Want to Cheat Your Fitbit? Try a Puppy or a Power Drill

(Story by Rachel Bachman originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal)

Corporate fitness contests marred by sketchy results; the ‘hamster wheel’ guy

Dan Adams, a sales executive from Ogden, Utah, entered a friendly contest with two co-workers to see who could take the most steps in a week. With five hours to go, he was trailing.

So Mr. Adams taped his Fitbit activity tracker to the blade of an electric saw and left it vibrating on a work bench. When he returned early the next morning, the saw’s vibrations had registered 57,000 steps.

Mr. Adams, a self-described gadget junkie, swore it was a one-time move. “This is the only time that I’ve ever mechanically enhanced my steps on Fitbit,” he said.

Workplace “step challenges” are big with companies aiming to encourage employee fitness. In pursuit of victory, some workers are using power tools, pets and household appliances to fool digital fitness trackers and boost their step totals without lifting a foot.

During a step challenge at an electronics-manufacturing firm in Texas, suspiciously high activity on one employee’s fitness tracker prompted a call from Sonic Boom Wellness, the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company running the challenge. After a brief interrogation, the man came clean: He had clipped his tracker to a hamster wheel.

“This hamster was just racking up all kinds of activity for the guy,” says Danna Korn, Sonic Boom CEO.

She recalls another step challenge, at a construction company in California, when an executive was ringing up hour upon hour of physical activity, even overnight. When questioned, the man—an engineer—proudly admitted he had attached his fitness tracker to a ceiling fan, Ms. Korn says.

Activity challenges are popular with companies for their relatively low cost and high worker-participation levels. On the other hand, they tend to favor marathon runners, people who are already fit and short people, who take more steps. And then there’s the combustible human combination of competition and deviousness.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has offered several step challenges for its 80,000 employees world-wide, allowing participants to use a digital step tracker or enter steps manually into an app.

Near the end of a challenge last year, an employee rocketed up the leaderboard overnight, Delta spokeswoman Rachel Solomon says. The employee had logged by hand, all at once, the equivalent of 31 miles of steps a day for 42 consecutive days. The company “thought that seemed unlikely,” and began requiring employees to log their steps at least once a week, Ms. Solomon says.

Mr. Adams posted a YouTube video titled “The secret to winning Fitbit challenges,” which has attracted more than 15,000 views. He says he ’fessed up to his competitors—and still finished second.

Fitbit wouldn’t discuss manipulation of fitness trackers. A spokesman said the company’s products “help motivate millions of users to achieve their goals and to change their daily behavior.”

“It is a game of cat and mouse,” says Mike Tinney, CEO of Atlanta-based Fitness Interactive Experience, which uses games to encourage activity in corporate challenges. “If there are loopholes, players find them and exploit them.”

One of the company’s challenges awards bonuses for bursts of exercise beyond walking. When one such contest took place at a prominent accounting firm, “they were very, very vigilant with each other,” Mr. Tinney recalls.

An employee logged seven hours of downhill skiing into his account, spurring vigorous debate in the game’s online chat room about how much time the man spent actually skiing, as opposed to sitting on a chairlift or standing in line. The employee succumbed to co-worker pressure and reduced his skiing time to four hours, Mr. Tinney says.

At the University of Michigan, various departments compete in challenges to log the most minutes of physical activity, wellness coordinator Colleen Greene says. The low stakes in a challenge last fall—bragging rights—didn’t keep one employee from ratting out a competitor he suspected of attaching his fitness tracker to his dog.

“I think it was more of a personal grudge,” Ms. Greene says. She said the accused co-worker hadn’t registered an unusual amount of activity.

The tracker-on-your-dog technique is common enough that Chicago-based Stridekick, which operates wellness programs at about 200 companies, tested trackers on its own employees’ pooches.

The findings: “Dogs typically do between 13,000 and 30,000 steps in a day,” co-founder Anthony Knierim says.

To discourage cheating, Stridekick encourages clients to hold drawings for prizes including everyone who reaches step goals rather than awarding prizes to top steppers. Stridekick generally lets clients police their own employees. False accusations of corner-cutting can be “a really touchy thing,” Mr. Knierim says.

Companies that operate step challenges say cheating is rare but memorable. About seven years ago, a CFO at a small company boosted his step total by attaching his tracker to his foot and tapping it throughout meetings, recalls Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse, which runs workplace wellness programs.

A co-worker surreptitiously captured an image of the toe-tapping and emailed it companywide with a message asking people to guess who was doing it.

“Everybody knew, and everybody responded,” Mr. Boyce says. The executive stopped tapping.

Henry Albrecht, CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based Limeade, a wellness technology company, says it’s better to let employees self-report rather than use trackers, even if someone occasionally cheats to win a T-shirt.

“We encourage employers to lighten up a little bit,” he says. “If you don’t trust people to exercise with each other, how do you trust people to do real, important work?”