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Carrot-and-stick 'health promotion' insurance spreads in Japan

A wearable device, which was connected to the Vitality app to enable the user to view their step count while walking, is seen in this image taken on Aug. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Mio Ikeda)

TOKYO -- A unique type of insurance where policyholders can receive premium discounts and other benefits in return for taking care of their bodies, in the form of exercising, going to health checkups and other efforts, has been spreading in Japan. To find out how it works, this 27-year-old female Mainichi Shimbun reporter tried a "health promotion" insurance scheme for one month.

    "We're currently placing much effort in the field of 'health promotion insurance.' Companies have been introducing such insurance products one after the other, and they have been trending," said an employee at Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. Having been responsible for covering news on the insurance industry as a reporter since April, I became interested in the scheme myself, and decided to experience a trial version of the company's life insurance product "Vitality," which incorporates a wellness program that rewards policyholders for their health-conscious activities.

    Under the Vitality program, the policyholder's rank changes based on the total number of points they accumulate in one year through their workout achievements, including daily step counts and health checkup results. The insured can receive up to a 30% discount on insurance premiums, and the service can be used on a specially designed smartphone app as well as computers.

    The service tracks the user's steps and provides points accordingly. For individuals aged 64 or younger, 20 points are given to those who achieve 8,000 steps in one day, and 40 points for 10,000 steps a day. A daily maximum of 60 points can be earned for those who record 12,000 steps. The bar is lowered for senior citizens aged 65 or older, with 20 points distributed for 6,000 daily steps, 40 points for 8,000, and 60 points for 10,000. When the weekly total reaches the target number of points, policyholders get the chance to spin a roulette wheel to win coupons that can be exchanged for Starbucks Coffee and Lawson convenience store products.

    When the weekly goal is achieved, policyholders can also earn items that can be used in the smartphone game "Pokemon Go," where players move around while trying to capture Pokemon characters, using real-time GPS tracking. A public relations representative of Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. grinned and said, "We dangle all kinds of carrots in front of our customers to get them motivated." Meanwhile, the wellness program also takes a stick approach of implementing an annual 2% increase in premiums which commences from the third year of the contract -- which can ultimately result in a maximum increase of 10% -- if the policyholder fails to exercise. In such a way, the program encourages the policyholder to become more health-conscious.

    In my case, under a regular plan that covers death, health care and work incapacity, I'd be required to pay a monthly premium of 14,347 yen (about $131). However, by adding Vitality, I can receive a discount of around 15% from the time I join the insurance, with the monthly premium totaling 12,293 yen (about $112). Apart from this, those insured under the scheme pay a usage charge of 880 yen (about $8) per month.

    The Vitality Plaza, an information hub of Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. which accepts applications for the company's Vitality "health promotion" insurance program, is seen in Tokyo's Ginza district on Aug. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Mio Ikeda)

    Before signing up for this program, my daily "exercise" on weekdays consisted only of my commute to and trips made during work. As for the weekend, I would idle about, watching content on video streaming services. My experience with the wellness program began on June 28, while I was skeptical about whether these mere benefits would actually motivate me to walk more.

    After scanning a QR code with my smartphone, I registered for the trial version of the Vitality program, and downloaded the app. I was all set once I answered simple questions asking about my recent condition, blood pressure, smoking and drinking habits, and other factors.

    On the morning of the first day of my wellness trial, I headed to a cafe near the Bank of Japan in Tokyo's Nihombashi district to make prior reporting arrangements. When I looked at my app after becoming curious about my step count, I found I had walked about 2,000 steps by the time I arrived at the cafe.

    As the step count was visualized, I became motivated to walk actively. My step count was at 9,437 when I returned home that day. I accomplished the target of 8,000 steps in a day, and accordingly earned 20 points. I found out that I usually take about 4,000 paces during my commute and other activities, and this finding led me to develop a habit of thinking about how I can clear the remaining 4,000 steps. On the fourth day, I achieved my weekly goal of 100 points, and won a Lawson drink exchange coupon.

    However, once I entered the second week of the program, there were days when I worked from home, and my step count fell below 8,000 three days in a row. I had let my guard down, as the numbers during the first week made me overestimate my walking habits. Days went by where I neglected to check my number of steps until I arrived home, and even if I noticed I had not reached my goal, I did not have energy left to go out once more.

    In the ensuing two weeks after this, I took a longer route home than usual on the days when I was unable to achieve my goal during the daytime. On the weekend, I tried going to a hair salon located some distance away, and took walks along the river at night. As a result, I was able to achieve my weekly goal for three out of the four weeks during the trial, and was rewarded with a Starbucks coupon for the final week.

    People participate in an event by Parkrun Japan, an organization that partners with Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. for the latter's Vitality wellness program, in this image provided by Sumitomo Life Insurance Co.

    In this day and age, we have been forced to review our life plans due to increased longevity, under the assumption that a person is expected to live until the age of 100. If there is a rise in the healthy life expectancy of policyholders, it will lead to a decrease in disease and death risks, and as a result, also reduce the amount of money that life insurers must pay their clients. Thus, numerous companies have been introducing health promotion insurance programs.

    The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. released a benefit option in March 2018 that lowers premiums by about 10% if individuals submit health checkup results when they sign the contract, and up to about 20% if the results meet certain standards. Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. began to sell its Vitality product in July of the same year. In April 2019, Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. similarly launched a benefit option that allows policyholders to receive up to a month's worth of premium payments based on their health checkup results.

    According to Sumitomo Life Insurance, the company has exchanged about 800,000 Vitality contracts. In a questionnaire conducted in May on individuals who were covered by the insurance scheme, about 80% reportedly claimed that they had more opportunities to exercise and an increased step count, compared to when they had not yet joined the program.

    While the company says that insurance premiums will not be raised if individuals engage in a "regular amount of exercise done in daily life," people who are thinking of joining the program need to keep in mind the risk of having to pay more if they do not exercise. Those aged 18 or older can apply for the trial version of Vitality by phoning their closest branch store. It may help to make your decision after experiencing the program like I did.

    (Japanese original by Mio Ikeda, Tokyo Business News Department)

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