Why Health Innovators Have Failed Customers & What We Can Do About It



Tyrone Ceaser is a professor of exercise science at Winthrop University in South Carolina. He also research, blogs, and consults on topics related to wearable tech, wellness, fitness, and stress management. You can find him on Twitter @drtyroneceaser.

Wellness devices don’t help people lose weight unless the underlying mentality for change is already present. But most mass producers of these devices are not in the business of selling this point. They are in the business of selling products.

By the same token, research studies and fitness programs don’t help people adopt change unless a major paradigm shift occurs in the mind. But many wellness coaches, personal trainers, academic researchers, and the like are not in the business of mediating change in minds and hearts. They are in the business of successful, quick-fix, low-risk, high-selling services and products instead of long-term, strategic, high-investment strategies that alleviate consumers of their physical, heavy-laden, lifestyle-related burdens.

Guess who’s stuck in the middle of the seller and servicer? You. The consumer. You’re stuck in the middle trying to figure out who can get you back to your high school body in the fastest, most efficient way possible.

But wait! You have yet another burden.

In addition to your potential investment in a wristwatch or wellness program, you want to get back to an "image" of the past (yeah, the one the made you feel most secure about your body).

The problem in the wellness industry isn’t the length of the longitudinal study or the lack of a p-value indicating statistical significance. It’s not type, accuracy, or cost of the device. It’s not the failure of scientists in charge of billions of research dollars devoted to solving the obesity epidemic.  

It’s the congruency of the minds involved (yours being chief among them), and inevitably, the intentions of the buyers and servicers.  

If I told a client, "I can help you lose 30 pounds in 30 days" or "I can help you gain 20 pounds of muscle mass in 20 days," it’s true. I could probably do it. But it wouldn’t be the complete truth.

If a tech company advertises a new wrist watch with such elegance, beautiful marketing, and promising potential to help you lose weight, they wouldn’t be lying either. In the end, you wonder, who should I run to? What should I invest in? Too often this question is asked by millions of consumers like you, who eventually run to the wellness device, the personal trainer, and sometimes even the research study (5 years and 20+ pounds of gained weight later).

Though it is true that the device can solve the problem of tracking health parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure, the last time I checked, it sure doesn’t have the agency to lower either of those metrics. By the same token, the trainer nor the researcher has the agency to cause long-term, life-lasting change by creating a proven evidence-based strategy to lose weight and keep it off. If that were the case, NIH would have ceased that branch of research a long time ago and moved on to something else.

What I neglected to mention so far is this: you’ll probably gain it all back within two months or lose the muscle mass in the same amount of time.

There is something to be said about the plethora of fitness trainers, weight loss specialists, and health coaches out on the market. There are so many! Heck, can you blame anyone for wanting to be on the profit side of a $500 billion dollar market?

Now, consumer, I turn to the people you seek out to support you.

To the professors, scientists, trainers, marketers, and wellness professionals, myself included: We have not successfully reversed the trend of lifestyle diseases.

The amount of research dollars spent for "treating" obesity, diabetes, strokes, and other lifestyle diseases is insane, especially since our kids, moms, dads, and others still can't make weight.

What's wrong with these wellness programs out on the market? It's simple: we're not teaching men to fish in order to feed themselves for life.  

Our wellness profession is cluttered with the wrong goals and intentions. In turn, the message becomes misconstrued with ill-placed facts, 5 minute, "Google-search" generated research, and the desire for career advancement. Marketers find the best SEO strategies to "lure ‘em in," and figure out what they're looking for, while completely ignoring the fact that individually, no two people suffer from obesity in the same manner. Therefore, customized, tailored programs should replace multi-site, data-driven, population-based obesity research.  

Sure, that type of research is good for some situations, but obviously it's not working now––and hasn't been for a while. I see many researchers achieve most funding success by figuring out the most popular types of studies being funded. Then they put in their bids for R01s and R03s, with the hopes of landing one major grant to stamp their academic tenure guarantee, thereby securing two birds with one stone.

In conclusion, am I saying that professionals don’t care about the people in the other boat? No. What I am saying, is that we need to understand the consumer’s needs and put them first.

Consumer, are you aware of your needs? Why do you need to lose weight? Who does it benefit other than you? Why is your blood pressure skyrocketing? Who else watches you eat and potentially models themselves after your habits? No, you don’t look like Hugh Jackman in X-men, but do you have an amazing ability to focus and serve others for long periods of time, without fatigue, because you ate kale chips and apples, instead of the 6-piece from Chick-fil-A? (There's nothing wrong with that on occasion, by the way.)

These are the questions you should be asking yourself.  

The message for professionals is plain and simple: do a better job of teaching men to fish. And for you as a consumer, you should watch and learn, fishing from your own boat, with your own reel. It’s the only way real change is possible.

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