Are Company Sponsored Fitness Programs Good or Bad?

Last Updated Sep 13, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

A recent company initiative has me feeling a little uneasy. HR introduced a wellness program at the beginning of the year, administered by a third-party company, that gets you discounts on health insurance premiums. That's cool. But then there have been challenges throughout the year that are administered by people in the office and are starting to seem potentially unhealthy. The latest challenge is lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks. Aside from the fact that the people running this aren't health care professionals, is it legal to offer your employees money to lose weight? Also, some recent ways to motivate yourself to exercise that were posted on the intranet were rubbing me the wrong way, like posting about weight loss on a blog, read fitness magazines, and take pictures of yourself. Some of the advice is triggering for people with eating disorders. Is it just me, or is this all weird?
I actually hesitate to answer this question because I don't want to being a political storm about health insurance, but unfortunately, this is all about money. Do you think for an instant that your employer cares if you're out of shape? They don't care about your health because they value you as an individual. They care about your health because they are paying your health insurance (or at least a percentage of it). They also care because they want you to be at work, rather than at home recovering from a heart attack.

So, your question about legality, I'm going to ignore. Insurance laws vary from state to state and with the new federal mandates I hardly feel qualified to comment on such things, so I won't. Instead, let's talk about underlying assumptions and the resulting behavior.

Advertising a "lose ten pounds in ten weeks" bonus is just plain silly in my eyes. Why? Because (surprisingly) some people don't need to lose 10 pounds. I'm a Weight Watchers lifetime member, so I know all about weight loss. Losing a pound a week is a great, healthy way to lose weight if you need to lose weight in the first place. I don't need to lose weight right now (hence the WW lifetime membership thing), so I would actually be in a position to either be ineligible for the incentive or be motivated to lose pounds I don't need to lose. While losing 10 pounds wouldn't put me at an unhealthy weight, I've worked with people for whom 10 pounds of weight loss could be dangerous.

So, the company says, "Gee, I can see how an actual pound amount could be problematic. What if we just offer the reward to people who are at a health Body Mass Index (BMI)?" Well, gee, that sounds swell, except that BMI doesn't take muscle mass into consideration and therefore your super fit athlete can actually be classified as obese. How does that make any sense?

And, if you're trying to lower health care costs, aren't you just as concerned about the employees' families? I mean, I may be thin and healthy, but if I'm married to a 400 pound alcoholic smoker with a history of heart disease and toenail fungus, offering me $10 off my monthly insurance premiums to join the company gym just isn't going to have the cost savings that someone in HR imagined. (And for the record, my husband is at a healthy weight and does not drink or smoke and has no history of heart disease or toenail fungus.)

The reality is, most people are going to ignore these little programs. But, if their managers don't, the managers end up prying into what used to be a personal life. "So, Jim, what are you doing this weekend? Going to the county fair, are you? You know, funnel cake is really bad for you. Maybe you should go hiking instead." I know that the last thing I wanted to do, as a manager, was monitor my employees' after work behavior. I'm a strict results oriented workplace environment devotee, so if they are doing their jobs what do I care if they are subsisting on a diet of cheesefries and cola?

The reality is, though, that these programs are here to stay. According to the Wellness Programs Blog (which seems awfully pro wellness program):

A lot of big companies that began Wellness Programs three to five years ago are showing savings in health, disability, and workforce compensation costs. Small to mid-size companies are watching all this and wondering where to start with wellness.

Getting senior level management support and budget approval is one of the challenges at the beginning of a Health Promotion Program. This is the case because Health Promotion Programs could be expensive, averaging $150-300 per staff member annually in big organizations.

Most of the savings are not realized for a number of years.

In 2007, Business Week Reported on Scott's Miracle Grow Company's extreme wellness program. At that point they had 70% of their headquarters staff as fitness center members and a 30% success rate with smoking cessation. They expect to recoup their investments 3 to 1. That's a big temptation for the people who manage the health care plans at any company.

But Scott's didn't just tell people to lose weight. They offered actual medical intervention from, you know, people who actually know something about health. I can tell you right now that the Professional in Human Resources Certification doesn't require any knowledge about heart disease.

What I would do, if I were you, though, is to take the helpful list of exercise motivational tips into the office of whoever manages this program, along with information on triggers for eating disorders. Explain why these are problematic.

Encouraging your employees to be healthy is one thing. Doing so in a sloppy manner can be dangerous.

Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr cc 2.0