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3 Reasons Wellness Programs Fail

Chelsea Rice, for HealthLeaders Media, June 17, 2013

Since they are typically worn on the upper body, low-impact shifts in daily habits, which such as standing more or cleaning, were shown as "immobile" and did not register on the activity trackers. Even high-impact activities, such as riding a bicycle, weren't calculated accurately. 

So researchers moved the devices to the hips. Energy for standing up, bicycling, and walking or jogging uphill were also under-tracked. Shoe devices, in a comparative study, were shown to be the most effective tracking accurate energy expenditure for various activities. Calorie counts, interestingly enough, were only overestimated for activities such as typing, an ironic reward for desk-bound employees.  

When employers are tracking incentives and investing in these devices to create long-term changes in employee behaviors, the accuracy of these tools absolutely matters.

3. Incentives don't change unhealthy habits for long

If employers don't like hearing that they aren't adequately using the data they have, and that some of their data is unreliable, they're really not going to like my next point: Wellness programs are not a good investment.  

Sixty-nine percent of employers combine financial incentives with wellness programs, and 71% offer incentive rewards of more than $200 for participating in lifestyle management programs, but the lasting effects of the incentives according to the RAND report are "small and unlikely to be clinically meaningful."

You've got to wonder: Are any of these workplace behavioral changes likely to last?


Chelsea Rice is an associate editor for HealthLeaders Media.
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4 comments on "3 Reasons Wellness Programs Fail"


Thomas Lang (6/19/2013 at 8:20 AM)
Wellness, as a concept is too broadly defined. "Fitness" as well. Here is the formula and the solution for both the data deficiencies and the behavioral change challenges at least with regard to the health benefits of regular exercise. Establish a heart-rate monitored exercise program which involves physician involvement and oversight. Heart-rate monitored exercise solves the data integrity and collection problem. Physician involvement provides for a greater degree of patient compliance and correlation of the reported "exercise" data against other health indicators / vital signs in the medical record. What's the standard [INVALID] the physical activity guidelines posted on the HHS website. We've developed a program which includes an exercise reporting database which allows us to report "quantified" exercise by patients to the physician. Each patient is provided a score which measures their "monitored" exercise over a 30-45 day exercise period against the standards (150 minutes/week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity or a weighted average of the 2). Moderate exercise is 50-70% of maximum heart rate and vigorous exercise is 71% or greater of maximum heart rate. The patients and their physicians who are involved in the program are reporting and documenting in their medical record their "physical activity." As the program is centralized in the primary care physician's office[INVALID]it also provides the nexus to correlate claims data from the insurer. As "health contingent wellness programs" gain traction as an insurance premium offset for "results-driven" healthy behavior, we have the solution.

Ray Mitchell (6/19/2013 at 6:54 AM)
There was no mention of specific products that measure EE. What are the names and model numbers of some reliable foot based activity monitors? I understand that insole pressure monitors are an important part of accurate EE measurement. What are some commercially available insole monitors?

Joe Hodgson (6/18/2013 at 9:43 AM)
Historically, companies and we, as a society,view wellness initiatives, like weight loss, as an individual problem and programs are generally designed from a portrait/bootstrap mentality. Wellness behaviors require a cultural change within an organization. Without fostering a supportive wellness culture among all employees and leaders, results are likely to be less than stellar. Add to the mix the fact that most companies embrace wellness as a way to contain health costs rather than embracing positive lifestyle behaviors and engagement among employees and you have a very mixed message.