January 30, 2014

Why Gamification Is Taking Over Wellness Programs

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Tags: Gamification

Wellness Programs Grow in Popularity While Incorporating Game Elements 

Video games may be associated with a sedentary, and therefore less healthy lifestyle, but applying the mechanics found in those games to wellness programs could transform the health of thousands.

Emerging research on gamification reveals that it can work as a powerful motivational technique when done well in the proper context. Given the nation’s current focus healthcare, and the federal government’s interest in preventative care, it was only a matter of time before health wellness programs started adopting gamification principles.

But what makes gamification so appealing to wellness programs, and why are wellness programs in particular becoming so prevalent? One likely reason is that gamification does wonders for creating positive feedback loops that make users exponentially more likely to continue with certain behaviors. Ask any personal trainer and you’ll know that it’s difficult to convince someone to start exercising and eating better in the first place, let alone to convince them to stick with it.

The increase in wellness programs can be attributed to several factors, all of them related to improving the overall health of the U.S. population. Currently, the U.S. spends over 17% of its GDP on healthcare, making our health expenses among the highest in the world – perhaps the highest among developed nations. Of this amount, 75% of all U.S. healthcare expenditures – around $2.2 trillion – go to treating chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Chronic diseases require different treatment plans than acute conditions (like getting the flu or fracturing a bone), but the U.S.’s current healthcare infrastructure isn’t suited for treating patients with chronic conditions.

Such conditions most commonly arise from lifestyle choices, so wellness programs that encourage healthier habits offer a logical solution for decreasing the amount of treatment chronically ill patients receive. This in turn lowers healthcare costs. But it all starts by changing behavior, a problem which gamification is particularly adept at solving.

Games That Make You Healthy 

Studies estimate that around 154 million Americans will receive insurance through their employer by 2016, so businesses have a vested interest in keep their employees healthy and thereby reducing coverage costs. In 2009 insurance provider Blue Shield launched Wellvolution, a company-wide initiative that encouraged employees to stay healthy. The initial results were promising, but Blue Shield pushed for greater returns by integrating gamified applications like Shape Up Shield and Healthrageous in to the Wellvolution initiative. Both of these applications incorporated game elements such as social interaction and sharing with rewards for completing challenges, which ensured Wellvolution appealed to a greater number of Blue Shield employees. The results speak for themselves.

In the four years since its launch, Wellvolution has:

  • convinced 80% of Blue Shield employees to participate in at least one wellness program
  • decreased the prevalence of employee smoking by 50%
  • decreased the prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) by 66%

Employees participating in Wellvolution are also paying a combined $3 million less per year in insurance premiums than nonparticipants.

Though Blue Shield is finding great success with Wellvolution, developing an in-house, enterprise-level wellness program isn’t the answer for every business. Unsurprisingly, a number of startups are working to cement their place in the emerging market of wellness gamification. One such start up, Keas, founded by Adam Bosworth of Google Health fame, already now boasts clients such as Pandora, Living Social and Pfizer. Keas’s value proposition hinges on research suggesting that employees who maintain better health, and are rewarded through their employer, are both happier and more productive.

Keas Logo

In a nod to a trend occurring throughout U.S. healthcare, Keas provides employees with a gamification platform that aggregates data from sources like wearable devices to make their feedback more actionable and manageable. Keas users compete individually or in teams to complete daily challenges that they log or that their wearable devices record. Users participating as teams incur greater rewards, a feature that intrinsically promotes workplace collaboration.

Keas has also published some great data to supplement their platform. Their results include:

  • Keas users access the platform an average of 10 times per month
  • 85% of users say they will use Keas again
  • Incapital, a Keas client, saw an average weight loss of 4.4lbs per user after 79% of their employees signed up for Keas

With platforms like Keas being used by 70 of the top 100 companies in the country, the question must be asked: why don’t we use wellness gamification with kids? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 3 child or adolescent in the U.S. is obese or overweight, and many will carry their conditions into adulthood. Given the large amount of children who play video games – an activity which burns very few calories – incorporating game mechanics into daily physical activities seems to make perfect sense.

In several schools around the country, that’s exactly what physical education departments have done. Referred to as “exergaming,” the practice of supplementing traditional physical activity with game elements is being tested in schools in California, Virginia and Delaware.

At California’s Sierra Vista Junior High, students can choose from a variety of games to play during their physical education period. Options include riding stationary bikes against digitally rendered backdrops, dancing in-sync to screen prompts from the arcade staple Dance Dance Revolution, and taking control of a Jackie Chan avatar that mimics the player’s movements.

kids exergaming

Exergaming: students get a workout to Dance Dance Revolution

While exergaming isn’t a perfect replacement for traditional physical activity, it does encourage kids to raise their heart rates and burn calories while maintaining a connection with entertainment. When Sierra Vista students were given the choice to opt out of exergaming, none did, which speaks to the undeniable appeal of games and their effectiveness at promoting repeat behavior. More research is needed before exergaming can be widely recommended, but early tests show favorable results in comparison to no physical activity at all.

As wellness programs continue to grow in reach and effectiveness, it appears so will the application of game elements. Know of any other gamified wellness programs? Let us know in the comments. Thinking of implementing one at your company? Check out our product selection tool.

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  1. Zach Watson

    I only mention it briefly in this article, but Keas already integrates with Fitbit, and I believe they’re looking to develop integration with Nike+ and Jawbone, all of which are wearable devices that track increases in heart rate and burned calories. Perhaps that type of wearable tech is the answer. 

  2. Heather Neisen

    Gamified wellness programs are great for employees with a competative edge!  

    At my previous employer, we used Virign Pulse (formerly Virgin Health Miles).  Through a corporate sponsorship, each employee could sign up for a free pedometer to wear each day.  By reaching a certain number of steps or active minutes each day, the employee could earn points.  After accumulating enough points, employees could cash in their points for gift cards or cash.  The platform also allowed employees to participate in challenges against other employee to get the "most steps" or "most days in a row of activity" and win badges and more points by doing so.  The activity feed allowed you to see how you stack up against others at your company (by gender, by department, etc).

    Depending on your personality, the program could keep you very active to compete with colleagues.  The program also limited your ability to gain more than 100 points per day through activity and you had to have 6,000+ points to move up to the next "level" – meaning? you had to stay more active over a long period of time, which ultimately is the goal: better health.

  3. Eric Perry

    I would be interested to see how this develops.  Personally, gamification, at it’s current level, doesn’t do it for me in exercising. I’d like to see something that automatically tracks your work out and various other activity rather than you having to input the data.  It makes it very easy to cheat and just gain the awards through cheating the system.  An automation system would make me and anyone else who has a similar problem accountable.