Don't Let Your Wellness Program Obsess Over Weight Loss

John Commins, February 22, 2010

If your employee wellness program offers smoking cessation classes, encourages moderate physical activity, and provides healthy food options in the cafeteria, you're on the right track. If the focus of your wellness program is weight loss, however, you're wasting time and money, and maybe even endangering your employees' health. So says Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, and the author of The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsessions with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health.

"I'm all for encouraging people, including employees, to be physically active, because that has been shown to have all kinds of beneficial health effects," Campos tells HealthLeaders Media.

"But focusing on making people thinner makes no sense, because all the evidence on physical activity illustrates that people gain benefits from physical activity regardless of whether they lose weight in the long term. The vast majority of cases, of course, don't lose weight in the long term, but they still get the benefits of improved physical activity," he says. The weight loss goal is completely unnecessary, which is great news when you consider that it is unsustainable for somewhere from 95% to 98% of the people who try to."

Campos has emerged as a gadfly in the war on fat as a public health menace. He doesn't buy the argument that the nation is facing an obesity epidemic. He notes, for example, that obesity rates for adults and children have leveled off over the last decade.

Two weeks ago, when First Lady Michelle Obama was in the media mounting a campaign against childhood obesity, Campos urged her to "stop picking on fat kids."

Campos says the First Lady's campaign shows that it's socially acceptable to target overweight people. "Don't underestimate the effect of social prejudice here," he says. "It's OK to slam fat people because they are the disfavored group and essentially they are folk devils for whom all these social ills are being dumped on at this particular moment."

If employers want to reduce healthcare costs, he says, they could save more money by targeting other groups instead of the overweight and obese. "Don't hire men because men have much worse health profiles than women. Don't hire anybody over 40, because by far the best predictor of healthcare costs is aging," he says. "You can't do that because it's illegal, but you can threaten to not hire fat people because it's perfectly legal."

Campos says it is true that Americans are bigger and heavier now than they were a generation ago, but he said nobody knows exactly why that is the case. "Here is what we do know: Americans are healthier now than they have ever been before by every possible objective metric," he says. "Not only is life expectancy longer, but rates for almost every major chronic disease are lower and mortality rates for those diseases are lower and rates of disability are lower. We are healthier than we have ever been before but there is apocalyptic nonsense that we have a catastrophe because people are getting fat."

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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