I exercise regularly in order to get $100 from work every quarter, and lately I’ve been envisioning how the program can be better.

In addition to exercising, you can earn points toward the $100 for attending meetings and discussion groups about health and wellness. Most of them are really just about weight loss, though. You can also participate in programs like Weight Watchers or join a gym, but getting the financial incentive is dependent upon losing weight/reducing one’s BMI while enrolled in those programs.

This is really frustrating. Instead of helping people get healthier, the focus is pretty much entirely focused on weight loss. Why focus on something that is going to be temporary for 90-ish percent of the people who participate? If the goal is to reduce health care costs by making people healthier, I can understand that “fighting obesity” is a component of that. The problem with this approach is that obesity isn’t the culprit in these expensive health costs, even though there may be a correlation between weight and cost. The weight isn’t what is causing the problems, although habits can be. People could absolutely resolve to be healthier by changing some habits, but keeping track of how much weight a person loses simply isn’t a realistic way to measure that success. Asking the employees of my university to make changes to their habits in order to become healthier is great, but it should not be linked to an arbitrary number on a scale or something as outdated  and inaccurate as BMI.

I wonder what kind of goals could be set for folks who aren’t interested in weight loss, whether that’s because they’re already thin, they are fat and healthy, or they are unable to lose weight based on a medical condition or physical/diet restrictions. If I were thin, I would be frustrated a program that would only reward me if I did something completely unnecessary like lose weight. Because my values line up with the Health At Every Size movement, I find the goal of weight loss unnecessary for me now, too.

If I had the chance to re-format the program, what would I include?

  • I would reward people who transition their diets to vegetarianism or veganism for the quarter. Not everything that is vegan or vegetarian is healthy, but these diets tend to be rich in stuff that’s good for you. Abandoning a meat-based or animal-product based diet also reduces one’s carbon footprint–by a lot. That benefits the individual and the environment, which is far more exciting than just the personal benefits that come from losing weight for a while. I am not a vegetarian, but I would totally try it out if the university were giving me $100 a quarter!
  • Eat local. I don’t think it would be realistic to ask employees to eat entirely local, but what if we replaced 50% of our groceries with local products? The $100 per quarter would help with some of the increase in costs, and there would be some really neat benefits. First, you’re going to end up cutting a lot of junk food out of your diet because it’s not local and would take up too much of your “imported” food allotment. We have several great co-ops in the area that would be perfect for a goal like this. The health benefits would be plenty (fewer pesticides and fertilizers, fewer preservatives to help the food survive long transportation times, lower risk of contamination), but one of the big benefits to this plan would be that you could support the local economy while you also eat healthier. I get some local groceries on a weekly basis, but I would be up for the challenge of switching to a mostly-local diet. (This might not work for employees in Hershey, PA.)
  • If eating local is not an option, what about switching to a more organic diet? There is a lot of overlap in the benefits of eating organic and eating local, and again, not everything that is organic is healthy. The arguments that organic food is healthier aren’t even set in scientific stone, yet, but there is at least as much of an argument to be made that organic food is healthier than there is that weight loss is good for you. I’d say let’s give it a try.
  • Exercise and weight-training only based improvement would be another great idea. Now, we CAN get all of our points just for exercising 150 minutes every week without losing any weight. This is a good thing. It’s why I’m willing to participate, because there is no pressure with that program to lose weight. However, all of the other exercise and strength options offered by the program are paired with weight loss, which is what has inspired this whole post. Why not have goals exclusively for exercise and strength training? The same sets of goals that already exist–a certain amount of improvement over time, participation in a structured exercise program, reaching certain strength or timed goals–could stay put. Just remove the weight loss requirement from the equation so that you’re not lessening the value of the health achievements of folks who make those goals but see little or no difference in their weight.
  • Stop drinking alcohol and pop for the quarter. I love Diet Coke. I’ve never once considered quitting Diet Coke. But I could  be convinced, especially because I know that it’s not a good health choice. I usually have to cut through the fat-shamey bs that is associated with most anti-pop graphics and articles, but once I get there, the facts still remain: there are way healthier things to be drinking. Employees who reduce or eliminate their pop intake could get a few points toward their overall goal for the quarter at the same time as they become better hydrated and less dependent upon that sweet yummy carbonated heaven that is Diet Coke.

I’m sure you can think of other ideas for this program that would promote health and good habits without focusing on weight loss. What would you suggest employers do to incentive healthy behavior?