THE WEEKLY HOWL IS BRINGING CORPORATE WELLNESS BACK

Being a leader: Men’s Health published a profile of Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, last Friday. It retread some of the old, familiar stuff but was focused on CrossFit Health, Glassman’s vision for reshaping the health care industry.

“Here” is CrossFit Holy Land: “the Ranch” in Aromas, the site in 2007 of the first CrossFit Games, a weekend when 400-plus stupid-fit people do stupid-hard workouts to determine the fittest humans on earth. Glassman invited the doctors here to indoctrinate them with a CrossFit MDL1 course, a certification reserved for M.D.’s. There’s a 400-doctor waiting list for future courses.

 Across more than 20,000 hours of medical school, physicians receive about 25 hours of lecture on nutrition. As for exercise? LOL. What really digs at Glassman is that docs do, however, spend semesters on pharmacology. “The CDC estimates chronic diseases [and mental-health conditions] account for 86 percent of health-care spending and 70 percent of deaths,” he says. “If people would just get off the couch and off the processed carbs, 40 percent of those deaths could be avoided.”

Enter CrossFit Health, Glassman’s shotgun blast at America’s obesity crisis: It’s a steady stream of these MDL1 courses, which will create a network of CrossFit-friendly doctors who might prefer to prevent and fix couch-and-carb-induced lifestyle diseases by sending you to a box instead of a pharmacy or a surgeon. It’s the brand’s attempt to huddle the overweight, diabetic masses. On Instagram, CrossFit posts fewer images of jacked 20-somethings doing reps to infinity and more shots of what CrossFit does for people you might see at Walmart: a diabetic woman doing her first box jump, an 80-year-old lifting a dumbbell from the floor, a daily flow of before-and-after weight-loss shots.

CrossFit Health is about increasing the number of CrossFit boxes, creating access for all. It’s also about fighting the establishment: lawsuits against fitness organizations trying to bring down the brand as well as junk-food companies that fund nutrition science. Hell, it may eventually be a health-care association and insurance package for the 4 million CrossFitters. It is seemingly many things, all of which are evolving organically, exactly how Glassman likes. “It would be a mistake to engineer this from the top down,” he says.

              This is the closest we have come to having an industry leader in fitness. A true industry leader starts to worry less about increasing its market share and more about growing the market. Fitness has never have something like that. Part of that is because the industry is so young and part of that it is because it’s so fragmented. If you’re curious what that might look like in another industry, think Google building high-speed internet access with Google Fiber or Facebook trying to expand internet access in the developing world through Internet.org. Some people even believe that Google became interested in self-driving software because it wanted to convert all those hours spent driving into time spent online. This is the leadership that the fitness industry has always lacked but I am starting to see it in CrossFit Health.

              All of these initiatives will help grow the entire market, not just CrossFit’s share. Of course, CrossFit stands to benefit immensely from it but so do a lot of other companies. It’s good to see. My concern is that Glassman could lose interest if he doesn’t feel like he has an adversary though:

During Glassman’s legal fight with the NSCA, his team discovered that the association’s research was funded partly by the soda industry. More digging revealed other health organizations cashing Big Soda’s checks. Scientists at Boston University confirmed 96 of them, and other research shows that studies funded exclusively by food and drink companies are four to eight times as likely to find results positive to the funder. In one case, for example, Coca-Cola secretly bankrolled the now-disbanded Global Energy Balance Network, a university-based nonprofit whose basic message was that what you eat doesn’t matter so long as you exercise enough—junk science. Drinking one or two sugar-sweetened beverages a day, for example, is associated with a 26 percent increase in risk of type 2 diabetes, say Harvard researchers.

“It was the Big Soda stuff that compelled Greg to start CrossFit Health,” says Pat Sherwood, a former Navy SEAL who works for CrossFit. “But if someone can take it on, it’s that guy. Greg likes to fight, and he never, ever backs down.” Glassman sees science sponsored by pop as akin to Big Tobacco’s paying for bad research to cast doubt on the harms of smoking. He regularly calls out publicly the names of researchers who have accepted soda dollars and is lobbying to strengthen conflict-of-interest guidelines at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. He backed a failed California bill to add warning labels to soda, but he’s continuing that fight.

              I don’t know the man but it seems like he thrives on conflict. Fighting Big Soda is right up his alley but what happens if he wins? Maybe CrossFit will be far enough down the path that it won’t make a difference. Maybe Glassman finds a new adversary and goes in another direction. I don’t know but for now, it’s nice to see someone trying to grow the market.

