offers any discount programs.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

Here is a sample of programs that may appeal to older adults looking to save money while getting or staying in shape.

Aetna members can earn watch over time

Apple teamed up with CVS Health–owned Aetna on a program open to Aetna members enrolled in certain plans that over time may cover the full cost of an Apple Watch. If you’re in such a plan, start by downloading the Attain by Aetna app from Apple’s App Store.

Then you can earn daily rewards by meeting certain activity goals determined by your age, sex and, in some cases, personal health history. You can apply reward points to cover monthly payments for a watch or use them for gift cards from other retailers.

You can pay off Apple’s $279 Apple Watch SE over 24 months, though you are responsible for a onetime upfront activation fee plus tax. An additional fee upfront is required for a pricier model.

John Hancock customers get discounts

Customers can order an Apple Watch for as little as $25 plus tax through the John Hancock Vitality Plus program, which starts at $2 a month. The balance is paid off equally over 24 months, with payments reduced to zero if certain exercise goals are met.

Among the fine-print details: Monthly out-of-pocket payments are based on the number of standard workouts (10,000 to 14,999 steps) and advanced workouts (15,000 steps) or applicable active calorie thresholds. The required step counts are reduced for members who are 71 and older.

A onetime upgrade fee applies if you choose a pricier GPS + Cellular version of the Apple Watch, larger watch-case sizes, and certain bands and case materials. The plan is not available in New York and certain other locations, and at the outset you will have to complete a Vitality health review.

Under Vitality Plus, you also may earn other reward points by biking, running, swimming or walking, and capturing metrics via mobile apps, a heart rate monitor, pedometer or other device. The plan isn’t limited to Apple Watch. You can earn free Fitbits, too, or a complimentary Amazon Halo fitness band, along with three years of Halo membership.

UnitedHealthcare has several programs

Multiple offerings can help customers spring for a wearable. Those enrolled in the UnitedHealthcare Motion program can earn more than $1,000 a year by meeting daily activity targets, based on cycling, running, strength training, swimming, walking and more. A UHC Motion app is available for iOS and Android.

UnitedHealthcare says engagement rates exceed other employer-sponsored wellness programs. Participants walk an average of 11,000 steps daily — more than twice the 5,200 steps logged by the average American adult.

UnitedHealthcare also says the plan tends to appeal to members with chronic conditions, such as diabetics, who are 40 percent more likely to participate than other people.

If you are in a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan, you may be eligible to receive a Fitbit Charge 5, Inspire 2 or Luxe device at no cost and connect socially by joining an online Fitbit Community for Renew Active program. Participants can access thousands of on-demand videos, including livestreamed fitness classes and AARP’s Staying Sharp online brain health program. (UnitedHealthcare offers several AARP-branded Medicare Advantage plans in most states for AARP members.)

As an added benefit, members who use their Fitbit or another activity tracker to report that they’ve walked at least 7,500 steps for 10 days in a month can earn monthly discounts of $10.

As of November 2021, UnitedHealthcare plans come with a free one-year subscription to the Apple Fitness+ studio-style workout program, which requires an Apple Watch. Existing members can visit their account to check their eligibility.

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