Corporate Fitness and Active Aging

Corporate Fitness: Why we stopped offering weight loss challenges

NIFS | Weight loss frustrationIt's hard for me to believe that the first season of the reality show Biggest Loser aired in 2004. The popularity of that show has inspired all manner of weight loss competitions held under the banner of workplace health. Over the years, as a corporate fitness partner for businesses across the US, we've hosted our share of weight loss challenges. Sometimes the program was straight up 100% about weight loss. Other times, the challenge would have a lot of pieces and participants could choose a weight loss component or another element as their focus.

All of it was well-intentioned, but as I've come to learn, we may have done more harm than good. That said, we don't offer those kinds of programs anymore, and here's why:

Weight loss challenges are based on bad science.

Such programs are typically short term (6-8 weeks) and focus almost exclusively on calories. The idea is that if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. (Or, as we fitness folks prefer: burn more calories than you take in.) On paper, the math makes perfect sense. But the reality of calories in versus calories out as it relates to body weight is far more complicated. Fitness professionals often assume that people are fat because they either aren't moving their bodies enough or they're eating too many calories. Fix one or both of those and the weight will come right off.

In fact, the weight may come off for the duration of the challenge. Sustained weight loss is also a possible outcome (there are success stories out there), but it's not a likely one.  

[Read More: The Long Strange History of Fad Diets]

Weight loss challenges motivate the wrong health behaviors.

Early in my career one of my most memorable encounters with a fitness center member occurred when she came in for her appointment to talk about an exercise plan tailored to her goals. Weight loss was her primary goal so we started talking about what might be a reasonable initial target. Quickly into the appointment, she dissolved into tears and through the rest of our conversation, we didn't talk about exercise, we talked about her body image and how deeply connected that was to her self worth.

That kind of desperation lends to poor health behavior choices when we're talking about weight; it's not a stretch to go from a weight loss challenge at work to dysfunctional eating habits. The restrictive nature of the challenges often leaves participants grumbling about when they can eat their next cheeseburger. I'd cringe when I heard something like that. I'm not anti-cheeseburger, cheesecake, or cheese for that matter. I am against the idea of labeling foods into good/bad categories as a strategy for eating better, and I am against the idea of restriction as a tactic for improving health.

Weight loss challenges perpetuate a negative body image narrative.

The story I shared above about the member crying in my office because of her weight wasn't an isolated incident. It happened regularly. And while I was honored that people would feel comfortable getting real with me, I also felt horribly ill-equipped to counsel, recommend, or even respond. (There was no training for this in my bachelor's or master's programs). So I practiced empathetic listening because it was the only tool I had in my toolbox. After several consults like this, I adopted a mantra: "Your weight on the scale is not related to your value as a human being" in the hopes that my members would internalize a tiny piece of that to understand that regardless of their weight, body fat, jean size, or relationship to food they had immense value to me and others in their lives.

When we focus on excess weight as something that MUST be addressed, we imply that individuals who aren't at a "healthy body weight" must need fixing. That's a pretty rich message coming from a group of professionals who love exercise so much, we choose to do it for a living.

So what do we do when someone comes to us with weight loss questions?

We will still work with individuals on reasonable weight loss goals if they come to us 1:1 for that kind of support. But, we do it from the foundation message that good health is primary. If weight loss occurs as a natural outcome of healthy choices, then so be it.

We do still get asked by businesses if we'll help them run their weight loss challenge. The answer is no. Sometimes they'll respond to other creative health-related programming and other times, they're committed to their Biggest Loser-style weight loss competition and we have to bow out.

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Topics: weight loss corporate fitness programming corporate fitness program healthy living wellness programs weight loss challenges at work Biggest Loser-style program

Corporate Wellness or Employee Well-being? Or Does it Matter?

NIFS | Corporate Wellness vs Well-beingI wrote a post a while ago about changing the name vs changing the notion of "activities" in senior livingAt the time, the industry was working through a naming brainstorm (“name-storming”) to determine if continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) should be renamed. For the record, the industry has moved toward life plan community as an alternative to CCRC. The whole “name-storming” thing got me thinking about the value of words. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that words matter. Words are indeed powerful, and we must choose them carefully to thoughtfully convey what we mean. Otherwise, we have this situation, or this oneAnd yet, getting the words right doesn’t mean we can slack on our actions behind the words. Which brings me to a debate going on in corporate wellness…or is it corporate well-being? This article says well-being is the future of wellnessThe Global Wellness Institute’s Chairman also thinks well-being is where the industry needs to move because wellness isn’t as holistic. (Interestingly, she also notes that wellness apparently isn’t associated with happiness.)

If you point your web browser to a search of well-being versus wellness, you’ll get a host of articles that are part of the current conversation. And it seems that there is a movement in favor of the more holistic “well-being” as the appropriate, inclusive, aspirational name for the corporate programming we have traditionally called employee wellness.

So let’s make that switch. Let’s all link arms and agree to change our vocabulary and put wellness where it belongs…in 2017. Wellness vendors become well-being vendors, and wellness programs become well-being programs. Employees earn well-being points instead of wellness points and wellness directors sign new job descriptions that dub them well-being directors.

