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Why Health Competitions Backfire

By Wellsource, Inc.

Helping your population become as healthy as possible is a noble mission to undertake, but - as with most things in life - there are “right” and “wrong” ways to go about it. In many groups, it’s not uncommon to see health competitions set up that have some sort of monetary or material prize for winning. Things like “Biggest Loser” or “Most Steps” competitions run rampant throughout offices - and they generally aren’t great ideas.

Why Health Competitions Backfire

Take a look at why health competitions like these usually backfire and what alternative resources or interventions can replace them.

Fitness Wearables and “Most Steps” Challenges

Getting folks up and moving is a great way to encourage a healthier environment. For starters, moving more can spark physical benefits such as burning more calories, improving circulation, and even helping to banish stiff muscles or poor posture. But challenging participants to these types of initiatives could do more harm than good.

Some of the possible ramifications can include things like:

  • Injuries due to jumping into an exercise regimen they aren’t ready for
  • Overuse injuries - maybe they are ready to be upping their steps, but they aren’t resting enough during workouts
  • A “win at all costs” mentality that could lead to strapping wearables to children or pets
  • Pressure to compete that could lead to shame or blame

Instead of group competitions, challenge people to sit less and move more by creating a culture of physical activity within your organization that encourages personal improvement. And it doesn’t have to be just hitting the gym – taking a couple of short walks throughout the day will burn calories and get blood flowing.

Biggest Loser/Weight Loss Challenges

For many individuals, when they think about “health” they think about their weight and BMI. It seems logical then that one of the easiest ways to get people healthy is to start a “biggest loser” or another type of weight loss challenge, right? Actually, no - and here’s why.

These types of challenges can have massive drawbacks since there’s so much more that goes into being healthy than just a number. Some of the drawbacks include:

  • Crash dieting due to a desire to lose weight quickly, but not healthily
  • Similar injuries to those we discussed above since individuals may jump into a workout they aren’t ready for
  • Mental health issues (stress, anxiety, depression, or disordered eating) caused by the frustration of not seeing the results they want, or the same results that others are seeing

Positive and effective ways to help individuals achieve and maintain a healthy weight include:

  • Stocking break rooms and common areas with healthy snacks and water
  • Hosting lunch and learns or company functions with healthy food options
  • Partnering with local businesses such as gyms and nutritionists to offer discounts on memberships or services
  • Distributing a list of nearby restaurants that offer healthy dining options (update the list often with suggestions from employees)

The Power Dynamic

It’s also important to note that different environments and social situations evoke different responses from people. When someone “above” an individual - whether it’s their boss or their doctor - offers a suggestion, it might be taken much more seriously than if a friend or family member suggests the same thing.

Running an office-wide competition - even if it’s 100% voluntary - may seem like harmless fun, but some members could feel as if they have no choice but to join in. They may feel pressured to do things they wouldn’t otherwise consider doing, such as sharing personal details (their weight, BMI, et cetera), or embarking on a diet or fitness program that they aren’t comfortable with. This can cause undue stress, anxiety, or even depressive periods, especially for those who may be dealing with (or are prone to) disordered eating - even if it seems like there are positive benefits for them.

Creating a wellness team that’s representative of your population is a great way to minimize “power” pressure. Invite young and old, fit and out-of-shape, healthy eaters and caffeine fueled parents to contribute ideas for wellness campaigns.

Challenge Alternatives

You can certainly provide other resources, interventions, and perks that can make living a healthy lifestyle easier. Some suggestions include:

  • Asking your population to complete health risk assessments (HRAs) so that they can get a big-picture view of their overall health
  • Encouraging members to use their paid time off (PTO) and sick days to prevent burnout and the spread of colds
  • Providing resources on mindfulness, meditation, and stress management
  • Offering resources or referrals to address some of the personal/household stressors that sometimes carry over into work-life such as financial planning or time management

If you’re looking for ways to help your population be as healthy and happy as possible, take a look at our 2018 Annual Review, Happiness, Habits, and Health: Measuring Mental Health with Health Risk Assessment Data.


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Tags: Wellness Programs, Workplace Wellness

"Good health is your greatest asset. You will never regret a decision to take better care of your health."

Don Hall, DrPH, CHES, Founder Wellsource