The flip side of this focus on CrossFit Health is that in order to do this, CrossFit is reducing its focus on promoting the sport of CrossFit. This week, there were more layoffs at CrossFit HQ in Northern California on top of the round of layoffs that occurred right after the Games. From Morning Chalk-Up:

Yup. Though there are still more than 20 full time staff on the CrossFit media team, CrossFit Games media content as you’ve come to know it is completely gone. Now adding to that is broadcasting team — the ones who brought you all those free livestreams you’ve been watching on Facebook, the update studio and other YouTube content.

And don’t look for anymore update videos from the CrossFit Games team. Two weeks ago, Sean Woodland, Tommy Marquez, and Rory McKernan signed on for the last time to deliver the final studio update.

It also seems unlikely that fans will see a fourth installment of the award-winning Fittest on Earth documentary franchise. BoxRox just confirmed that Heber Cannon and Marston Sawyers were also let go.

              2 months ago, CrossFit let go more than 50 people, which was estimated to be 30-40% of the total HQ staff. Now they’ve let go another 12-15 people and still have 20 people in the media team. That would mean that, a couple of months ago, over half of its HQ staff was devoted to media and Games operations. I feel for everyone who has lost their job but I can see why Glassman might have been concerned with the direction that the company was taking. CrossFit was becoming a media company.

Big Brother: Last month, John Hancock announced that it is going to convert all of its life insurance policies to “interactive”, meaning that there will be incentives for using fitness trackers. While I am sure that the senior management at John Hancock imagined themselves as boldly imagining the future of life insurance, it doesn’t appear that anyone else is as positive. From the Huffington Post:

The wellness industry produces some of the most poorly designed and communicated research in the world, and yet, promises of weight loss, better health and longevity draw us all in. But the human body is one of the most complex systems on earth, affected by genetics, long- and short-term environmental stressors and some things we likely don’t even know about yet. At the moment, scientists can’t even agree on that it means to be fit, the role of exercise in weight and health, what kind of physical activity we should partake in or how often we should be active.

But we do already know a lot about wearable fitness trackers. Recent research suggests step counts aren’t really a good measure of health, and raises questions about whether they are even that reliable. Some of them accurately measure heart rate, but most of them are fairly unreliable when it comes to calories burned: the best-performing device was off by 27 percent, and the worst by 93 percent.

This suggests that individuals shouldn’t make lifestyle choices based on this data, much less hand it over to their life insurance company to assess their fitness. While wearable fitness devices have been a great way for some of us to track our activity, they aren’t ready to prop up a massive data set on health and longevity.

We know that people make decisions about exercise and eating based on their data from their fitness trackers. A study of 200 women found that 89 percent of them wore their trackers almost constantly, checking their dashboards on average twice a day, and altering their diet and activity to hit goals. With tech addiction already rampant, it’s disconcerting to note that 30 percent of users reported feeling guilty when they didn’t meet goals, 45 percent felt “naked” when they weren’t wearing the device and 43 percent even felt like their exercise time was wasted if they weren’t wearing a Fitbit.

This could be the digital equivalent of using BMI to determine someone’s health: a highly flawed methodology that is treated with way too much importance despite its glaring problems. Fitness is a black box to the majority of people so I have little faith that insurance company executives will be able to measure my fitness in a holistic manner. They will try to take the path of least resistance, which will be to attempt to reduce my fitness to some limited measurement like steps taken. And they will do so using a technology that does not appear to be very precise and is very easy to fool.

The other thing that galls me about this is it’s as if they have never heard of the law of unintended consequences. If there are financial incentives involved, people will figure out a way to game the system. In the case of fitness trackers, you don’t even have to think very hard to figure out how that will go. You can sit in a chair and swing your arm and convince your tracker that you are walking. Sometimes people are in charge of things because they’re in charge of things

Row the Boat: Everyone wants to be the next Peloton. It’s not hard to see why as the company is on track for an IPO next year and is currently valued at $4 billion. And it seems so easy to bring the same business model (streaming workout classes to a high-end piece of exercise equipment) to a different discipline. From Bloomberg:

Can’t make it to the Head of the Charles this year? Cambridge, Mass.-based Hydrow by Crew is also sculling into the market with plans to bring rowing’s group-activity benefits into the home via a Peloton-like subscription service. Currently raising money through Indiegogo, Hydrow is making its rowing machine available to early investors through the crowdsourcing campaign. It features an immersive Wi-Fi-connected 22-inch 1080p touchscreen that provides users with live-training sessions straight from the Charles River as well as prerecorded workouts and team rows.

Weighing in at about 130 pounds, the Hydrow is available for a pledge of $1,299 ahead of the proposed retail price of $2,655, with units expected to begin shipping in the U.S. next May.