Except here’s the thing. We will still have corporate wellness programs that focus primarily on physical health without taking a hard look at how the workplace environment nurtures or neglects employees. Businesses will still have program directors who come from fully clinical backgrounds and who myopically build sterile programs that lack a more human element. Practitioners will still be talking about how important stress resilience is to helping human beings thrive with very little concrete employer-provided action to truly help the workforce get a handle on the pressures of work and life.

[Read More: Why wearable fitness trackers aren’t your wellness program]

Of course, the above descriptions don’t fit every situation. There are some fabulously compassionate, effective, and well-loved wellness programs out there in corporate settings. But for those programs, it doesn’t really matter if we call it wellness or well-being. Because the focus is on helping employees be their best selves in work and life.

I do realize this is pretty rich commentary coming from an organization whose primary focus in on fitness. To be fair, we have a lot to gain by the industry holding still on the current model where “wellness” equals physical health. But I’ve been around long enough to see that having your physical self in good shape isn’t the only way to be well; we’re only part of the picture. And, the more our staff are tasked with work beyond managing the corporate fitness center, the more value I see in using our relationships with employees to help them discover how they want to live well (which may or may not include a regular workout).

That’s the change we’re making, one connection at a time. What do you want to change: the scope of your program or what you call it?

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Topics: wellness programs employee wellbeing employee wellness well-being

Using Wellness to Decrease Employee Turnover in Senior Living

NIFS | Employee Turnover | Employee WellnessTurnover in senior living is notoriously high for a number of reasons. One of the tools leadership can use to increase tenure for employees in community settings is offering balanced and thoughtful wellness programs. What follows are suggestions for how to elevate wellness in your corporate strategy so that your workforce understands you care about them beyond the day-to-day work they provide to keep the community running.

Employee wellness is about much more than a walking program.

How you position wellness in the organization can determine whether it sinks or swims. Physical health is only part of the picture. That's not to say you shouldn't offer a walking program. It can be a very simple way to help employees be more aware of how much they're moving during the day. But keep in mind that much of your community's staff members are on their feet most of the day serving the residents; a walking program for them may feel like "one more thing to do" in an already busy, service-oriented day. And giving everyone a wearable fitness tracker doesn't always communicate a "we care about you" message, either. The CNA scraping by on $12.50 an hour might rather have a small raise than a fancy wristband.

[Read More: Why Employee Purpose Could Be the Heart of Corporate Wellness]

Consider the health challenges across your workforce.

Your administrative/leadership team will have different obstacles in achieving good health compared to what you might see for your physical plant staff and nursing aides, and the community's approach to wellness needs and what it will take to address that range. The wearable/walking program I mentioned above is a good example of a well-intentioned offering that often falls flat for hourly staff. But, if you provide compensated exercise time for employees, you might be onto something in terms of a message that truly says, "We want to make it easy for you to live well."

Be careful if you intend to use biometric screenings and health risk assessments as the pillars of your wellness program. They have become hallmarks of a good "outcomes-based" wellness program in recent years, but that title may be misplaced. If you're just getting started on a wellness program for your community employees, it could be tempting to latch onto such screening tools as the place to begin. But there are challenges with these offerings that should not be glossed over.

Also keep in mind how important social determinants of health are for your workforce. The health habits that your crew practice at work are only part of the picture of how well they live. Where employees live can have a profound effect on their well-being. Access to healthy foods, reliable and convenient transportation, safe living environments, cultural norms and other issues have a strong influence for all of us on how they engage with healthy choices, and your workplace wellness program may be butting heads with those strong social factors. Maintaining realistic expectations about the ways your workforce can engage at work will help set your program on the right path.

Align your wellness strategy with the rest of your business strategy.

If your organization is already built on a model of caring for employees, infusing a message that you want to help employees live well should resonate positively. But if employees feel that the culture is punitive and as if their every move is being watched, "wellness" is quite likely going to sound like one more management hack designed purely to cut costs. Here are some suggestions for improving retention through a supportive relationship-based approach. You'll need to get the overarching company culture in place first before you add in a wellness component if you want your message about employee health to resonate with the staff.

Where to look next.

If you're more confused than ever about how to get an employee-centered wellness program off the ground for your workforce, you're not alone. The variable shifts, the wide range in roles (many of which are quite physical in nature), and the simultaneously gratifying and exhausting nature of the work you do, complicate how to both establish and deliver a wellness message and programming. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  1. If you don't know what makes your employees tick, start by getting to know them a little better. They may have interests they could share with colleagues that would buoy the whole department or organization.
  2. Connect with employees working in a variety of settings across the community to find out what would help them feel supported to live well. You probably won't be able to execute on all of the ideas, but you will likely get suggestions you couldn't have imagined on your own.
  3. Start small and with the right messaging. (Hint: You can craft the right messaging when you have information from tip #1.) Always lead with words and actions that communicate a desire to help employees live well. If you say it in words and your actions don't align, employees won't engage.
  4. Learn from other similarly situated organizations. There are communities out there doing this work with their employees, and they can help you avoid some of the pitfalls they've already climbed out of.

It's not easy work, but don't let that stop you. Doing well for your employees helps them do right by your residents, and that's a community where everyone benefits. Need a little more information to get your wellness program started in the right direction? Check out the blog below.

Blog: doing corporate wellness for employees

Topics: senior living staffing wellness programs corporate wellness employee turnover