Weight loss company Medifast Inc. is jumping into the fast-growing health technology market through a partnership with fitness tracker Fitbit, the Owings Mills-based company was scheduled to announce Tuesday.
As consumers have grown more interested in wearable devices that monitor activity and health, Medifast and other health- or fitness-related companies have been scrambling to integrate tracking technology.
Medifast, which sells weight-loss products and meals online or through weight-control centers or personal coaches, launched customized "digital dashboards" for clients on Tuesday. The dashboards track nutrition, exercise, meals, weight, sleep and even "well-being," the company said.
Customers who own or buy one of Fitbit's activity monitors will be able to link their Fitbit data to their personal Medifast dashboard.
"The consumer wants a combination of technology, devices, support, products, and we're trying to combine it all and give customers tools to make them more successful," said Brian Kagen, Medifast executive vice president and chief marketing officer. "With customer expectations high, as they should be, it was an opportunity for us to step up our game."
The weight-loss services market is rebounding after a five-year slowdown when cash-strapped consumers cut back, according to a June report by market research firm IBISWorld. But the industry is poised for growth thanks to rising numbers of overweight and obese Americans, greater awareness of the preventive health role of weight loss and increases in disposable income, the report said.
In a highly competitive field, one full of free diet and fitness mobile apps, Medifast and other weight-loss companies are hoping technology will set them apart.
Medifast set out months ago to collaborate with a technology company and enhance its digital capabilities. Weight Watchers International Inc. and Nutrisystem Inc. each have activity monitors that can be synchronized with tracking devices.
"A lot of people are using them already, so if you can make it easier for your diet and have it easily tie into what people are using, it's beneficial," said Kurt Frederick, an analyst at Wedbush Securities Inc. in San Francisco. "People are using activity monitors in conjunction with or replacement for commercial diets."
Still, the wearable technology market is considered in its infancy, and just one in five consumers own such a device, according to a report released this year by PwC's Health Research Institute.
Devices and applications range in function and design. Walgreen Co. has an app that allows customers to transmit fitness tracker data to the retailer in exchange for points that can be used in stores, while Apple's smartwatch monitors heart rate and activity. Baltimore-based sports apparel maker Under Armour is developing an application, along with its 2013 acquisition, MapMyFitness, that will aggregate users' health and fitness data from Fitbit and other devices.
Medifast has tailored each of its dashboards to its various programs. For instance, the "Habits of Health Dashboard and Community," was developed for the "Take Shape for Life" program, in which clients work with health coaches. Clients can choose to share information digitally with their coaches, to keep tabs on nutrition intake, water intake, weight, measurements and sleep quality.
"The purpose is to help people be more aware of what they're doing on a daily basis," said Lisa Goldberg, Medifast's director of product marketing. "It allows coaches to even more closely guide the process."
Fitbit devices will be available for sale through Medifast's programs, including the Fitbit Flex wristband, which tracks steps, distance, calories burned, active minutes and sleep; the clip-on Fitbit One that tracks similar things; the Fitbit Zip clip-on, which only tracks steps, distance and calories burned; and Aria smart scale. The wearables range in price from about $60 to about $250.
"Fitbit recognizes that when it comes to an individual's health and fitness goals, there's no one size fits all," said Christine H. Evans, director of B2B marketing for Fitbit Inc. "We're excited to see leading companies in the weight management industry like Medifast provide their customers access to our market-leading activity trackers."
The Aria scale will automatically update the Medifast dashboards with information such as a client's weight, body mass index and activity, but they would need to enter their nutrition and water intake
The new programs, which are available to Medifast customers as part of their plans, are designed to attract customers by giving them a choice that's designed to be easily understood and backed up with support, Kagen said.
"As there are more and more choices out there, this will differentiate us from other options," he said.