Peloton is a compelling story: company leverages technology to make fitness more convenient and makes a ton of money doing so. It’s not hard to see why so many entrepreneurs want to emulate it and become “the next Peloton” (which is still being touted as the “Netflix of fitness”). However, there is a part of the story that is omitted. Cycle classes have been popular for years and hit a new high (and price point) recently with the success of SoulCycle and FlyWheel. Peloton took advantage of that by offering a home version of SoulCycle that made participating in high-end cycle classes convenient for consumers but still very lucrative for Peloton.

Timing is everything in life. Peloton was perfectly-timed to take advantage of advances in technology and the boom in cycle classes. Copycats are focused on the former but I fear that they don’t appreciate the latter. Rowing classes are always on the verge of becoming the next big thing but it hasn’t happened yet. Without a boom in rowing classes, it is going to be very difficult to attain even a portion of Peloton’s success.  

Going to the well(ness): Corporate wellness programs have never lived up to the hype. The reasoning behind them is sound. Companies want fitter employees because they are more productive and less likely to incur a lot of health care costs. Employees like free stuff. It sounded like a match made in heaven but it never caught on in the way that a lot of people expected. However, we may be on the verge of Stage 2 in corporate wellness: partnering with existing companies. From Fast Company:

ClassPass revolutionized access to boutique fitness classes with its flat-rate monthly subscription billing service. Now the company that let you purchase a $35 spin class from your phone wants to help attract and retain talent in corporate America.

On Monday, the company announced a partnership with its latest corporate partner, Justworks, a fast growing HR technology company that counts more than 35,000 employees. In the coming year, the two intend to bring studio fitness classes to growing businesses across the country, or more specifically, to millennials averse to corporate “wellness programs.” As millennials grow into one third of the total U.S. workforce, companies now look for more targeted ways to get them healthy. Younger generations want something familiar, flexible, and, well, trendy. And what better way than a barre class?

Through the new partnership, Justworks will provide employees access to ClassPass’s flexible fitness packages, alongside supporting their benefits, payroll, HR, and compliance needs. It’s one more piece in the employee package. Companies that sign up for ClassPass through Justworks can then decide how much they contribute to their employees’ membership each month

The challenge of corporate wellness is encompassing the totality of fitness experiences. How do you encourage and subsidize gym memberships, studio fees, exercise equipment, exercise apparel, and everything else under the sun? I work for a company that offers a limited number of free personal training sessions every year and I’ve never used them. I’m not interested in that. In a perfect world, I would get the value of those sessions in a Rogue Fitness gift card.

Why are people not excited about corporate wellness programs? I suspect that it has something to do with having your employer dictate how you should be working out. A partnership with ClassPass looks attractive because:

              -it’s a third party service so employers won’t have to run it themselves

              -they think that it will appeal to millennials

              -it offers the illusion of diversity

              -it’s a trendy name

But will it run into the same problem? I say “the illusion of diversity” because it is a smorgasbord of studio classes (which sounds diverse) but all the offerings are studio classes. Everyone doesn’t want studio classes so you’re going to run into the same problem.

Don’t put a ring on it: It is not particularly surprising that Microsoft wants to get back into the fitness tracking game after discontinuing the Microsoft Band 2 years ago. This time, it seems that it wants to seek some differentiation from the glut of smartwatches and fitness bands. From Wareable:

A patent has been uncovered which suggests Microsoft is exploring the possibility of a smart ring, complete with fitness tracking and gesture control.

The filing concerns a ring working in a similar manner to a basic wearable on the wrist, giving the user the ability to pay through NFC, receive notifications from their connected smartphone and even track activity and heart rate.

Unlike many patents we come across, the reference to the device isn't made in passing, with detailed descriptions of the smart ring. Within the listing, Microsoft notes how the 'finger band' (its wording, not ours) would be configured to accommodate a user's finger. That means that pressure sensors would recognise the finger and configure itself to sense changes in the tendons of the finger, and thus be able to recognise different gestures.

Dear Microsoft, don’t make a fitness ring. This is not a good idea because ring avulsion is a thing. Ring avulsion is when a ring gets caught on something and it takes part of the finger with it. It is also called de-gloving. Amputation of the finger is common. People shouldn’t wear hard rings while they’re doing anything physical. They should either remove their rings before engaging in physical activity or wear a silicone band. This can even happen to you when you’re walking around your house like it did to Jimmy Fallon in 2015.

A fitness ring sounds cool and it would be a way to differentiate from Apple and Fitbit (but not Motiv) but it is not a good idea. A fitness ring is not a safe idea. We should be raising awareness of the dangers of wearing rings during exercise not trying to sell people rings that are designed to be worn during exercise.

Tidbits:

-A secret society but for fitness

-Just because someone is rich doesn’t mean that they’re smart

-“Exhibit A: the defendant’s Fitbit”

-CNET puts the new Apple Watch to the test

-Sears bankruptcy will impact the fitness industry

-Kettlebell Kitchen raises $26 million in funding