Weight Loss Challenges are a Popular Workplace Offering… But Are They a Good Idea?

Incentive-based wellness programs aimed at weight loss are not actually improving the health of your employees or saving you money. In fact, there is compelling evidence that promoting weight loss in the workplace is not just ineffective – it can be unintentionally, yet seriously harmful for both employees and organizations.

According to recent survey data from the Rand Corporation, weight management initiatives remain among the top three most popular workplace wellness programs (along with smoking cessation and exercise). Yet there is no evidence that weight-loss programs result in long-term weight loss for any but a small handful of participants. The National Institutes of Health concluded more than two decades ago that “one- to two-thirds of the weight is regained within one year, and almost all is regained within five years.”1 More recent research corroborates that one- to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lose on their diets. In short, there is scant evidence that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits for individuals.2,3

In addition, evaluating workplace weight-loss programs from a financial standpoint reveals that such programs aren’t a wise investment for organizations either. The likely outcome for weight-loss programs is that 30-50% of the participants will drop out, and 90-95% will be unsuccessful.4 As workplace wellness guru Dr. Dee Edington so accurately commented a decade ago: “Weight loss money is money down the toilet.”

Unintended Negative Consequences

But the news about weight loss at the workplace gets even worse. Workplace weight-loss programs promote our cultural obsession with thinness, which contributes to excessive weight preoccupation and: 5,6

  • weight stigma and body dissatisfaction;
  • eating disorders and disordered eating;
  • significant and increasing size prejudice and discrimination;
  • impaired health and even death from extreme dieting, anorexia and obesity surgery complications;
  • suicide from weight-based bullying.

In addition, because of the almost ubiquitous weight regain after programs end, added to the fact that the typical dieter does so four times a year,7most employees who participate in weight-loss programs also succumb to weight-cycling, a process of losing and gaining substantial amounts of weight over and over again. There is growing evidence that weight-cycling can have serious health consequences, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gallbladder disease, and a host of other potential psychological and physiological consequences.8

And incentivizing weight-loss programs only makes the consequences more dire. Although carrots and sticks can produce short-term compliance, more than 30 years of research demonstrates conclusively that rewards and punishments do not change behaviors in the long run — in fact, these incentives are likely to push participants to behave in ways that are decidedly unhealthy, like cutting calories to make weigh-ins and bingeing when programs end.

What To Do Instead

There is no question that a large segment of the working population suffers from weight-related health concerns, which need to be addressed. The GOOD NEWS is that substituting a health-centered approach for the traditional weight-centered approach will help people reduce anxiety about food and weight, while at the same time promoting good health.

To maximize positive outcomes and minimize potential negative consequences, consider programs to address weight-related concerns at the workplace that: 9,10

  • Teach participants mindfulness via intuitive or attuned eating; relaxed eating in response to internal body cues;
  • Recognize and celebrate the naturally existing diversity in body shapes and sizes;
  • Address the futility and dangers of dieting for weight loss;
  • Take into account the critical contribution of social, emotional, spiritual, and physical factors, and their interdependence with health and happiness; and
  • Do not promote ineffectual and potentially damaging behavior modification techniques.

If you are interested in a health-centered alternative to traditional weight-loss programs for your workplace, consider Health for Every Body®. Click here to find out more about this evidence-based, innovative program.

References:

  1. National Institutes of Health, (NIH) Methods for voluntary weight loss and control (Technology Assessment Conference Panel). Annals of Internal Medicine, 1992. 116 (11:p.942-949).
  1. Mann, T., et al., Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets are Not the Answer. American Psychologist, 2007.62(3):p.220-233.
  1. Tomiyama, A.J., Ahlstrom, B., Mann, T., Long-term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7/12 (2013): 861–877, 10.1111/spc3.12076)
  1. Robison, J. Putnam, K.McKibbin, L. Health at Every Size: A Compassionate, Effective Approach for Helping Individuals With Weight-Related Concerns — Part II. AAOHN Journal. 55.5 (2007). 185-192.
  1. Puhl, R.M., Heuer, C.A. The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update. New Haven: Nature Publishing Group, 2009.
  1. Salas, X.R., The ineffectiveness and unintended consequences of the public health war on obesity. MScCan J Public Health 2015;106(2):e79–e81doi: 10.17269/CJPH.106.4757
  1. The U.S Weight Loss & Diet Control Market. Marketdata Enterprises, Inc. March 9, 2011.
  1. Bhammar, D.M., Gaesser, G.A., Health Risks Associated with Weight Cycling. in Wellness not Weight: Health at Every Size and Emotional Interviewing. Ed. Ellen R. Glovsky. San Diego, CA: Cognella, 2014.
  1. Weight at the Workplace –Part 1, Salveo Partners, LLC.
  1. Tylka, T.L., Annunziato, R.A., Burgard, D, Daníelsdóttir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C. and Calogero, R.M. The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss. Journal of Obesity, Volume 2014, Article ID 983495, 18 pages.

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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