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The Right Way to Encourage Employee Health and Fitness

Wellness challenges have historically been the go-to for encouraging healthy behavior in the workplace. Chances are you yourself have participated in (or even hosted) at least one weight-loss challenge, stair challenge or steps challenge. What better way to motivate and encourage employee health than by tapping into their sense of competition … right?

Well, yes and no. Let’s take a look at some of the pitfalls of traditional wellness challenges and lay out the best way to support employee health.

The Downsides of Office Wellness Challenges

If wellness challenges are so popular, what could be wrong with them? Common criticisms include:

  • Activity challenges are not inclusive. Workers with physical limitations like a bad knee, sick employees and those with handicaps are often excluded. Either way, participation isn’t truly “open to all” if your wellness program doesn’t offer ways for everyone to participate.

  • Quick fixes don’t equal long-term change. Many people who participate in a short-term challenge are more focused on checking boxes than they are on truly making lasting health changes. A temporary adjustment to a routine is just that — temporary.

  • Well-being is broader than exercise and nutrition. Wellness requires self-care in all aspects of life. While that certainly includes exercise and healthy eating, it also encompasses factors such as mental and emotional well-being, sleep, stress reduction, financial wellness and the social determinants of health.

  • It’s still a competition. In any kind of competition, especially one offering a prize or incentive, you may see some interesting behavior, such as putting activity trackers on pets or “bulking up” before a weight loss challenge, only to fast before the final weigh-in.

Alternatives to Traditional Wellness Challenges

Luckily, there are simple ways to restructure and reframe the typical employee wellness challenge.

For instance, developing a points-based competition is often a better alternative to offering an all-or-nothing incentive system. For each wellness activity an employee participates in, they earn a certain amount of points that will be tallied at the end of your challenge for different prizes.

Here are three smart tools to get your employees engaged in their own wellness and set the stage for lasting health changes.

1. Educational Seminars

As with anything, the more information you have on a topic, the better. A typical weight loss challenge isn’t likely to impact employee health in the long term if employees don’t understand how to read a food label, the difference between plant and animal proteins or how much strength training to do each week.

Offer educational seminars to employees for challenge points, and make sure you have a broad topic list. A registered dietitian, fitness trainer or doctor can speak to the importance of routine exams, healthy nutrition and good fitness habits. Invite experts like financial planners and mental health professionals to educate staff on less traditional aspects of well-being.

3. Screenings and Physical Exams

Roughly 13 million people have high blood pressure without knowing it. A simple biometric screening is an activity that everyone can do, and having information such as blood pressure or cholesterol can help employees make better decisions about their health.

Consider hosting screenings at your workplace. Some companies choose to link screening incentives to health outcomes, but simply giving points for participation is a way everyone can benefit. When employees have baseline health numbers, they can better understand personal health risks and may have a greater incentive to make positive changes.

3. Diverse Health Metrics

Another option to broaden your wellness challenge is to include holistic self-care activities that go beyond exercise alone. Consider an “8 by 8” competition, where employees can gather points for any of the following:

  • Drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day

  • Sleeping approximately eight hours each night

  • Taking an eight-minute walking break every few hours

  • Working out eight times over a two-week period

  • Doing an eight-minute strength exercise or yoga routine each day

  • Saving roughly $8 per day by packing a lunch, skipping expensive coffee or avoiding vending machine snacks

  • Eating eight servings of healthy food each day — a combination of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein

  • Spending eight minutes a day meditating or practicing mindfulness

Level the Activity Playing Field

Since not everyone can walk 10,000 steps a day or participate in a stair challenge, an activity conversion chart is a helpful way to ensure that employees are able to fairly count any form of physical activity. These charts convert activities into a step count. For example, 15 minutes of a light exercise such as gardening would equal 1,815 steps. If you outline how many points equal how many points, employees can compete using the daily activities that work for them.

Lastly, think about what other rewards or long-term incentives can be given to employees. Consider ways to personalize. Are they a digital-first group? An app might be the best way to track participation. Do they do a lot of physical labor? Consider hosting a health seminar on ergonomics and injury prevention. By broadening the definition of a wellness challenge, you’ll see your efforts add up to sustainable healthy habits, savings for your business and happier employees.


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